Witchfinder General (1968)
By: Julian on June 21, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Umbrella Entertainment (Australia). All Regions, PAL. 1.78:1 (16:9 ehnanced). English DD 2.0 mono, English DD 2.0 mono. 82 minutes
The Movie
Director: Michael Reeves
Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Hilary Dwyer, Robert Russell
Screenplay: Tom Baker
Music: Paul Ferris
Tagline: He'll hang, burn and mutilate you. He's the... witchfinder general
Country: UK
Regularly referred to as the best horror film Hammer never made, Witchfinder General is set in the bad-old days of 1645 in the middle of the British Civil War. It is this breakdown of law and order that Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) takes advantage of, and, appointing himself Witchfinder General, he goes from town to town torturing confessions out of suspected witches and then burning them at the stake. John Stearne, a malicious partner of his, accompanies Hopkins, and the two men make a small fortune out of their dubious profession. On one of their witch-hunts, the duo incarcerate and torture John Lowes, a local priest. Hopkins only relents when Lowes' niece Sara (Hilary Dwyer) offers him sexual favours. The next day, Hopkins leaves the village, leaving Sara and Lowes under the care of Stearne, who rapes the former and continues to torture the priest. When Hopkins returns and realises what Stearne has done, he hangs Lowes and two suspected 'witches' before escaping the village.

Richard Marshall, a young Parliamentarian fighter who is engaged to Sara, returns to the town to discover what has happened. Disgusted, he marries Sara and vows to find and destroy the evil crusade of Hopkins and Stearne, who are continuing their reign of terror across England.

Considered to be one of the most sadistic films to ever come out of Britain, Witchfinder General is one of those movies that has a nasty reputation that is entirely undeserving. The film hasn't aged too well, and while many cult fans may disagree, this is a terribly overrated picture. It does, however, showcase what is probably Vincent Price's best performance, and it is rumoured that director Reeves had a number of spectacular arguments with him on set. Reeves himself had previously directed three horror films before Witchfinder, and he died of a drug overdose (which was later rumoured to have been suicide) in 1969, aged just 26.
Presented in the 1:78:1 aspect ratio with 16x9 enhancement, Witchfinder General looks surprisingly good for a movie of its age, with a few permissible film artifacts that don't detract from the overall picture. For those watching the uncut version, these scenes have been restored from what appears to be a VHS, and there is a marked difference in quality. These scenes would be in total of about a full minute.
The audio in Witchfinder General is very, very poor. There are two soundtracks – a Dolby Digital mono and an identical Dolby Digital mono soundtrack. Both are as bad as each other, with no proportion given to voice, music and background sound. I frequently found myself turning up the volume to full-pelt in one scene, then frantically turning it down in the next. This isn't helped by the fact that there are no English subtitles.
Extra Features
Umbrella has, as usual, performed well in the extras department. First of all, they give us an option to view the feature both in cut and uncut form. There's a theatrical trailer, ten-minute comprehensive image gallery, a tribute music video of a metal band and the usual Umbrella propaganda (with trailers for The Stepfather, Cradle of Fear, and Shallow Grave). The cream of the crop is a twenty-three minute retrospective on Michael Reeves entitled Blood Beast and, for fans of Witchfinder or Reeve in general, this is a definitive doco that's well worth watching.
The Verdict
I had heard a lot about Witchfinder General before picking it up, so inevitably I feel that this is a vastly overrated picture. The sadism that is oft spoken of may have been pervasive in the sixties, but it has little impact today and the film's R-rating could mislead those looking for a grisly night in. Generally,Witchfinder General hasn't dated well and lacks the sheer watchability of similar films of its era. This is especially true of the film's dramatic element. Diehard fans of British horror can buy with confidence, but for the rest of us this makes for a rental at best.
Movie Score
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