Top positive review
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A real classic
on 26 September 2016
A tale of brutality in the name of righteousness as perpetrated by the real life witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins and his followers during the English Civil War. Uneasy viewing, but fascinating also, as the barbarity shown is very likely how Hopkins actually sought out his victims and dealt with them. It was a bad era in which to find oneself in the wrong place at the wrong time, as discovered by a young soldier and the love of his life caught up in the mayhem. These two leading characters may be fictitious, but the background is much nearer the truth, as explained very illuminatingly in one of the many “extras” within the Blu-ray package.
This Blu-ray version certainly doesn’t lack the excesses depicted in the film’s original theatrical release, fully justified in my opinion in order to describe realistically an uncomfortable period of British history. Dating from the late 1960s, “Witchfinder General” may not contain the pacey shock-horror treatment expected by today’s audiences, but surely it’s the drawing out of the scenes containing physical and mental torment that helps to make the film so haunting. Full marks to the talented and sadly short-lived young director for his imaginative treatment and lasting impact that still sends shudders up my spine nearly fifty years after seeing it in the cinema. To label it solely as a “horror” film, though, may be unjustly demeaning; there’s more to it than that.
Technically, the quality of both picture and sound is very good, considering that this relatively small scale production has not undergone a full restoration. Just a few minor flashes and sparkles here and there on the vision, probably little more than what would have been visible on an early release print. The audio is in original mono, but pleasantly intelligible; in those days before optical stereo tracks existed, multi-channel audio was reserved for “bigger” productions using large format or anamorphic prints carrying 6-track or 4-track magnetic sound but, had a suitable system been available for “Witchfinder General”, it’s questionable whether the film would have benefited from it except for enhancing the lush music.
The acting may be a trifle studied compared with modern realism, but there is a strong cast. Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins almost underplays the ruthlessness of his character who thinks he’s only doing a good job, but comes across as just about the nastiest anti-hero ever – arguably his finest film role. Even nastier is Hopkins’ aide John Stearne, most convincingly played by prolific bit-part actor Robert Russell (not to be confused with a modern namesake), exuding venom mercilessly. Ian Ogilvy as the hero soldier may be recognizable more as the actor who took over the TV role of Simon Templar (“The Saint”) from Roger Moore a decade later. Amongst others, Rupert Davies played a memorable TV Maigret in the early 1960s, Wilfrid Brambell was the dad in the long-running TV comedy series “Steptoe and Son”, and Peter Haigh in another life presented the cinema-going series “Picture Parade” on television and “Movie Go Round” on the radio. Some of us will remember them well.