England is torn in civil strife as the Royalists battle the Parliamentary Party for control. This conflict distracts people from rational thought and allows unscrupulous men to gain local power by exploiting village superstitions. One of these men is Matthew Hopkins, who tours the land offering his services as a persecutor of witches.
Although Michael Reeves' film does feature one notable instance where a condemned witch is burned, he sets the tone immediately with an execution of quite a different stripe. Burning, you see, invariably adds a touch of melodrama. And if there's one thing this uncompromisingly brutal film eschews, it's melodrama.
The pre-title sequence makes this instantly apparent: on a bleak rural hillside, a man is building a gibbet. His hammer blows ring out through the surrounding countryside like a muted death knell. An old woman, wailing pitifully, is dragged up the hill by a small group of townsfolk, silent except for the murmuring priest at their head. The woman is brought to the gibbet and without ceremony is hanged. No last request, no pleas for mercy, no symbolic cleansing in the fire. She's just given the drop and left to dangle. It's a squalid, ignominious death. And one, it is clear, that is as mundane a feature of the unforgiving landscape as the wind and the rain.
The only other participant in this grim tableau is a man on horseback, who watches the execution from a distance. This is Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled witchfinder general of Civil War England. Something that is missing though, and which is conspicuously absent from the entire film, is any evidence of witchcraft or, indeed, of anything that could be construed as the practice of witchcraft. Hopkins, we soon learn, is little more than a sadistic mercenary who exploits the chaos of war to line his pockets and to satisfy a bloodthirsty religious fervour. The horror that pervades Reeves' extraordinary film is derived not from satanic ritual or the power of the occult but from the lurking evil that underpins the human condition.
Here the innocent are tortured and killed; the virtuous become vengeful and corrupted. The plot itself is straightforward enough — Hopkins (Price), rampaging through the counties of East Anglia, ridding local communities of "witches" for a fee, rapes the fiancee of young Parliamentary soldier Marshall (Ogilvy) and murders her uncle. The devastated Marshall swears vengeance and, consumed by hatred and grief, hunts down Hopkins. In the final shocking scene, he attacks the witchfinder in a frenzy with an axe. But he is denied revenge when his friend, in the spirit of mercy, shoots Hopkins. "You took him away from me! You took him away from me" screams Marshall.
The story is strikingly told, and John Coquillon's cinematography is masterful. Just 24 years-old, Reeves' exhibits a maturity far beyond his years. It's no surprise that the film was heavily criticised on its release for gratuitous violence, but in fact he casts an unflinching eye over his barbaric subject matter, refusing to embellish the scenes of atrocity with any lurid flourishes.
In this, the violence is more disturbing — and less gratuitous — than any of Hammer's theatrical bloodletting. Witchfinder General was shot in Suffolk in the autumn of 1967. Enthusiasm compensated for a shoestring budget and the filmmakers gratefully accepted the generosity of Lee Electric, who provided lighting free of charge, and made good use of local facilities — the few sets that were built were housed in a disused WWII aircraft hangar which was rented for £50 a week. "The film was a turning point in my life," said Coquillon later. "About two years after it was released, Don Siegel called his good friend Sam Peckinpah, inviting him to see, 'an interesting number a couple of kids have made in Britain.'" Peckinpah was so impressed he employed Coquillon not only on Straw Dogs (1971), but also on Pat Garret And Billy The Kid (1973), Cross Of Iron (1977) and The Osterman Weekend (1983).
Reeves had originally wanted Donald Pleasance for the role of Hopkins, but contractual obligations between Price and co-producers AIP ensured that the American actor got the part. And although he and Reeves fought tooth-and-claw during the shoot, it proved a fortuitous state of affairs for all concerned. Price turns in a stunning performance, substituting chilling malevolence for his usual camp posturing. He makes no attempt whatsoever at an English accent — probably a good thing — but he has a physicality that belies his age (he was 57) and conflicts effectively with his more familiar, languidly sinister persona. That said, and in spite of the on-set bickering with Reeves, he was gracious enough to give the young director due credit for the film's success.
A note on the title, incidentally. Purists maintain that the film should be referred to as Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General. And since the character's name does appear in the title sequence, albeit in smaller type and to the top right of the screen, they have a solid case. It's been truncated here for reasons of space. Following Witchfinder General, Reeves was seen as a rising star of the British film industry. He was inundated with scripts — Coquillon is adamant that he was offered Easy Rider by Peter Fonda -— but few held any appeal. It wouldn't have made much difference if they had. Shortly after Witchfinder was released, and with only two other films to his credit, Michael Reeves was dead from a fatal dose of barbiturates.
Harsh and dynamic, Reeves' rendering of the English countryside, in which the purity of nature stands in sharp contrast to man's cruelty and violence, remains unparalleled. The wild beauty of his landscapes is as far removed from Hammer's studio-bound, colour-saturated faux gothic as you could imagine. Outstanding.