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Witchfinder General
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by Jay Seaver

"Without the camp, Vincent Price is one nasty bastard."
4 stars

"Witchfinder General" was programmed in the Brattle's October Edgar Allan Poe series because Roger Corman bought the American distribution rights, slapped some excerpts from the poem "The Conqueror Worm" on the front and back, and changed the name to match. Either way, it's the sort of horror that comes out of being based on actual ugly history.

It's the time of the English civil war. Lord Cromwell controls East Anglia, although fighting with Royalist forces is still fierce. Soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) has distinguished himself in Cromwell's army, and on a brief stop in his village, Father John Lowes (Rupert Davies) asks what his intentions are toward his niece Sarah (Hilary Dwyer). When he admits it is to leave farming, the vicar is actually pleased - he has heard that Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) is on his way, supposedly to smoke out witches though he and his partner John Stearne (Robert Russell) are the type to use what they claim is the Lord's work to satisfy their own urges.

Witchfinder General is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, filled with all manner of nasty rape, torture, and murder. Women sell their bodies casually in some cases and out of a harsh practicality in others. Corruption is rampant, in no small part because the film often seems to lack specific ideals. Marshall is a good soldier for a cause that is frequently shown as questionable, Hopkins shows loyalty to nobody except himself, and there's not a drop of remorse to be found. Director Michael reeves knows how to shoot and cut his movie so that we see just enough for the movie to feel unflinching but also don't see enough that we might imagine the worse.

Exemplifying all this is Vincent Price in possibly the finest role of his career. There's not a drop of camp to be found in his Matthew Hopkins, just a cold cruelty to go along with a brutish intelligence. Price plays Hopkins as completely casual in hypocrisy, an implacable force that never gives hints of a righteous nature misdirected or particular pleasure taken in his power. He looks down at Stearne with disdain - and Russell does make the man into a particularly vile sociopath - but doesn't gain any measure of respect because of it.

The rest of the cast does fine work, as well. Ogilvy plays Marshall as quite capable but not a genius, sincere but not one to over-sell his point. That characterization is matched by Hilary Heath, who gets across that Sarah is good but not naive or foolish. Rupert Davies gets a bit less screen time as Sarah's uncle, but creates a solid connection to them in that time. And even the actors with the smallest roles turn in good work.

In a way, that's what makes the movie particularly horrifying; even the people working with Hopkins are played as utterly believable and ordinary. Reeves and the writers don't present us with a top-down hysteria driven by the likes of Hopkins and Stearne whipping people into a frenzy; there's a sense that most of this is ordinary people settling scores by vicious means because it's a vicious time. Marshall isn't that far from any of them; he just maybe hasn't been pushed quite as far yet. There's not much doubt that, should he catch up with Hopkins and Stearne, his revenge will be bloody indeed.

So while Vincent Price makes for an excellent villain here, it's not because he makes his character uniquely evil. He's just much better at the sort of ruthlessness that everybody is capable of tapping into.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=19948&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/20/09 23:47:02
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User Comments

5/13/15 Anne Bored, quit at 1/2 time and read wikipedia plot 2 stars
2/13/12 action movie fan price is evil witchunter persued by soldier-gory but very good shocker 4 stars
3/09/10 Richard Brandt Price's best performance reveals where true horrors spring from 5 stars
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  14-Aug-1968 (NR)

  N/A (18)

  N/A (R)

Directed by
  Michael Reeves

Written by
  Tom Baker
  Michael Reeves

  Vincent Price
  Ian Ogilvy
  Rupert Davies
  Hilary Heath
  Robert Russell

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