Over the years, Vincent Price had starred in many a film and none are more celebrated than his roles in the horror genre. Though there was never one particular role that he was associated with other than being Vincent Price, a role that many would envy, Dr. Phibes could be considered as one as could the man he would play in this film – Matthew Hopkins, the witchfinder. Of course, there had been films about witches before, but this movie would use a different tact when tackling the subject and instead would focus upon the man who would be doing the seeking and punishing of said practitioners of the black arts. Though the movie was panned when it was originally released, due in part to the violence of it all and whatnot and most thinking it an exercise in sadism among other things, it is now regarded as one of the best horror films to have ever been released and to this day, still stands the test of time.
So it is that the film follows Matthew Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne as they make their way across the countryside, persecuting suspected witches for the local magistrates. Both take a sort of glee in the proceedings, Hopkins more reserved than Stearne, and at the end of the day, you come to realize that it is all for a money-grab and not to protect the local citizenry from any sort of witchcraft whatsoever. When Hilary Dwyer’s character Sara enters the picture though, it signals the beginning of the end for the witchfinder and his man for she has a husband in Ian Ogilivy who plays Richard Marshall and he does not take too well to the fact that she was raped and assaulted, not to mention the torturing and hanging of her uncle who also happened to be a priest.
Whether you happened to watch the film in 1968 when it was released or just yesterday, the actions that take place under the witchfinder’s purview are quite brutal in nature. In 1968 especially, you can see how general audiences might have shied away from the film with its sometimes graphic depiction of torture, one scene particularly standing out being the burning of one suspected witch. Directed by Michael Reeves, he had no qualms about showing the horror of it all, the actions of the men being downright repugnant and all in the name of God and the law. When you take the scenes into context within the larger story of the film though, you need to have them as they convey the true horror of it all. It could most likely have been toned down, but all of these scenes pack a punch and sometimes that is what is needed to really bring the message across to the viewer.
Price was fantastic as he always managed to be. Reportedly, there were quite a few clashes between director and actor, yet despite the problems they might have had with each other, Price managed to turn in one of his finest performances ever seen on film. As with most of the roles Price would take, he always tended to overact just a little, more so in his later years and it is one of the things that people tended to love about the man. He never seemed really serious whether as a hero or villain because he was so over-the-top. This film and his character Matthew Hopkins under the direction of Reeves were one of the few that saw him give the role a little subtlety. It was not something the man would do very often, but it lent an air of gravity to his performance and it made the man far more frightening than he would have been otherwise. Also starring would be Ian Ogilvy as the hero, Dwyer as his love interest and Rupert Davies as the doomed priest. Surprisingly, there were no weak links in the chain in this picture, everyone performing quite well and in tandem with each other. The movie of course belonged to Price, but you had to appreciate those who supported him as well.
Whether this was Price’s greatest film is up to debate, but it is among his very best and it is easy to see why. There are not too many times where you could say that Price was menacing and truly scary, but you could here and Witchfinder General will always be remembered because of that.
5 out of 5