Dir. Michael Reeves
Widely considered to be the first of the Folk Horror genre, Witchfinder General is an underrated watershed for modern Horror films. It serves as a brutal high-water mark for all of the films that follow in its footsteps. It’s immediate successors, The Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man cannot hold a candle to the sheer unflinching heaviness of this movie. Witchfinder General unflinchingly shows the reality of one of the ugliest trends in English history.
But Witchfinder General (henceforth abbreviated as WG) pulls it’s grim tricks through manipulation of the historical narrative. Set with historical characters, historical events, and historical locales, WG can also serve as something of a warning. On display are all of the building blocks for Horror as a study in human character and the violence inherent in systems. WG is devoid of supernatural elements, instead relying upon reality for it’s palette.
Before the credits roll you are thrust into the world of the British countryside in 1645. England is in the middle of a civil war between Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentary movement, and the Royalists, who serve King Charles I. During this period of upheaval, another movement is spreading across Europe: Witch Hunts. Goaded on in the previous century by books like the Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for “The Hammer of Witches,” an early guide to the identification and punishment of witchcraft) paranoia about the presence of supernatural evil seems to be everywhere. By the mid 1600s, Witchfinders became a new fixture in society. Perhaps the best known of the time period in England is Matthew Hopkins, and his assistant, John Stearne. WG uses Hopkins and Stearne as it’s antagonists to brutal aplomb. Their historic personages offer perfect cinematic fodder. Much of their lives is frankly unknown, and historical accounts of their actions are at least somewhat conjectural. (A gifted screenwriter could just as easily take Hopkins and Stearne and turn them into heroes in a different script.)
Everything needed for a grim 90 minute film is set in action within minutes of it’s run; a suspected witch is hanged, Parliamentarian soldiers engage in a skirmish with Royalist snipers, and a Witchfinder is set upon a small town to purge a suspected witch. A collision course has been charted, and all the viewer can do is stand back in dread.
Richard Marshall is a soldier loyal to Cromwell, and after the fight with Royalist snipers, heads to the East Anglian village of Brandeston. There he meets with John Lowes, a village priest, who gives him permission to marry Sara, his niece. Little does Marshall know, The Witchfinder Matthew Hokins and John Stearne have been dispatched to round up those suspected by their neighbors of Witchcraft. Here the plot unfolds, and our characters are set upon each other, though unwittingly at first. None of them can predict the brutal outcome, and like our audience, seem helpless to stop the falling dominoes it sets up.
None of the story, however, could have been properly told without it’s cast. They give an absolutely tight performance. The most obvious is Vincent Price’s portrayal of Matthew Hopkins. It’s done with the sort of deft wizardry that only Price was capable of, blending foppish propriety with sneering menace. Despite his polished veneer, Price portrays Hopkins as a corrupt opportunist, cynical and cold-blooded. Price is profoundly intimidating in this film. He is as happy to shoot a person at close range as he is to sentence them to hang or drown, all while looking one with seeming dispassion. His assistant, John Stearne, is played by Robert Russell. Russell is positively disgusting in his role, an uncouth Yang to Price’s debonair Yin. Hilary Dwyer and Ian Ogilvy portray Sara Lowes and Richard Marshall. They serve as audience stand-ins in the most perverse way possible. Starting out as essentially innocents in the unfolding plot, they find their decency (not to mention health and safety) stretched to nearly unimaginable extremes. Their sincere performances are the stakes the hold this film to the ground. And in a prophetic cameo, Patrick Wymark plays Oliver Cromwell. Wymark would later go on to play The Judge in The Blood on Satan’s Claw.
Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do.
Like the rest of the Folk Horror genre, WG explores paranoia and violence. In this case it seems to be implied less than shown. None of the individuals accused of witchcraft are shown to be engaged in anything overtly evil or supernatural. A single line of dialogue from a passing character is often all that is needed to set a brutal killing in motion. As modern people it can be incredibly difficult to imagine how the paranoia or hatred of one’s neighbors might lead to such horrific events. It’s important to remember that witch hunts are not confined to the past. American history, for instance, is rife with events that essentially fit the bill. The McCarthy hearings of 1954 was, ostensibly, to root out “communists” in the United States. Anyone found even mentioned in these hearings saw their careers or lives damaged, if not destroyed. When it was revealed tha
t Sen. Joseph McCarthy had little to no evidence of any actual wrong-doing, he himself suffered public backlash, but it did little to repair the reputations and livelihoods of his victims. Flash forward to the 1980s, and we see the McMartin preschool trial, in which a Californian preschool and its employees were accused of child abuse and, notably, Satanic worship. In the end, employees of the preschool faced 115 charges of child abuse, one of whom served five years in jail, before all accusations were dropped. While the owners of the McMartin school may have been found innocent, they suffered financially and personally. Often not taken into account in this incident is the damage done to the children who attended McMartin. They were coerced by forceful investigators (and in the initial accusations, by a mentally unstable parent) into concocting some the most horrid and absurd accusations made against innocent people seen in American legal history.
But What Is Witchfinder General Trying To Tell Us?
The witch-hunts of European history have come to be the template by which an entire phenomena has been defined. While modern people might not literally hang or burn at the stake outsiders or others at the social margins, it’s easy to see the similarity. Human behavior does not seem to change much, century to century. Insular communities can easily demonize anyone not fitting into their established norms. There is always someone willing to wear the garb of authority to tell us the difference between Good and Evil. Worse still, that individual will always come along if there is money or power to be gained in that endeavor.
Even though the film does play loosely with historical events, it’s grounding in reality does afford a place to explore witch hunts as a metaphor for mob mentality and the people who become involved in it. Furthermore it shows the dangerous effects that unfettered power can have on an individual. Matthew Hopkins is paid to perform his duty, and is more than pleased to use any method his imagination can cook up to punish those he judges to be witches. Here the director shows us the abuse of power. The camera simply lingers on the punishments of the accused, letting us see what these deaths mean, both physically and emotionally. WG is a bleak film in this regard. While it is several orders of magnitude less bloody than films made only a few decades later, WG is still shocking, if not nearly revolting.
After filming, the British Board of Film Censors called for several cuts to be made to WG, regarding the film as being simply too brutal for most audiences. Released in 1968, this predates the so-called “Video nasties” list, made a decade-plus later in the U.K. Film censorship (and art censorship in general) might seem almost quaint at the time of this writing, but at the time there was a sincere public concern about whether or not depictions of violence and sexuality might have a negative effect on the public. These moral panics still continue to this day, much like and often accompanying, a proverbial witch hunt. It’s worth noting that WG still has a dedicated cult following despite its age and early attempts to cut down on it’s brutality.
Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man form sort of an “Unholy Trinity” of early Folk Horror films. The choices made by the film’s directors and crews helped to create a cinematic language and style that is coming to fruition in the modern era. Without these early contributions, many of the films that will be discussed in this column could not have been made. Fear of “The Other,” of communities in isolation, or of a Past refusing to submit to the Present are on display. Humans today still have ancient, primordial fears. The distance experienced by modern urban living from an agrarian life is growing increasingly massive. But it is still ready being explored now, as the next entries in this series will illustrate.
Lucas Yochum is a writer and podcaster from St. Louis. For more of his non-horror related work, visit the website for his podcast, Blinders Off, at www.blindersoff.show