Vincent Price is a legend, a denomination that sits at the crossroads between ‘absolute legend’ and ‘legendary actor’. He is more than just a legendary actor and perhaps less than absolute legend in the humble opinion of this writer, the latter denomination being reserved to Buster Keaton, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda and maybe a couple others (Christopher Lee). Yet, his name alone strikes fear, awe, excitement and reverence into the hearts of film buffs of all ages, languages and creeds. Despite that, I found myself realising with consternation that I had never seen Witchfinder General, a film so inherently perfect for Vincent Price’s star persona that one cannot imagine anyone else in the role. His quiet, polite yet absolutely evil and almost psychopathic Matthew Hopkins stands out as one of the most powerful and disturbing performances of the last century.
Directed by Michael Reeves, this film is a great example of “less is more” when it comes to acting. Vincent Price plays villainous Matthew Hopkins, a real-life witchfinder who in just three years killed around 300 people considered to be witches, most of them women. Witchfinder General finds Hopkins touring the country looking for witches and getting paid for each killing committed. The charges are of course trumped up and in this Civil War ridden England law does not mean justice. Law is as corrupt as the men enforcing it and it sits above chivalry and even above religion. This is readily apparent when a priest is accused of witchcraft. The reasons for his elimination are unclear, and yet he soon hangs. Indeed, the plot of the film is not as strong as Vincent Price’s performance and we feel that every moment he is not on-screen is a moment wasted, for his presence is as magnetic and exhilarating as it is filled with danger. Price’s Hopkins is an insidious character, devoid of any endearing traits. We find ourselves unable to identify with him, yet we cannot look away. He is corrupt, but stylish, like a 17th century painting come to life. He is cunning, impenetrable, unrelatable but ultimately fierce and fearsome. He acts as if he had a protective cloak shielding him from the uneducated masses and even from the blade of virtuous soldiers, as if he knows he cannot be killed, regardless of how corrupt he may be.
The film may be regarded as a veiled satire addressed at the institution of the Church, yet the characters presented in contrast with the monstrous yet poised and perhaps even suave Hopkins have little redeeming features, not enough to be considered heroic. Ian Ogilvy’s Richard Marshall and Hilary Heath’s Sara are unfortunate lovers whose peace is disrupted when Sara’s uncle, a priest, is charged with witchcraft, tortured and hanged. They are the heroes with whom the audiences’ sympathies should lie. Unfortunately, they remain rather simple characters while Hopkins and his side-kick Stearne, a less sophisticated version of Hopkins himself, terrorise East Anglia with quiet and unrelentless devotion and spine-chilling precision. Matthew Hopkins resembles a surgeon with his trademark white gloves, who instead of saving lives, condemns them to long, painful deaths.
Hopkins’ partner, Stearne has much less of an imposing presence on-screen. However, the essence of his evil character matches that of Hopkins. He is uneducated, coarse, brutal and loud, announcing from the beginning the type of person he is: a one-dimensional mercenary. Although dangerous, he is the danger one can see coming. The difference between him and Hopkins is made evident through the way both interact with Sara. While Hopkins need only glance in Sara’s way to make himself understood that he wants to bed her, Stearne has to take Sara by force. Sara understands who is the more powerful of the two men and yields to Hopkins in the hope that he will spare the life of her uncle. Stearne covets her too, but he finds he has to rape her, his seduction game lacking.
Hopkins, on the other hand, resembles an almost silent assassin, one who has the law on his side. Price’s almost charismatic villain who loves to torture and maim while remaining unaffected, perhaps even smiling might serve as the perfect villainous pattern for another bone-chilling polite yet deadly screen evil: Delores Umbridge, portrayed with exquisite wickedness by Imelda Staunton. One wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Staunton used Price as an inspiration for the role.
Surprising to find out that Price was not the first choice for the role of Hopkins, a role which he embodies with a silent dignity which stems from the confidence that the law is on his side and that he is untouchable. Through his clothes, posture and speech, Price’s Hopkins is a perfect gentleman on the surface, the embodiment of the upstanding moral citizen. He doesn’t show the viewer what he takes pleasure in, but through the graphic details of torture, murder and rape, one can understand how the vileness, depravity and sadism are externalised. What is also surprising is that in a film rife with screams of pain and death, when death comes to Matthew Hopkins, he doesn’t utter a word or a scream. He is almost inhumanely evil, which makes his presence all the more chilling.
The film is filled with seemingly gratuitous torture scenes, which were not well received at the time of the film’s release. However, I believe they help depict the real-life atmosphere of terror that reigned over England during the Civil War years and what it fails to achieve through the costumes and set pieces, it makes up for in gore. There’s a reason this film has gained a cult following since its release in 1968 and it has perhaps less to do with the production value and more to do with the screen presence of an acting giant.