Witchfinder General (U.K., 1968) * * *
D: Michael Reeves
Now here is an altogether different kind of horror film. Sure, it's part of a short-lived horror subgenre--the sadistic witch-torturing film--but it's unique in that the "horror" is in what it reveals about the depravities of which all humans are capable, be they heroes, villains, or mesmerized onlookers. On the surface, it is almost an historical adventure of the Sir Walter Scott variety. During the days of Cromwell, the dashing soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) rides to vengeance when his woman, Sarah (Hilary Dwyer), is raped and abused by the witch-hunting "lawyer"Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and his assistant Stearne (Robert Russell). To the stirring "Romanza" by film composer Paul Ferris, he rides after his enemies with a sword at his side. But this is after half an hour in which he is absent, and we brace ourselves while Sarah's uncle is falsely accused, tortured, nearly drowned, and finally hanged. Even more squirm-worthy is her exploitation by the chauvenist Hopkins, who agrees to trade her uncle's life for a night with the girl--until he later learns that Stearne has raped her, thus apparently devaluing the bargain. Reeves spares us little, and while there would be more graphic and sadistic films of this variety, he does mind focusing the camera upon the piercing of needles and the flowing of blood. Richard only arrives when the witch-hunter's work is complete, and Sarah is emotionally decimated. It is then that, rather than turn Sarah away as spoiled goods (which she clearly expects), he grabs her by the hand, drags her to the desecrated altar, and before God marries her and vows his revenge. For a spell, the film flirts with Sergio Leone: when he confronts Stearne in a tavern, you half-expect Ennio Morricone whistling to rise on the soundtrack. Instead, there are a few twists and turns, bloody betrayals, and close-calls--even a brief meeting with Oliver Cromwell himself--before a showdown in a dungeon that finds a way to both deliver the expected vengeance and sour the triumph by making it unexpectedly brutal and shocking. The film ends in hysteria and screams, as though the torturing by the Witchfinder General has never ceased. Although this is a pulpy treatment of the witch-hunt theme, several steps below Arthur Miller, the Joans-of-Arc of Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson, and even the overlooked Czech film Witches' Hammer of a year later, it is nonetheless an impressive example of what an intelligent horror film can be. Vincent Price, as always, delivers an impeccable performance, but this is the rare occasion in which the material rises to meet him.