Last September I went to a conference in Belfast on folk horror. The programme notes mentioned this film as being a key item in the folk horror canon, so I watched it on DVD beforehand. The film features Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General. Hopkins is a real historical figure who hunted witches in the chaotic period of the English Civil War. The film presents a lurid version of these events. It is ambiguous (at least initially) as to whether Hopkins is a sincere enemy of witchcraft or self-seeking cynic happily exploiting the superstitions of the gullible to advance himself. I gather Price was a controversial choice for the role but his odd looks and permanently ironic expression work well here. Hopkins is the villain, with Ian Ogilvy playing the protagonist, a Parliamentarian cavalryman who becomes locked in a vendetta with him.
The film was apparently controversial when it first appeared, because the violence it contains is a bit ramped up from the usual Hammer fare. I could imagine the sexual violence being problematic even now (a woman lets herself be debauched by Hopkins in a futile attempt to save her father from him and is later raped by the witch hunter's thuggish assistant). Some of the violence does seem to thrown in for voyeuristic thrills, like the completely ahistorical scene in which one of Hopkins' victims is burned to death (as far as I can make out, witches were always executed by hanging; burning at the stake was the punishment for heretics in Catholic countries and even that brutal method of execution was not used in the ridiculously elaborate manner Hopkins uses).
Yet the violence is not just for seedy thrills, as it can serve to advance the story and show the development (or atavistic regression) of character. The film ends with the cavalryman killing Hopkins (spoilers), but it is not after a brave fight. Instead the cavalryman bursts upon Hopkins and kills him with an axe in a frenzied attack. The film ends with the cavalryman's wife screaming, not because of the torture she was suffering only a few minutes before but at the sight of her husband transformed into a vengeful maniac.
Immediately after watching the film I thought it a piece of enjoyable schlock, with Price's over-the-top performance important here. But I have found that it stays in the mind and has a lingering power. For all its schlockiness and willingness to play fast and loose with history, it is a fascinating view into a world where social norms have broken down and people are happy to kill random strangers in order to advance their goals.
I do not know what the real Matthew Hopkins would have made of the film. Although there were rumours that he was murdered by someone related to his victims (as in the film) or even executed as a witch himself after failing one of his tests, it seems that he died of tuberculosis at the young age of 27. In just two years he seems to have had executed some 300 people, mostly women; some researchers estimate these as being some 60% of all the people ever executed for witchcraft in England.
image source (a piece in the Guardian by Alex von Tunzelmann, assessing the film for historical accuracy)
The film's trailer: