I probably first saw Witchfinder General in 1992, in Alex Cox’s irreplaceable Moviedrome slot on BBC2 (an education for countless fledgling cinephiles). I wasn’t a special horror buff, but I knew my way around the classic Hammers and The Wicker Man (1973), as well as the Roger Corman/Vincent Price/Edgar Allan Poe cycle. None of which quite prepared me for Witchfinder General.
Michael Reeves’ 1968 film was inspired by the real Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed ‘witchfinder general’ who stalked East Anglia during the English civil war, terrorising women in whom, if he saw fit, he could reliably find the ‘devil’s mark’. Despite its low budget, it’s a remarkably savage horror film (which repelled many – including, famously, Alan Bennett), helped by a particularly malevolent central performance from Price, entirely dispensing with his by-then customary camp.
But though he plays freely with historical details, what strikes me now is how caustic an analyst of the English the 24 year-old Reeves was. His previous film, The Sorcerers (1967), paints an older generation driven to murderous envy by the empty hedonism of youth. Witchfinder General – conceived during the Summer of Love and released in May 68, at the height of the uprising in Paris – shows how easily breathtaking cruelty and endemic misogyny can be tolerated and even thrive in the thick of revolution.
Reeves died tragically early (aged 25, just nine months after this film’s release) and never got to escape the genre treadmill. But Witchfinder General marks him out as one of British cinema’s great might-have-beens.
Originally published: 15 June 2020