It was two years ago, almost to the day, that I was sitting in the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, totally agape and unable to move from my seat. The lights were up, people were trailing out the isles, but I was just totally stuck down dumb. I had just seen WITCHFINDER GENERAL, which I still consider one of the most powerfully disturbing films I've ever seen. WITCHFINDER capped off a weekend-long celebration of the Vincent Price Centennial at the American Cinematheque; that Sunday night, Reeves' film was paired with a much hammier Price performance in THEATER OF BLOOD. The juxtaposition of Price's over-the-top Shakespearean killer in THEATER and his subdued but ruthless inquisitor in WITCHFINDER cemented his status as one of my favorite actors, and one far more gifted than he is usually given credit for.
WITCHFINDER GENERAL, released in 1968, comes at an interesting crossroads, both in film history, and in the career of Vincent Price. In America, 1968 marked the year of the desolution of the production code (long since languishing) and the establishment of the MPAA ratings system. Around the world, youth was in revolt. Revolutionary fervor was reflected in the cinema of the time: BONNIE & CLYDE broke boundaries in screen violence, THE GRADUATE and MIDNIGHT COWBOY in screen sex. No longer were explicit sex and violence relegated to the drive-ins and exploitation films.
That's where Price comes in. Having successfully built up a career as a camp-horror icon with Roger Corman's Edgar Allen Poe series of films in the early to mid '60s, Price had more recently back-slid into mad scientist self-parody with the Dr. Goldfoot films (personal opinion, of course). When Corman's American International Pictures became co-producer on WITCHFINDER GENERAL, they demanded Reeves hire Price over his first choice for the role of witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, Donald Pleasence.
Michael Reeves, only 24 at the time of filming, was a hot up-and-coming British horror director in the late-to-post Hammer Horror years, having directed Boris Karloff in THE SORCERERS the previous year. Due to AIP's meddling, Reeves was furious at having Price on the picture and the director and star clashed constantly throughout filming. Price resented Reeves' youthful arrogance and Reeves, for his part, refused to give Price any concrete direction on his character. The production was fraught with other difficulties, including a razor-thin budget, a tight schedule, a lack of extras, and the inclusion of exploitative nude scenes the producers required for the German version of the film (oh, those kinky Germans!).
This collision of Vincent Price, famed American horror icon, and Reeves (and the tradition of British Hammer & post-Hammer Horror), create an utterly unique film, both in Price's career, and in the annals of British film horror history. WITCHFINDER marks a distinct turning point in Vincent Price horror (post-Corman, pre-PHIBES), which is unlike any other role in his filmography. It is also in a unique position in British horror history, as a non-Hammer film and a non-monster movie (no Dracula or Frankenstein during the English Civil War!). Some critics have dubbed WITCHFINDER, which primarily takes place among the ferns and tall grasses of East Anglia, as part of a series of "folk horror," which also includes THE WICKER MAN.
In truth, the staying power of the film lies in its depiction of the banality of evil. WITCHFINDER GENERAL presupposes the horror films of the '70s and '80s where the boogey man could be the boy or girl next door (HALLOWEEN, CARRIE), rather than the traditional supernatural villain (DRACULA, THE WOLF MAN, THE MUMMY). As Quentin Turnour explains in an essay for Senses of Cinema, in WITCHFINDER GENERAL, "there is no Evil incarnate; only perpetual corruption explains social misery" (Tornour). The category of the "historical horror film" is still rather under-explored and there are a scant number of films that deal with the persecution of witches in Europe, let alone in America. WITCHFINDER GENERAL remains the most powerful film on the subject of witch hunts, an unrelenting examination of institutional prejudice and bureaucratic violence.
In America, WITCHFINDER was released under the title THE CONQUEROR WORM as an attempt to tie it into the Corman/Price/Poe films ("The Conqueror Worm" is a poem by Poe). Besides tacking on an excerpt from the poem to the beginning of the film, Reeves' film naturally has nothing to do with Poe. (There are no worms to be found in the film.) The film was a success in the States (unlike its release in the UK, where it was decried by critics as sadistic trash), and launched a short-lived revival in AIP's Poe series. This included the 1969's THE OBLONG BOX, which Michael Reeves was prepping to direct until his tragic and untimely death of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 25.
Finally, to the film itself: Price plays Matthew Hopkins, a very loose interpretation of the real-life 17th century witch-hunter who terrorized Eastern England and was almost single-handedly responsible for the "convictions" and executions of more people for witchcraft than in the previous 100 years. Hopkins' preferred method of torture included "pricking," which consisted of pricking the skin of a suspected witch, looking for "The Devil's Mark." Any mark on the skin, including moles, freckles, warts or scars could be considered a mark of the Devil and a sure signal that the suspect was a witch.
The local priest in the film runs afoul of Hopkins in just this manner and is about to be executed, when his niece Sara interjects and offers herself up to Hopkins in order to spare the life of her uncle. Hopkins is called away from the town before consummating Sara's offer, however his fiendish assistant witch-hunter Stearne rapes Sara anyway. When Sara's fiance, the young Roundhead Marshall hears of his injustice, he swears vengeance against Stearne and Hopkins. Meanwhile, the witchfinder and his assistant continue to scour the countryside condemning witches with abandon.
One of the most chilling scenes in the film features the burning of a suspected witch in the town square. Reeves emphasizes the blank faces of the townspeople who crowd around, watching impassively as an innocent woman is burned to death. The scene reminds me of the witch burning in Ingmar Bergman's SEVENTH SEAL; but instead of focusing, as Bergman does, on the demented woman as the last flickers of humanity and cognizance flash across her face, Reeves purposefully isolates the viewer from the victim, implicating us along with the townspeople in the abuse of justice that allows her to die.
The casualness of the violence in WITCHFINDER GENERAL creates a deeply disturbed atmosphere of disgust and revulsion. The casting of Vincent Price as Hopkins was, as it turned out, a stroke of genius. Not only did Price give one of his greatest performances, he even lent a modicum of humanity to a man whose greed and amorality lead to the demise of hundreds of innocents. In his Corman/Poe roles, Price usually played the villain, but he was never unlikeable. We always somehow rooted for him to succeed, even when we knew he was a murderer and a fiend. Price's performance as Hopkins is so matter-of-fact, absent the winking camp that became the hallmark of his earlier films (and would continue in his post-WITCHFINDER roles). Hopkins is little more than a petty bureaucrat, an opportunistic war profiteer who found in the English countryside a populace terrified of the war around them and willing to cannibalize itself for the sake of some perceived reinstated stability. After hunting the witch, and providing the peasants with a little violent entertainment, Hopkins basically shakes down the town government for a "finder's fee." His specific torture of Sara and Marshall is purely self-serving: he brands them as witches to get back at their meddling interference to his grand work.
EDIT: If you don't want to spoil the ending of the film, you have a chance to catch the whole thing as part of an all Vincent Price Halloween night on TCM, Nov 1 6:30EST