28th Jun2011

‘Witchfinder General’ Blu-ray Review

by Paul Metcalf

Stars: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies | Written by Michael Reeves, Tom Baker | Directed by Michael Reeves

When England was going through the civil war between the Royalists and Roundheads what is the last thing you would think the country needs? That’s right witches. That’s why they needed the self-appointed Witchfinder to scour the countryside hunting down the people with the devils mark, the witches that are ruining the country with their wicked ways and their evil work against God. Well that’s what people like Matthew Hopkins wanted to be believed anyway.

Witchfinder General takes the historical and infamous figure of Matthew Hopkins and his partner in crime John Stearne as they move from village to village creating fear and paranoia in the people as they hunted down the “witches”, which normally meant torturing a confession out of them leading to death by hanging (if they did not die from the torture first. For each witch that was found the men are paid a wealthy sum making them rich men, and also men of influence based on fear. After the execution of a priest as a witch Hopkins and Stearne become the enemies of Richard Marshall a Roundhead soldier who is engaged to be married to the priest’s niece. This results in a chase around the country side of England as Marshall looks for vengeance and Hopkins and Stearne look for a way to be rid of the soldier by any means necessary.

There is no doubt about it Witchfinder General is a classic, especially as it is now digitally re-mastered and on Blu-ray. The colours are now vibrant and full of life, even though this is a problem for me as the blood used is too red, almost orange in colour but this of course is typical of horror movies at this time. This does not distract from the movie itself but it is an example of where High Definition does lead us to notice things that we may have over looked in past versions. The picture quality really is superb though.

This is Vincent Price’s movie, there is no doubt about it. As the Witchfinder he steals every scene, creating a character who relishes in the power he has created for himself with his reign of terror over the villagers he victimises. The character of Hopkins along with Stearne are corrupt, using the fear of witchcraft as a money making scheme which is the true evil in this movie. There is no real proof of any witches, just villagers who are picked out to be believably guilty and easy to torture. Hopkins himself hardly takes part in the torture leaving that to Stearne who relishes in the sadistic interrogation of the so called witches. It’s interesting to note though that the methods used in the movie are historically accurate as in the time Hopkins and Stearne were on their witch hunts they employed the methods we see to extracts the truths that they want, which of course are lies. Yes, this is a work of fiction and never tries to be any more than what it is but it is still based on the two conmen who used peoples fear for profit. It makes for an interesting experience, especially knowing innocent victims actually died because of people like this.

As noted before this movie is a classic. Now with a new commentary track exclusive to the Blu-Ray, it’s interesting to listen to the history of the movie itself and how there was tension between Price and the director Michael Reeves. This comes as a surprise really as unlike with other movies where it actually was detrimental to have such tensions there is no weakness in the direction or acting, it’s a very professionally made movie from both sides. I would argue though that the end does feel rushed, the confrontation between the soldier and witchfinders should have been longer with Hopkins himself going through more torture as a punishment for his crimes. I do like the fact though that this movie never uses witchcraft itself as an evil thing but as a tool for manipulation, and not by the so called witches themselves but by the people who have taken it upon themselves to hunt down the witches. It is a tale which in my opinion is one of the best of its kind starring one of the best horror actors that ever graced our screens and you can’t get much better than that.

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