1968 was a watershed year for horror cinema. The urban realm was turned into the skulking ground for occultists in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, while rural Pennsylvania was the site of the zombie terror of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Both changed the cinematic landscape for good, but what of Britain?
In addition to one of Hammer’s best, The Devil Rides Out, in the UK it was also quintessentially the year of Michael Reeves’ third and sadly final feature film. This was Witchfinder General, released just months before his tragic death aged 25.
Sodden with nihilism, it would famously raise the ire of Alan Bennett, who called it “the most persistently sadistic and rotten film I’ve ever seen”. Reeves found in the English landscape a violent and fundamentalist reality where paranoia and misogyny dwelled hand in hand with the pastoral and the idyllic. Fifty years on, Reeves’ film has gained rather than lost its sense of horror, showcasing a stark awareness of the inner violence possible in even the most everyday of places and people.
The film follows Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), the proclaimed witchfinder general, as he travels through East Anglia during the English civil war on the hunt for supposed witches. In each town and village he visits, mass panic is whipped up in order to justify the interrogation, torture and eventual execution of innocent people, mostly women. However, murdering a priest and torturing his daughter, Sara (Hilary Heath), leaves Hopkins on the run from a roundhead, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), who seeks revenge for the violence inflicted upon his fiancé and her family.
Released in the UK on 19 May 1968, Witchfinder General is a subversive masterpiece that turns a journeying revenge horror into a genuinely questioning film about the power of belief and the true horrors that lurk in the fields and forests of England.
Witchfinder General’s key innovation is its portrayal of the rural landscape. On the one hand, Reeves and his cameraman John Coquillon portray the countryside with a typical, romantic hue, with the locations in East Anglia (as well some unmarked countryside in Buckinghamshire) both pastoral and beautiful. But this is contrasted with the extreme violence that takes place there. Underneath the pleasant veneer, there is a dark, rumbling reality of violence and the old ways.
Take the opening moments: picture-postcard country scenes, with a soundscape of birdsong and wind rustling through the bushes. But there’s also something unusual: a sound of hammering, only quietly at first but gradually coming to the fore.
In moments, it’s revealed that the hammering is coming from a man slowly putting the finishing touches to a gallows pole on a sunny hillside. We cut to the journey of a woman being dragged through a village by a group of people. Her destination is the hill and the rope hanging from the pole.
There is little in the way of leading for the viewer. The scene is shot simply, with only the breeze on the soundtrack and the cries of the woman lost within them. By the time she is executed, Reeves has made clear that the picturesque and the violent will sit chillingly side by side in this film.
Though set during the English civil war, Witchfinder General is chiefly a film about belief, or at least the harnessing of belief’s power in order to fulfil other terrible needs and desires. If its political message could be boiled down to one idea, it would be that belief can allow and excuse the most alarming of atrocities.
These rural vistas become a zone where the attitudes of the local populace can be whipped up to the point of implicating them in wholesale murder. Hopkins uses their superstitious belief – and the terrain that has amplified its extreme character – to dose out his own sadistic violence.
The violence seems to sustain him, in terms of his power and his own pleasure. He wields irrationality for political power, at a time when there was a deep-seated belief in the occult, which explains in part why so many people stood by and allowed women and men to be killed.
In Witchfinder General, belief doesn’t create Hopkins’ sword, but it most definitely sharpens it.