1/24/10

For the Love of Price: Witchfinder General (1968)

Some romances know not the bounds of time, space, distance, dimension, or the cinema screen. One such romance has occurred between The LBL’s Fran Goria and Vincent Price. Once in a while the pull is just too overwhelming, and Miss Goria must put pen to paper for the love of the man, for the love of his movies…..
Witchfinder General (1968) Directed by Michael Reeves Written by Michael Reeves and Tom Baker (based on a novel by Ronald Bassett) Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Hillary Dwyer and Robert Russell.

Mathew Hopkins (Price) and his assistant, John Stearne (Russell), travel the country side doing “God’s work”. In this case, “God’s work” is finding, torturing, and killing those accused of witchery. Stearne particularly likes the torture part of the job, especially if ladies are involved. They travel to Brandeston where the local priest, Father Lowes (Rupert Davies), is accused of being Satan’s cohort. Hopkins shows the priest mercy in return for sexual favors from his niece, Sarah (Dwyer). Stearne rapes Sarah while Hopkins is away, and as a result, Hopkins has the priest hanged for witchcraft. When Sarah’s soldier fiancé, Richard Marshal (Ogilvy), hears the news, he makes a vow. He will find the two men and make them answer for their sins.


Witchfinder General a cult classic for two main reasons. First of all, it contains one of Price’s best and most menacing performances, and combined with Michael Reeves’ talent as a director, the film really shines. Not to mention that it is based on a novel about a bit of history. In 1645, during England’s civil war, there was a young man named Mathew Hopkins who traveled the country side convicting and executing witches. He had various tests to look for witchcraft, some of which are seen in the film. Many of these scenes were cut from the English version of the film, but remained intact for the American release. The American release also received a name change to cash in on the Roger Corman/Price/Poe films. The name was changed to Conqueror Worm after a Poe poem, and they cut in Vincent Price giving a reading of the poem over the closing credits.

Michael Reeves was a very promising young director, but sadly, Witchfinder General was his fourth and last film. Reeves’ life was cut short in 1969 from a barbiturates and alcohol overdose. Reeves had three quite successful films under his belt when he took the helm of Witchfinder which included The Sorcerers (1967) with Boris Karloff, She Beast (1966) with Barbara Steele, and Castle of the Living Dead (1964) with Christopher Lee. When he originally took on directing Witchfinder, Reeves envisioned Donald Pleasance in the lead role, and he was none to happy with the casting of Vincent Price. Reeves did not hide his feelings for the actor and the two clashed on set on many occasions. However, they were both professional enough to make a classic film. After Price saw the finished product, he sent Reeves a letter of congrats. In it, he wrote “So, my dear Michael, in spite of the fact that we didn’t get along too well…….I do think that you have made a very fine picture, and what’s more I liked what you gave me to do.” Price also once called the man difficult but brilliant once again proving what a class act Vincent really was.

Perhaps it was the tension on set that caused Price to deliver such a real and raw performance that showcases one of the most memorable roles of the actor’s career. He really had a commanding presence as Mathew Hopkins. There was none of the over-the-top characterizations that most have come to know from Price. His portrayal of Hopkins was as true as it gets, dark and sinister. During the “swimming test” scene, after the three accused witches were fished from the lake, Hopkins looks at the body of the one that drowned and said “She was innocent”. At that moment, I knew this man was pure evil. Price delivered a fierce performance in this role, but the rest of the cast, while all competent, did not reach Price’s level of skill.

Now, I must confess, Witchfinder General is not one of my favorite Vincent Price films. Don’t get me wrong, I like it. Price was spectacular in it. Hollywood even tried to cash in on it again with 1970’s Cry of the Banshee. It starred Price (in a very similar role), and Hillary Dwyer, but alas, it was no Witchfinder General. I have seen this, along with many other witch huntin’ movies, and Witchfinder is by far the best, but I just need more excitement. Perhaps I am biased, but I was never really big on witches anyway. If it were not for Price shining so brightly, I would probably not revisit this one, but he was just so damn great! I definitely think that everybody should see this film, especially a classic film fan or a fellow Vincent Price fan (but they've probably already seen it). Overall, I liked my visit to Brandeston, but I wouldn’t want to live there..... or die there from drowning.

Price Rating

14 comments:

  1. I think you're right about tension on the set causing Price to give a more menacing performance. Not one of my favorite Price films either, but like you pointed out, he is really good in it. I may disagree with it being the best witch hunt movie, for me that would be Mark of the Devil, but Witchfinder General comes a close second.

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  2. A great film but not one I re-watch a lot, I think perhaps because the story it shows us is one that is as grim as it is true.

    For my money there are scenes in this film that are much harder to watch than the scenes in HOSTEL.

    My 2 cents of course.

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  3. I was very underwhelmed by this one, although it gets tons of praise. I just didnt buy him in this role and felt that accent is just far too over the top to be taken seriously in this particular role. I need to give it a second chance though, first impressions can sometimes be misleading

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  4. Rev., I personally did not care for MARK OF THE DEVIL, but i do own it, and after some of the recent stuff I've read about it, I should probably give it a second chance.
    Al,I did not find any of the scenes in WITCHFINDER unsettling, but I am jaded.
    Carl, i have to say that i disagree with you on Price's performance, but I think that one viewing is enough.
    Thanks for all the comments, guys!

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  5. I hope the version you saw had the great Paul Ferris score and not the synth one that Orion slapped onto it.

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  6. Nice question, Ryan, I did not touch on that, but my copy does have the fabulous original score. FYI, Paul Farris had a role in WITCHFINDER as the husband of the burned lady. He used the name Morris Jar as a reference to composer Maurice Jarre. Thanks for reading!

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  7. This - or any witch-hunt movies (i.e. MARK OF THE DEVIL), mostly - rely on my general disgust for stupid, superstitious people to spark any interest in the proceedings. Vincent Price's involvement, in this case, is pure bonus. WITCHFINDER GENERAL astutely addresses the politics of greed and mass ignorance that have pervaded society back then & all the way up through today. Although, as far as endings go, I do think Price/'Hopkins' was dispatched a little abruptly here and it led to a bit of a let-down, "aw, is that it?" reaction from me.

    Great pick, as always!

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  8. This is my absolute favourite Vincent Price performance. As much as I adore his fun campy performances in movies likeTheatre of Blood, it's Witchfinder General that proves he was really a superb dramatic actor when he put his mind to it.

    Reeves' earlier The Sorcerers is well worth seeing, with a great performance from Boris Karloff.

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  9. J.Astro, in the original script, Hopkins was supposed to be burned to death (perhaps a more fitting ending), but due to time constraints in the castle location, they could not pull it off. The axing was more of an after thought to make the scene. Maybe this is why it leaves you a bit disappointed.
    dfordoom, this is one of Price's best performances, and it proves that he is more than just a one note guy. Also, thanks for mentioning SORCERERS, it's the one I haven't seen, but I am going to fix that now.

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  10. The Sorcerers is wonderfully quirky and original. Very low-budget, but it works very well.

    Of Reeves' other movies, The She Beast has suffered from terrible public domain DVD releases, but it's recently been released by Dark Sky in what I'm told is a very nice print indeed. Not a great movie, but it does have Barbara Steele!

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  11. I just picked up She Beast the other day. You can expect to see that title pop up on a Beautiful Ladies of Genre post very soon.

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  12. I quite like She Beast, as a matter of fact, I just re-watched it Saturday night!

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  13. I keep meaning to pick up a copy of the Dark Sky release of She Beast. After viewing the atrocious print I currently own I have feeling it will come as a revelation.

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  14. I keep meaning to watch this -- My junior year of college I took a class on English History, and chose the topic of witchcraft beliefs and persecution for my final paper (basing my paper heavily on James I's fear of witches). As part of this, I had to give a multimedia presentation on my topic to the class.

    I found the trailer to this film on Youtube, and showed it to the class. Everyone loved it, and thought I gave the best presentation.

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