The Underrated- Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General
It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, but the BBC have done their annual “Horror is critically valid” pathetic splurge- as if that makes up remotely for treating the genre with mild disdain for the rest of the year. As a result, there has been at least one first-rate horror film on every night, and Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General is one of their staple “go to” British films of this period. The reason for this, I believe, is that they can pretend that it’s a Hammer film of the time, but it gets a huge amount of critical praise so fits in with their condescending attitude towards the genre. Anyway, I’m not convinced that Matthew Hopkins is a horror film. Sure, it is horrific, and there is torture, rape and a savage finale, but it feels more like a tragedy or historical drama than an actual Horror film.
This is a dark and complex film. It’s impossible to talk about Matthew Hopkins without spoiling, but the spoilery bits are enormously famous, so apologies in advance.
During the English Civil war, Matthew Hopkins (a lawyer) travels round the south of England with his partner Stearne. They are ostensibly “investigating” accusations of witchcraft, but as Stearne notes they only get paid by the hanging, and only if they’ve got a confession, the whole charade is driven by sadism and greed. They pitch up at the parish of John Lowes and pursue their investigations with more than uncommon vigour. Lowes lives with his niece, Sarah, who is engaged to dashing soldier Richard Marshall, and Hopkins extorts sex out of her in exchange for keeping her uncle from hanging. While Hopkins is out at another village, Stearne takes his chance and rapes Sarah. Hopkins finds out about this, and summarily executes Sarah’s uncle- nice of him, that. In the meantime, Richard returns from War, and it can’t be said that he’s over the moon to discover these events. Hopkins and Stearne are a tad perturbed at some 17th Century Rambo being after them, so high-tail it to the same village that Sarah is holed up in. Events spiral out of control completely climaxing in one of the most nihilistic and brutal finales to any film that I’ve ever seen.
David Russel, who was only 23, was somewhat of a prodigy. He had balls of steel, an attitude problem and a driving will to get his films made. Nevertheless, Witchfinder General, his masterpiece, shows real touches of genius and his untimely suicide (accidental or otherwise) suggests that we lost a significant talent well before time. Forget stories of on-set tyranny (mostly arising from this film) and just accept that he may have been a bit of a bastard, but he was an extremely talented bastard.
To start with, Russel was in a filthy mood that the studio had cast Vincent Price against his wishes as he wanted Donald Pleasance to play the lead. Furthermore, he disliked Price on sight, and had little respect for the American’s work, believing him to be “too hammy”. Therefore, he resolved to treat Price with utter disdain, in order to draw a specific performance out of him. An early exchange is particularly telling in that Price was complaining to Russel and asked the, not unreasonable, question that as he, Vincent, was a veteran of over 80 films what had Russel done? The response was the frankly brilliant “made 3 good ones”. This is just one example of Russel’s treatment of his star, but perhaps a more telling one is that Price made the mistake of turning up for the climactic scene a touch drunk. Russel was literally foaming at the mouth at this and turned to his Assistant Director and said “I’m going to kill him”. There was apparently, no doubt that Russel meant it, and when he saw Russel talking to Ian Ogilvy (who played Marshall) he feared the worst, so took Price aside and stuffed his costume full of rubber to try to cushion the kicking that was coming. This was a wise move, as in the restored footage of this scene, you can see that Ogilvy is really whacking Price, method acting, eh? Price for his part thought Russel, although he did change his mind, was an obnoxious jumped up git, and was particularly perturbed by what he perceived to be the rudeness of Russel- who to be fair stoked this at every opportunity by ignoring him when he fell off a horse and suchlike.
In the end, though, Russel drew a performance from Price that the veteran actor rated as the finest of his career, so good in fact that he wrote the director a thank you letter. Well, how good is it? To put it bluntly- it’s fucking amazing. Hopkins, as portrayed by Price, is a cold-blooded sadist, an absolute bastard of a man with not one redeeming feature. He’s hypocritical, savage, lascivious, treacherous, and frankly one of the most repellent screen monsters that I’ve seen. There’s a steely coldness and towering personal arrogance to Hopkins, coupled with all-consuming greed and vice. When Price says “I value all human life, particularly my own” you believe him utterly- this is a man without redeeming features.
The rest of the cast is also on fine form. Ian Ogilvy has never been better as the somewhat self-righteous Marshall, a prototype badass. He’s hilarious- when he looks at Hopkins and states that “I’m going to kill you” he really means it, and no amount of physical impediment is going to stop him taking vengeance- even when shackled and watching Sarah be tortured he still says it, and if I were Hopkins, personally, I would abandon this and run like buggery. Hillary Dwyer is also superb as Sarah- the scene where Price solicits sex out of her in exchange for her uncle’s life is a masterpiece of understated seduction. Both characters know damned well what he’s after and Dwyer manages to amplify her sexuality through small things in her facial expressions. Finally, Robert Russel was awesome as the grotesque sadist Stearne- although his voice is dubbed (he has a high-pitched voice apparently).
The acting is the big draw to this film, but it isn’t the only one. I honestly believe that the English countryside has never looked better on screen than it does here, and that’s down entirely to the cinematography of John Coquillon. The scenery here is haunting, it’s sumptuous and really this is one of the few films that makes England live up to the ridiculously laudatory classical quotes that the tourist board digs up every now and again. You know the ones: “This sceptered isle”, “Green and pleasant land” etc. Some idiot on imdb compared it to a Constable painting, which is probably going too far, but there is an idyllic feel to lots of it, particularly the scenes of Marshall riding across the countryside. Not to mention that it doesn’t rain once, which I find to be somewhat unlikely, personally. Nevertheless, considering the miniscule budget that they had here, Witchfinder General looks far more expensive than it is.
This is also, and there’s no sugar coating this one, a fucking brutal film. It was marketed as “The most violent film of the year” and the BBFC, as was their wont at the time, absolutely shat one when they saw it. There’s a lot of this film cut by order of the great and all-powerful censor, particularly the torture of Sarah, the Witch Burning sequence and Marshall taking the hatchet to Hopkins. The BBC themselves, to their immense credit, gave not a shit for this nonsense, so the version available on the BBC i-player (for today only, people, so if you’re interested: click here) contains the restored “directors cut” with all the nastiness intact. Some of it is absolutely harrowing, particularly the burning sequence, and the excessive violence in the film really hammers home the point. Although there is a notable drop in quality between the restored footage and the rest of the film, I believe that the climax of the film requires the pure unadulterated sadism of the torture scenes.
This film gets talked about for a few reasons, but one of the most important is the ending- heavy spoiler ahead.
This is severely unpleasant. It’s also astounding in its pure nihilism. Russel seems to be suggesting if the one “pure” character, the main man driven by righteousness can succumb to an act of brutal vengeance then there really is no hope for anyone. It’s bleak, unforgiving and the look of insanity that Ogilvy conjures up is absolutely harrowing. A tough watch.
Nevertheless, this isn’t perfect. For one thing, if I’m to whinge, they place the disclaimer that all characters in this film are fictional, whereas Hopkins clearly isn’t. This is daft- however, given that Price was far too old to play the historical figure, understandable. Secondly, there is a very silly forced anti-military theme running through the film. I do understand that it was the mid-late 60’s, but still, in a film about human evil it is completely unnecessary.
Overall, I do recommend this film, and so do most critics out there. So why have I picked it as an underrated? Because it’ s almost been lost: nowhere near as many people have seen it as the film deserves, and it’s reputation has been squished by the onslaught of semi-soft core porn masquerading as horror that British studios were banging out at the time (thank you Hammer). Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General is one of the most impressive examinations of pure evil that I’ve seen: a dark, sparse, nihilistic film and a hugely important one.
Before I sign off- this film was marketed in America as The Conqueror Worm after Poe’s poem to cash in on Price’s Corman films. This is bullshit. Hopkins has nothing at all to do with Poe whatsoever. Dig it up, particularly the full version and wonder what could have been if Russel hadn’t had his accident with sleeping pills.
Until next time,