The year is 1645 and England is in the grip of bloody Civil War. While Oliver Cromwell's forces battle for supremacy over those of King Charles, the witchfinder Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) roams East Anglia, growing ever more influential as he accuses citizens of witchcraft and punishes them accordingly - whether they are guilty or not. In fact, there are barely any witches in the land and the greater majority of those accused are the victims of unpopularity with their neighbours who covet their possessions, disagree with their religion or politics, or are simply seeking scapegoats. Soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) is about to face this evil first hand...
Witchfinder General is often cited as the finest work in the tragically short-lived director Michael Reeves' career, and proof that he would have gone on to greater things if he hadn't died so young. Whether he would have or not is a moot point, as while undeniably talented the signs were that he may well have continued running his violent brand of horror into the ground, but we'll never know, and it is better to appreciate the films he did complete than speculate on what might have been. Certainly star Vincent Price thought his performance here as his most accomplished in the horror genre he was best known for, and credited a lot of that down to Reeves' direction.
Famously the two clashed on the first few days of shooting, with the director complaining that Price was playing it too hammy, and after butting heads the actor agreed to downplay his over the top qualities and emphasise the menace. A wise move, as he was absolutely correct in his assessment of the mood needed to sell this as not your ordinary British shocker. This was not a Hammer movie but a Tigon one, an even smaller company which tried to muscle in on their act, yet it was clear that in spite of its lush rural appearance, combined with an equally rich orchestral score by Paul Ferris (who also acts in this), that the events depicted were in contrast as corrupt and bleak as could be.
What happens is that Richard takes advantage of his leave to return home to his wife, Sara (Hilary Dwyer, later successful producer Hilary Heath), and spends time with her and her priest uncle (Rupert Davies) in an establishing of what is about to be lost due to the war, and more blatantly due to Hopkins' machinations. Once Richard leaves to rejoin his regiment, all hell breaks loose and the witchfinder takes advantage of the locals accusing the priest of Satanism to torture and execute him, purely because of his Catholicism. This in spite of Sara offering herself sexually to Hopkins, and worse being raped by his righthand man, Stearne (Robert Russell). All that is left now is for Richard to go on the warpath of vengeance and the stage is set for bloody retribution.
You can tell this is not a Hammer movie not because it doesn't look like one - period horror efforts from Britain did tend to resemble each other - but because for all the characters' faith in God there is no divine being overlooking them at all. The environment is entirely Godless (and Devil-less, for that matter), with no mercy or kindness apparent as a result; Hopkins claims to represent the Almighty, but these claims are nothing but spurious and without foundation, indeed, he may simply be carrying out his atrocities through sheer sadistic enjoyment and it's possible to read this into Price's consistently grim expression. If that is not enough to chill you, then the film asks you to consider this: if you are ever falsely accused, then the mere act of standing up for yourself to fight back against the scandalmongers and guttersnipes will reduce you to their debased level, and here we see the terrible consequences taken to their most depraved conclusion. Which does not make for the most enjoyable horror film ever made, but it is one of the most thought-provoking.
Promising British writer-director who first found work in Italy, on Castle of the Living Dead. The She Beast was his next credit, and two minor classics of bleak horror followed: The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General, which many regard as his masterpiece. Tragically he died of an overdose in his mid-twenties, before he could start work on his next film, The Oblong Box.