Witchfinder General (15)

Francis Williams went to see the Tyneside Cinema's special screening of cult classic Witchfinder General - has it survived the test of time?

23rd November 2015

I have never seen a film quite like Witchfinder General. This 1968 epic (if you can call it that) follows the true-ish story of self-proclaimed Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and his ale-filled assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) in the English Civil War.

They set out across Republican East Anglia, occasionally bumping into Parliament’s troops or the odd Royalist sniper, as they ride from village to village in search of “witches”. The soldiers try to catch the King before he can flee to France, but are distracted by Richard (Ian Ogilvy)’s quest to save his fiancé Sara (Hilary Heath) from death.

How do you prove who’s a witch? The answer, as Hopkins would have you believe, is deceptively simple: you stab them. In the back. After that drown them a little, but not enough to kill them; you want to save the body for a good hanging or burning. The film at times blows reality out of all proportions, with Hopkins acting as judge, jury and executioner. In every death, blood is ubiquitous. Blood made of red paint, that is.

"in every death, blood is ubiquitous. blood made of red paint, of course."

The bizarre nature of this film wasn’t wasted on the audience, who satirically laughed at every opportunity (even the hangings). At least half of the film consisted of men on horseback riding through Kent’s green and pleasant countryside. For the rest, some poor peasant was being tortured, or the soldiers were abusing women in a village tavern. A prolonged sex scene is also a bit unnecessary, especially when the couple had just been encouraged by the fiancé’s uncle (who by the way is also the village Priest) moments earlier.

Alan Bennett has unfairly described the film as “the most persistently sadistic and morally rotten film I have seen”. His description is accurate; the unintentionally humorous moments created by Marshall and Russell’s terrible acting can’t rescue their god-awful 17th- century haircuts. The film is just about worth of 80 minutes of your time (but little more).

Rating: 4/10

More like this: A Field in England (2013)

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