Witchfinder General is something of an historical horror film, the harrowing tale of 17th century lawyer and self appointed Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins who roamed the English countryside extracting confessions from supposed witches via unnecessarily brutal torture.
Released in 1968, it was renowned for its sadistic torture scenes, and features arguably one of Vincent Price’s less campy and more convincingly menacing performances (though I’m a fan of the camp too) in the titular role. It was the third and final feature directed by Simon Reeves (The She-Beast/ The Sorcerers), who would tragically die a year later at the age of 25 of an overdose, leaving many to lament a career that could’ve been.
Originally wanting Donald Pleasance in the lead role, he was saddled with Vincent Price due to a financing arrangement with the US, culminating in a fair degree of antagonism on set as Reeves sought to reduce Price’s infamous ham level. And it works, Price is gleefully chilling as the holier than thou witch finder, devising increasingly brutal and nonsensical methods to extract confessions from innocent people. His henchman meanwhile just likes to hurt people and get paid, using his power to rape and pillage in the name of God.
Set in an England ravaged by civil war, it’s a classic revenge tale, as after Price rapes the fiancée of a young soldier and murders her uncle, the soldier swears revenge. It’s torture porn before the term existed, though also a take on puritanical religion, the fascist nature of power and the opportunism of unscrupulous operators attempting to exploit the situation. Whilst to some extent many of these themes were explored in Salo, there’s a gratuitousness here that is more than a little disturbing.
This kind of folkloric horror is pretty unpleasant viewing; though anything with Price is worth the price of admission alone. Both the film and Price seem to delight in showing the torture, and when you throw in a few bare breasts, you start to question the motives behind the filmmakers – as beneath the po faced historical reenactments and cautionary moral tale there’s an exploitation flick just itching to be let loose. You get the sense that the filmmakers were trying to cover as many bases as possible, and that’s not a bad thing at all.