The true story of Matthew Hopkins, a self-appointed witch hunter
who executed hundreds of accused witches in 17th century England.
Witchfinder General (1968)
Directed by Michael Reeves
Written by Tom Baker and Michael Reeves
Starring Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Heath, Rupert Davies, Robert Russell, Nicky Henson, Tony Selby, Godfrey James
Based on the novel by Ronald Bassett
Witchfinder General is an upsetting film, especially once you remember that most of this actually happened. There was a significant number of centuries where innocent people were executed on the whim of unfounded accusations. All the local magistrate or minister had to hear was the word "witch," and that was it. Your life was forfeit and your friends and neighbors abandoned you to the will of the law, which often meant torture and execution. Matthew Hopkins was one of the worst of these executors. He reveled in causing pain and getting paid for it, and he effectively became one of the most powerful men in England at the time thanks to his self-appointed title of Witchfinder General.
Vincent Price delivers a fine performance as Hopkins, playing the most evil, sadistic character he's ever portrayed. His menace is matched only by Price's inherent likability that made him such a great villain. Our hero is Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), a soldier who swears vengeance against Hopkins and his partner John Stearne (Robert Russell) after they terrorize his wife Sara (Hilary Heath) and execute her uncle for witchcraft. Marshall is a great protagonist, and you're with him and Sara the entire time as he hunts down Hopkins and Stearne. The film does not hold back on the scenes of torture, which surprised me big time, considering this was made in 1968. Not only do we see brutally realistic execution scenes, but we bear witness to the cruel mob of townsfolk who gather to watch their former friend or family member die a horrific painful, unjust death.
I will never understand mob mentality, and the witch trials will continue to disturb me mostly because of how quickly people are willing to turn on one another. Trust is such an easy thing to break, and impossible to mend. Witchfinder General is a film that I would describe as The Crucible meets Barry Lyndon, and it's a fantastic depiction of one of history's lesser known, but overtly cruel sons of bitches, Matthew Hopkins. Though mostly historically inaccurate, the film is an important watch for how well it showed the evil in these peoples' hearts.