Tuesday, March 8, 2016

#2,031. Witchfinder General (1968) - The Films of Vincent Price

Directed By: Michael Reeves

Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies

Tag line: "There's lots of screaming when there's this much at stake!"

Trivia: Director Michael Reeves wanted Donald Pleasence to play Matthew Hopkins, but AIP, the American distributor and co-financier of the film, insisted that Vincent Price play the title character

Vincent Price - aka the “Merchant of Menace” - played plenty of bastards during his 50+ year career. Yet, in 1982, when discussing his role in Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General, the great actor said that Matthew Hopkins, his character in this 1968 movie, was “The most bloodthirsty” he ever portrayed. 

What makes this assertion all the more troubling is that, unlike his characters in House of Usher, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, or The Tomb of Ligeia, Matthew Hopkins was an actual person, one whose real-life exploits were even more barbaric than what is depicted in the film.

Also released as The Conqueror Worm, Witchfinder General travels back to 1645, a time when England was in the throes of Civil War. Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), a soldier in Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary army, is in love with Sara (Hilary Heath), the niece of John Lowes (Rupert Davies), a priest in the town of Brandeston. During his most recent visit, Richard proposed to Sara, promising that they will be married as soon as the war is over.

Not long after Richard rides off, Matthew Hopkins (Price) and his assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) arrive in Brandeston. A government sponsored witch hunter, Hopkins travels from town to town, exposing those he believes to be the disciples of Satan, then executing them for their "crimes" against God. 

Spurred on by the citizens of Brandeston, Hopkins arrests John Lowes for being a suspected witch. Hoping to save her uncle’s life, Sara offers herself to Hopkins, who gladly accepts her sexual favors.

Despite this arrangement, however, Hopkins eventually sentences Lowes to death, and the priest is hanged in the public square. After hearing the news, Richard deserts his post and rushes to Sara’s side, promising both her and God that he will track down Matthew Hopkins and kill him for what he’s done.

Price didn’t have a good experience making Witchfinder General; its director, Michael Reeves, had wanted Donald Pleasance for the role of Matthew Hopkins, but was overruled by AIP, which had Price under contract. As a result, the two didn’t get along during the shoot (Reeves even refused to meet Price at the airport when the actor flew in from Hollywood). 

Yet despite the behind-the-scenes turmoil (or perhaps because of it), Price delivered a subdued, often chilling performance as Hopkins, whose arrogance is matched only by his brutality. 

The real horror of Witchfinder General, though, is witnessing the “tests” employed by Hopkins and Stearne to determine who might actually be a witch. Before taking John Lowes into custody, Stearne searches the priest’s body for the “Mark of Satan”, that one spot that supposedly won’t bleed when stabbed with a needle. It’s a difficult scene to watch, yet is merely a precursor for the violence to come.

Between 1644 and 1647, the real Matthew Hopkins (working primarily in East Anglia) sentenced more people to death for witchcraft than had been condemned in all of the previous 100 years. In fact, it’s believed that he was personally responsible for 60% of all witchcraft-related executions that occurred throughout England. It’s a disturbing reality, and Witchfinder General perfectly conveys the terror of what transpired

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