Vincent Price has become famous for his portrayal of the ruthless and the sinister, but no example suits this description better than his depiction of Matthew Hopkins in the 1968, Michaels Reeves movie, Witch finder General.
It’s the English Civil War and there’s a bloody battle going on between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists, and during this bloody war Mathew Hopkins has a similarly bloody career being the ruthless witch finder of eastern Britain. His career consists of hunting down, torturing and killing those whom are accused of witchery. By Hopkins’s side is his sadistic accomplice John Sterne (Robert Russell); together they torture a good number of the accused (followed by a hanging; or in one case a burning). But after Hopkins and Sterne kill a priest , Richard Marshell – played by Ian Orgilvy – who is engaged to the priest’s niece (Sarah Lowes, played by Hilary Heath); seeks to take revenge – by attempting to murder Sterne and Hopkins.
While this film is based upon the true story of Matthew Hopkins, it’s hardly depicted in a manner that takes in to account the full history behind the real life witch finder, though a fair amount of the historical content is true (like the involvement of John Sterne or the time of which the story takes place).
This films falls under the short-lived sub-genre, folk-horror; other films that fall under this genre are Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Wickerman, The Devil Rides Out, Wakewood, just to name a few. This sub-genre takes the some of the conventions of horror, mixes them with heavy religious themes and places them is country-side setting. Witch finder General is easily my favourite Folk-horror movie (even if some think that rating this higher than Wickerman is blasphemy). Price’s depiction of Hopkins is near flawless, his performance creates a terrifying mood and his actions seem to be very questionable, as he says that he is doing the lord’s work yet his methods seem to be used in a way to satisfy his own needs.
The scenes of murder are pretty original and fresh, none of the kills seem over the top (which really suits this film well). Nor are the kills un-original, the director took old witch-finding techniques and placed them perfectly into this film allowing for a very different approach; the scene of a "witch" being burned is easily one of the most memorial moments in horror film history.
Without spoiling the ending I will simply say this: it’s pretty damn creepy. It contains some fairly graphic scenes of murder and torture; but what follows the murder is the most impactful. The final shot is a women screaming and when the films stops to roll in the credits, the screaming continues; this gives a very haunting presence that will continue to haunt after you remove the VHS from its player (it's very similar to the ending of The Devil’s Rain).
This film is fantastic, it contains some truly outstanding performances, as-well-as some brilliantly gruesome moments of horror and, on top of that, the film has a haunting atmosphere that will stick to you. It’s a real shame that this does not have the same following as other horror films like Friday the 13th or Frankenstein, as in my opinion; this film is in league with the best films horror cinema has to offer.