Cult Movies: Western-informed Witchfinder General still the most singular British horror film ever

Ralph revisits a genuine high-water mark in the history of horror films

Vincent Price in Witchfinder General
Vincent Price excels as the infamous witch-hunter in this 1968 horror classic

IT’S no exaggeration to say that Witchfinder General is a genuine high-water mark in the history of horror films.

Released in 1968, it did for the genre what The Wild Bunch by Sam Peckinpah did for the traditional Western around the same time.

Violent, visceral and unrelentingly brutal in both its bloody visuals and downbeat mindset, it’s a film that’s lost little of its power to shock and disturb despite the passing decades.

A sparkly new 4K UHD release for the movie from 88 Films provides the perfect opportunity to acclaim it as perhaps the most singular British horror film of all time all over again.

Of course, although I’ve just called it a horror, what we’re really talking about here is a revenge Western dressed up as a period British fantasy flick. Everything, from the endless shots of the sweeping countryside to the lush score from Paul Ferris, just screams ‘Western’.

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The story is the real life tale of ‘Witchfinder’, Matthew Hopkins, who journeyed from town to town in Cromwell’s England in the 1640s investigating suspected incidents of witchcraft and dishing out his own brand of brutal ‘justice’ which invariably ended in torture and execution for the women accused of dallying with the Devil.

His nasty methods of securing admissions of guilt from the women he pursued included dumping said women in deep water. If they floated, they were guilty of being saved by the Devil, and if they drowned they were declared innocent - which was I’m sure a great comfort to their grieving nearest and dearest.

Robert Russell and Vincent Price in Witchfinder General
Robert Russell and Vincent Price

The madness behind it all resulted in a glut of gruesome deaths across the land and an ever-increasing wealth for the self-proclaimed Witchfinder.

Hopkins (Vincent Price) meets his match when he assaults the girlfriend (Hilary Dwyer) of a young Cromwellian soldier (Ian Ogilvy), who then pursues Hopkins and his brutish sidekick Sterne (Robert Russell) with relentlessly bloody results.

Vincent Price gives a possible career best performance as the evil titular figure, even though the director Michael Reeves - the enfant terrible of British terror films at the time - didn’t actually want him in the role at all.

The bullish Reeves didn’t feel Price, with his reputation for hamming it up whenever possible, had the requisite gravitas to pull off the kind of truly nasty piece of work he saw Hopkins as.

“I’ve made 84 films. What have you done?”, raged Price to the director.

“I’ve made three good ones” came the cocky reply.

Reeves was ultimately overruled by the money moguls at AIP who were bankrolling the project, who had the man they called ‘the Merchant of Menace’ under contract at the time - so Price it was. It meant we were denied the pleasure of seeing the director’s choice, Donald Pleasence, in the central role, but it ultimately worked for the film, with Price giving a remarkably restrained performance that nailed the narcissistic nastiness of Hopkins perfectly.

Smartly scripted and beautifully shot, this version has been expertly remastered with an impressive array of new extras to add to your viewing enjoyment - if enjoyment could be ever be a word used for a film like this.