Wednesday, October 1, 2014

October Horror Movie Challenge: Witchfinder General (1968)

This poster is pretty awesome.
Let's kick off the month with a cult classic from across the pond.

Witchfinder General is a British horror film set during the English Civil War. Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), an opportunistic individual, tours the land offering his services as a 'witchfinder'. Aided by the incredibly sadistic John Stearne (Robert Russel), Hopkins tortures people suspected of witchcraft, charging the local magistrate for their work & leveraging the occasional sexual favor from those desperate to see their loved ones found innocent of such heinous crimes.

After executing a priest and taking advantage of his niece Sarah (Hilary Dwyer), the villainous pair incur the wrath of the girl's fiance Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy). Filled with a need for justice (or vengeance), Marshall pursues Hopkins and Stearne with the sole intent of killing them. Will he succeed, or will he fall victim to the Witchfinder General's cruel judgement?

While certain elements of the film haven't particularly aged well (like the abrupt scene transitions that rear their heads later in the film, or some of the more stilted cinematography), Witchfinder General possesses this blunt cruelty that remains effective to this day. The scenes where those suspected to be witches are tortured are haunting, with the lack of music and the refusal to sugar-coat anything only amplifying that.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't talk about the performances. Vincent Price is simply perfect as the dastardly Hopkins, possessing this menacing charisma that draws you in, but repulses you at the same time. Price felt like this was one of his best performances, and I have to agree with him. The other actors do a fine job as well. Russel really brings the horrible Stearne to life & you can't help but feel for Dwyer's Sarah. The only weak spot, at least for me, was Ogilvy's Marshall. While he delivers a solid performances, I felt some of his more emotional scenes fell a little flat (except the last scene, which was excellent).

Witchfinder General is an interesting relic of its time. Although it definitely shows its age in certain areas, I think its definitely worth a watch, especially if you enjoy films like The Blood of Satan's Claw or The Wicker Man (the original with Christopher Lee, not the hilariously awful remake with Nicholas Cage). If those aren't your cup of tea, you might want to skip this one.

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