Witchfinder General – or Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General to purists – is a 1968 British horror film directed by Michael Reeves (The She Beast; The Sorcerers) and starring Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy (The Sorcerers), and Hilary Dwyer. The screenplay was by Reeves and Tom Baker based on Ronald Bassett’s novel of the same name.
Made on a low budget of under £100,000, the movie was co-produced by Tigon British Film Productions and American International Pictures. The story details the heavily fictionalized murderous witch-hunting exploits of Matthew Hopkins, a 17th century English lawyer who claimed to have been appointed as a “Witch-finder Generall” by Parliament during the English Civil War to root out sorcery and witchcraft.
For the ‘Continental’ version, Tigon’s Tony Tenser shot additional nude scenes. It was retitled The Conqueror Worm in the United States by American International Pictures (AIP) in an attempt to link it with Roger Corman’s earlier series of Edgar Allan Poe-related films starring Price—although this movie has nothing to do with any of Poe’s stories, and only briefly alludes to his poem.
Director Reeves featured many scenes of intense onscreen torture and violence that were considered unusually sadistic at the time. Upon its theatrical release, the movie’s gruesome content was met with disgust by several film critics in the UK, despite it having been extensively censored by the British Board of Film Censors. In the US, the film was shown virtually intact and was a box office success, but it was almost completely ignored by reviewers.
The film gradually developed a large cult following. Over the years, several prominent critics championed the film, including J. Hoberman, Danny Peary, and Derek Malcolm. In 2005, the magazine Total Film named Witchfinder General the 15th greatest horror film of all time.
‘Time has not diminished the raw power of Witchfinder General. Its’ perfect historical setting, beautiful camerawork and unflinching portrayal of something we’d all rather not think about ever having happened sets it apart as quite possibly the greatest British Horror Film ever made. High praise indeed, but without a doubt deserved.’ Chris Wood, British Horror Films
“‘Harsh and dynamic, Reeves’ rendering of the English countryside, in which the purity of nature stands in sharp contrast to man’s cruelty and violence, remains unparalleled. The wild beauty of his landscapes is as far removed from Hammer’s studio-bound, colour-saturated faux gothic as you could imagine. Outstanding.’ Simon Braund, Empire
“If it wasn’t for the love story and revenge subplot Witchfinder General would be a historical drama. It is a bleak and ugly subject matter that is not treated lightly. Even the love story is full of dark corners. Sara Lowes is a very tragic character. What happens to Sara just further illustrates the depravity and unbridled power Hopkins was able to wield. I didn’t think this part of the subplot distracted from the overall morbid feeling of the film at all.” Goregirl’s Dungeon
Cast and characters:
- Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins. Decidedly not Michael Reeves’s choice for the part, this was the veteran horror star’s 75th film and his 17th for American International Pictures. Some of the performances he provided for his previous AIP movies had certain elements of campy overacting, but in Witchfinder he was subtle and deadly serious. The role was a great challenge for Price, as his frequent clashes with Reeves left him unsure as to what the director wanted. Despite this, Price ultimately felt he delivered “one of the best performances I’ve ever given.”
- Ian Ogilvy as Richard Marshall. Ogilvy had been a friend of Reeves since they were teenagers, and the actor had appeared in many of the director’s amateur short films. Ogilvy had also starred in both of Reeves’s two previous feature films, Revenge of the Blood Beast and The Sorcerers, and was the natural first choice for the role of Witchfinder‘s heroic lead. Describing his working relationship with Reeves, Ogilvy noted that “his mastery of the technical aspects was absolute”, but added “Mike never directed the actors. He always said he knew nothing about acting, and preferred to leave it up to us.” Ogilvy enjoyed working with Price, finding him to be “very funny, in a ‘queeny’ sort of way.”
- Hilary Dwyer as Sara. Witchfinder was Dwyer’s debut feature film. With three years of television work behind her, she had been noticed by Tenser and put under contract with Tigon. She felt Reeves was “just wonderful … He was really inspiring to work with. And because it was my first film I didn’t know how lucky I was.” At twenty-one years-old, she found appearing in the love and rape scenes “stressful”. She would go on to make several more horror movies for AIP, most of them co-starring Price, before retiring from acting in the late 1970s.
- Rupert Davies as John Lowes. Appearing as Dwyer’s uncle, Witchfinder was only one of several horror films the British character actor found himself in during the later stage of his career. Davies was not pleased when he discovered that the filming of his torture scenes was to be augmented with actual live rats placed on his body. The actor recalled Reeves instructing him, “Don’t move, Rupert! Don’t move! Wait until one of them starts nibbling your jaw then you might move your head a little.”
- Robert Russell as John Stearne. Playing Hopkins’s thuggish assistant, Russell certainly looked the part. However, as filming progressed, Reeves found the actor’s high-pitched voice unsuitable for such a rough character, and after production was completed he had all of his dialogue dubbed by another actor, Jack Lynn (who also appeared in a small role as an innkeeper).
- Patrick Wymark as Oliver Cromwell. Wymark received prominent billing for a “one-day bit part”.
- Other cast: Nicky Henson as Trooper Swallow, Wilfrid Brambell as Master Loach, Tony Selby as Salter, Bernard Kay as Fisherman, Godfrey James as Webb, Michael Beint as Captain Gordon, John Treneman as Harcourt, Bill Maxwell as Gifford, “Morris Jar” (pseudonym for Paul Ferris) as Paul, Maggie Kimberly as Elizabeth, Peter Haigh as Lavenham Magistrate, Hira Talfrey as Hanged Woman, Ann Tirard as Old Woman, Peter Thomas as Farrier, Edward Palmer as Shepherd, David Webb as Jailer, Lee Peters as Sergeant, David Lyell as Footsoldier, Alf Joint as Sentry, Martin Terry as Hoxne Innkeeper, Jack Lynn as Brandeston Innkeeper, Beaufoy Milton as Priest, Dennis Thorne as Villager, Michael Segal as Villager, Toby Lennon as Old Man, Margaret Nolan as Girl at Inn, Sally Douglas as Girl at Inn, Donna Reading as Girl at Inn, Derek Ware as Boy at Hoxne Inn.
The countryside vistas seen in the chase scenes on horseback were shot on the Stanford Battle Area near Thetford, Norfolk. The church used in the film is St John The Evangelist in Rushford in Norfolk. The moat drowning and hanging scenes were filmed at Kentwell Hall, in Long Melford. The climax of the film was shot at Orford Castle, on the coast of East Anglia
Thanks to Poster Perversion for the Mexican lobby card.