The Witchfinder-General of the title is Matthew Hopkins, a real-life individual who, during the English Civil War of the 1640s, was responsible for around twenty people being hanged as witches. Most had been forced to confess under torture. Although Hopkins was not, as he claimed, officially appointed to that position by Parliament, it is no coincidence that his activities took place in East Anglia, the most firmly Parliamentarian area of England. It is one of the ironies of history that the supposedly modern, democratic Parliamentarians were more likely to have a superstitious belief in witchcraft than were the supposedly more reactionary Royalists.
The film presents a fictionalised account of Hopkins's career, and takes some liberties with historical accuracy. The real Hopkins was only in his twenties at the time of these events, much younger than the middle-aged character portrayed by Vincent Price. He did not meet a violent end, but died of natural causes. His victims were all hanged; contrary to what is shown here death by burning was not used as a punishment for witchcraft in England. Apart from Hopkins the main character is Richard Marshall, an officer in Cromwell's army. He becomes involved when Hopkins arrests John Lowes, the vicar of Brandeston, Suffolk, and the uncle of Marshall's sweetheart Sara. Lowes is tortured to make him confess, but Hopkins promises to spare his life in exchange for sexual favours from Sara. Having obtained what he wants, Hopkins continues to torture Lowes and eventually has him executed. Marshall vows revenge on Hopkins and his sadistic assistant John Stearne. (Lowes and Stearne were both historical figures; Marshall and Sara are fictitious).
When the film was released in America, it was renamed "The Conqueror Worm" after the poem by Edgar Allen Poe. Although it has very little to do with that poem, this was done in order to suggest a connection with Roger Corman's cycle of films based on Poe's works, most of which also starred Price. Although "Witchfinder-General" does not form part of that cycle, it does have something in common with Corman's last Poe film, "The Tomb of Ligeia". Both films were shot on location in East Anglia and both make effective contrast between gloomy indoor scenes and shots of verdant English countryside. In "Witchfinder-General" the indoor scenes have a chiaroscuro feel, with dramatic contrasts of light and shadow. The outdoor scenes were shot in autumn, and although beautiful the autumnal colours add to the film's melancholy air.
There are also similarities with two films from the early seventies, Ken Russell's "The Devils" and Robin Hardy's "The Wicker Man". Russell is said to have disliked "Witchfinder-General", so there was presumably no conscious influence, but it is noteworthy that both films have a seventeenth-century setting, both were controversial because of graphic depictions of torture and execution and both are about the misuse of religion for political or personal ends. The real Hopkins may have been a fanatic who sincerely believed in the reality of witchcraft. The character portrayed by Price is a hypocrite who has taken up a career in witchfinding out of financial and sexual motives; he is well-paid for his services, and his position gives him numerous opportunities for blackmailing women.
Many horror films (such as the majority of entries in the Hammer series) ask the viewer to accept that evil supernatural forces are real. "Witchfinder-General" and "The Wicker Man" have many differences (the latter, for instance, has a contemporary setting), but both reject this position. In Michael Reeves's film, as in Hardy's, what is to be feared is not the supernatural but superstition, not witches, ghosts or demons but irrational beliefs which lead people to commit violent acts. The two films have been bracketed together as "the only two intelligent British horror films"; they are certainly the two most prominent rationalist British horror films.
"Witchfinder-General" was one of a number of British films from this period which could treat violent themes in a more explicit way, thanks to the gradual relaxation of censorship in the sixties, but this trend was not universally welcomed and the film aroused much controversy when it first came out. Some hailed it as a masterpiece which confirmed the promise Reeves had shown with his previous film, "The Sorcerers". Others, most notably Alan Bennett in "The Listener" ("the most persistently sadistic and morally rotten film I have seen"), condemned it for what they saw as excessive, even offensive, levels of violence. Today, we are more used to violence in the cinema than we were forty years ago, but some of the scenes depicted here still retain their power to shock. That, of course, was Reeves's intention- to shock us into thinking about the roots of violence. Bennett, who can at times be a perceptive writer, seems to have been particularly obtuse about this film. The events it depicts are sadistic and morally rotten. That does not mean that the film itself is.
The film is today often claimed as a classic of the British cinema, although I often feel that this may have as much to do with the tragedy of Reeves's death from an overdose the following year as it does with its intrinsic merits. Much of the film's success is due to Vincent Price, and Reeves can take little credit for this. He wanted to cast Donald Pleasence as Hopkins, but was overruled by the film's American backers who wanted a more established star. Reeves and Price took a strong dislike to one another, and there are many stories about their clashes on set. Nevertheless, Price gives an excellent performance as a man who, like Hitler, is evil and yet nevertheless commanding, authoritative and charismatic. This film, despite its historic setting, can also be seen as a comment on the politics of the twentieth century, and still remains relevant in the twenty-first. 7/10