Witchfinder General is a British horror film from 1968, starring Vincent Price in the title role, Matthew Hopkins, the self appointed ‘Witchfinder General’. Much has been said of the legacy of the film, for me it is one of my all time top horror films.

It is a truly terrifying film, that is funnily enough not really even about witches at all, simply their trials and cruel eventual deaths. It’s frightening mainly for it’s portrayal of a completely credible character in Matthew Hopkins, over 400 years ago, as a nihilistic, selfish and completely exploitative modern villain. Hopkins’ assistant, John Stearn is a northern beefcake of a man who is obviously reliant on the silver tongue of his boss to convince townsfolk of the pending threat of witches, yet he is himself,  physically very tough and imposing, something Hopkins relies on to beat confessions out of the accused. The duo make a formidable team, two men legally rampaging around the quiet British countryside, ripping off townsfolk, torturing innocents till they confess, and enjoying sex and other bribes to save loved ones, all to no eventual avail.

It’s a horror film in the most basic sense of the word, and oddly not because of the scenes of extreme torture and execution which are seen very casually throughout. Scenes which would usually be disgusting in their own right, but instead become completely engrossing due to the way they are viewed impassively  by gathering crowds who watch disinterested and wearily downbeaten. This is a completely surreal view of utterly repellent acts, acts that are no doubt necessities to rid the town of witches, or more likely, to rid it of the marauding and imposing Hopkins, a much more evil and malevolent force than any ‘demonic’ entity.

More than that though, Witchfinder succeeds on a level where few ‘supernatural’ (I use that word very loosely, here) horror films ever have done. It’s subtle political and social commentary on societal breakdown is more relevant today than it was in 1968. Set during the bloody English civil war of the 1600’s, Hopkins’ character is allowed to quickly rise the ranks from clergyman’s son, to up-and coming county lawyer, to trusted and righteous member of British society. His work, he claims, is for good, as he embarks on a one man crusade of utter depravity and cruelty. The historical setting is interesting and of course beautiful and relevant, but serves really as a reference point for the film; a society in meltdown with no true sense of morality, and blurred boundaries of good and evil. A society that has produced a cynical and exploitative conman who is so evil and so utterly believable that it is shocking to think that humans could ever sink so low.

It’s worth watching for Vincent Price’s powerhouse performance alone, a calm, convincing man in high authority who is also a brilliant liar, a threatening menace, a clever and inventive trickster, and a sadistic bastard, who doesn’t like to get his hands dirty personally. Price is probably my favourite horror actor ever, known for his camp overacting and overly dramatic voice usually, Price was allegedly bullied by young film making Michael Reeves to tone down his style in order to play the deadly serious role of Hopkins. The fact a character like this could have existed in the 1600’s isn’t something that’s particularly pleasant to think about, but it’s nothing if completely believable. The horror on display is a disconcertingly human one; why was 17th century Britain so gullible? How could they allow such brutality to happen? Why would no one stop it? Who on Earth would trust a bastard like Matthew Hopkins?

The most terrifying aspect of all is that we all inevitably share an essence of the disgusting Hopkins; a man not swayed by morality or his clearly irreligious beliefs, instead solely motivated by his own personal greed and apathy for others. The fact we haven’t seemingly grown as a species for over 400 years serves to suggest that maybe ‘the will to succeed’ of Hopkins, and his dog eat dog attitude, means that he’d probably do pretty well for himself in the 21st century, exploiting the weak for his own material gain, something that sounds a lot like modern capitalism. His use of religion as a shield and threat (at one point attempting to dispose of main character and his antagonist Richard by casually proclaiming him as a witch) may seem absolutely absurd and completely over the top now, but rest assured, radical and fundamentalist faith is on the rise now, more so than ever. Man’s inhumanity to man is no different now than it was then, a sad thought.