In 1645, with England torn apart by civil war, the infamous witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) – an Ipswich lawyer who turned his back on the practice of law for the more lucrative practice of witchfinding (the prevailing rate for the successful conviction of a witch was three guineas) – roamed the country torturing and executing those suspected of witchcraft.
Beginning with a bone-chilling hanging scene amid the otherwise idyllic East Anglian landscape, Witchfinder General charts Hopkins’s brutal reign of terror through the villages of rural eastern England, creating a harrowing allegory on how pervasive superstition and distrust can provide fertile ground for the power-hungry.
Hopkins is a roving, predatory opportunist who travels from town to town with his thug-lackey John Stearne (Robert Russell), charging local magistrates to rid their parishes of witches.
If prospective victims have attractive wives or daughters, the vile Hopkins avails himself of the opportunity to bed them with false promises of leniency. Cold and relentless, the hypocrite Hopkins victimises old women and is quick to arrest those that dare denounce him.
Price plays it straight for once as the cynical religious maniac instigating torture and degradation for pleasure and profit in an intense study of pathological cruelty.
To obtain confessions, Stearne uses a spike to “probe for the devil’s spot.” Catch-22 word games ensure that both a confession and a refusal to confess are interpreted as guilt. The screaming victims are at first dispatched by drowning and hanging until Hopkins tries out the new continental method of burning on a pyre.
Brooding over these unhappy events is the shadow of Lord protector Cromwell (Patrick Wymark), whose puritanical beliefs provide an added impetus to witch-hunting and new charges to bring against the unfortunate accused.
Into this menace-charged atmosphere rides Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy). He is a young Roundhead soldier who takes the opportunity of a few days leave to visit his sweetheart Sara (Hilary Dwyer).
Sara is the niece of a kindly old village priest who has himself come under the frowning eyes of the puritans for his mild High Church leanings. Richard asks the hand of Sara in marriage and with the priest’s consent and blessing, rides off happily to rejoin his regiment.
But hatred and suspicion have been building up against the priest, and the dreaded Hopkins is secretly sent for by the hate-obsessed villagers. Sara’s happiness at her betrothal is short-lived, for the arrival of Hopkins see her uncle seized, tortured and thrown into a cell to await execution.
Sara knows the rules of this brutal era and she knows the price she will be called upon to pay if the old priest’s life is to be spared. Temporarily stifling her affection for Richard, she offers herself to the loathsome Hopkins . . .
Condemned on first release as extremely bloody and sadistic, this penetrating chronicle of the social evils at large during the English Civil War from director Michael Reeves is now an acknowledged horror classic and has a sense of time and location few British films have captured since.
Only 23 when he directed this, his second film, Director Michael Reeves died a few months after its release from an alcohol and drug overdose.
The film was released in some countries as The Conqueror Worm.
Trooper Robert Swallow