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Monday, December 14, 2015

Witchfinder General (1968)

The Celluloid Zeroes were going to celebrate Thanksgiving with some movies about vengeful witches, but I got horribly sick and it was delayed until the first weekend in December. Click on the various other Zeroes' links on the right to check out their sites and see what they've reviewed for this event.

Written by Tom Baker (not that one) and Michael Reeves, based on a novel by Ronald Bassett
Directed by Michael Reeves

Vincent Price:  Matthew Hopkins
Robert Russell:  John Stearne
Ian Ogilvy:  Richard Marshall
Hilary Heath:  Sara Lowes

There were two ways I saw to go when I wanted to write this review. One of them is to praise Vincent Price for his performance here. It is, without a doubt, the best work I've seen from him (out of the, let's say, 30 or 35 of his movies that I've watched). He refrains from his usual actor tricks in this one and he never lets on that it's all just a harmless thrill ride (like so many of his other horror roles). Instead, he plays Matthew Hopkins as an abject monster in a human skin, a man who despises himself for his appetites and loathes the society he lives in for being too terrified to stand up to him when he comes looking for witches. It's a complete departure from the typical Vincent Price role and if you're only familiar with the arch and campy "Dr. Phibes" kind of performance from the actor, this movie will serve as a total revelation of just what he was capable of when given the right part and the right direction.

The other way I could have gone would be to mention that witch hunts don't ever really find witches, but they're fantastic at finding expendable people that can be punished horribly as an object lesson so that everyone else in a given society keeps their heads down, does what they're told, and never tries to defy the current societal power structure. And unfortunately that's a lesson that people in America seem to keep on re-teaching, over and over and over. After a certain tipping point, the reality of witches (communists, Satanist baby-killers, secret jihadists, etc.) working secretly in the dark is irrelevant. All that matters is that everyone who could speak out in defense of an unpopular persecuted minority is too terrified of being linked with them to speak so the ambulance-chasing dickheads who want to get powerful, rich and famous can operate with total impunity. I'd elaborate about the open sewer of American politics at the end of 2015 here, but...let's be honest. If you're reading this you're already thinking of the same people I am. If I keep listing examples of assholes being assholes while trying to keep their boot on the neck of an unpopular religious minority I'll never get to the movie review and I'll just be hurting my own feelings.

One last thing, before I get to the film itself:  You may well have noticed that the poster isn't for a movie called Witchfinder General; it's for a movie with the same title as a work of Edgar Allan Poetry. Well, when this movie was made in the UK it was named Witchfinder General, as that's a reference to a genuine historical personage from England. But here in the States people tended not to know who Matthew Hopkins was, so a new title got slapped on the movie in the hopes that people would think it was another Roger Corman / Vincent Price / Edgar Allan Poe movie. It isn't. If you go into it expecting one, you're just going to get your feelings hurt. But if you're ready for something that was made to speak to Western society when it was busy tearing at itself like a wolf trying to bite through its own leg,'re gonna have yourself a time.

The first thing you see on the screen is a field sparsely populated with sheep. The first thing you hear is a carpenter assembling a gallows with a mallet. And the first human voice is a woman screaming in pain and fear. This movie was meant to be an assault on the audience's sensibilities from literally thirty seconds in. A priest follows the woman (who is being dragged to her death by a group of peasants), droning on about the apocalypse. There's a long shot that shows just how far this poor woman is going to be dragged to her execution and the lynching victim keeps screaming wordlessly through the entire scene. It's pretty hard to take (and nearly half a century ago, this must have come across like a slap in the face from the director). The stately and classy Hammer Studios' films have just been consigned to the ash heap of history. A couple burly guys get the noose around the woman's neck and (after a nod from the priest) kick the stool out from under the woman's feet. With a snap and the creaking of the rope, all voices in the film cease and the hanging party goes back to town silently. I'm guessing some of them are glad the "witch" won't plague them any more and others are merely relieved that it wasn't their turn to be hanged at the whim of the town priest.

Roll credits (hey, this one is from the English C-list Tigon studio!). Vincent Price gets top billing, as well he should. But once we get into the technical credits the images on screen are screaming faces in grainy black and white (and one face that might well be laughing). If people were expecting a romp on the order of Peter Cushing conquering death, well...they weren't going to get it. This film came out the same year as Night of the Living Dead, and it instills the same sensation in a viewer that nothing is ever going to be okay again.

Over a shot of a tree-studded field, a narrator hips the clueless Americans in the audience (all of us) that the story takes place during the English Civil War of 1645. The Royalists support King Charles and the Roundheads are backing Oliver Cromwell, but what it mostly means is that any sources of law and order above the town--or maybe county--level in England are busy kicking the shit out of each other over hill and dale. Individual judges, priests or land owners get to act however they want, as the king and Cromwell are off struggling for control of the nation. With those two very big cats away, the rats are coming out to play as much as they like. The narrator does say that justice is being done at some points on the map, but just as haphzardly and randomly as injustice. And in this climate of terror, uncertainty and chaos, "the likes of Matthew Hopkins take full advantage of the situation".

What advantage is he taking? Well, it turns out that bumpkins and rubes in 1645 in England are really worried about witches doing evil supernatural stuff to them. Hopkins goes from town to town, walking the Earth like Caine in Kung Fu. When he gets to a place that might have witches, he tortures people into confessing that they are in league with Satan and then ends their lives. He's doing this "with the full blessing of what law there is," according to that narrator. And what a wonderful turn of phrase that dude has. Hopkins claimed to be acting as "Witchfinder General" for the country, but at least according to Wikipedia he was never granted that title or office. And for all the grandeur of his title, Hopkins is confining himself to East Anglia rather than going to and fro over the entirety of England, and walking up and down on it.

Some characters that do something other than quote Scripture, get killed or murder someone in the name of righteousness show up now. A Roundhead patrol on horseback makes its way across a field in England. Richard Marshall, one of the soldiers, takes a little good-natured chaffing from another guy about Sara, his special girl back home in whatever village he's from. Their commanding officer tells the two to shut up while they're on the move, and then calls a rest just in range of a royalist with a gun. One of the Roundheads is shot out of the saddle and the other soldiers head off in search of the ambushers (the scene of men in bright red clothing walking through the woods made me realize how ill-prepared Cromwell's forces seem to be for asymmetrical warfare). Richard's stuck holding the horses while the other men go out of sight and he just hears the conflict that follows (putting him and the audience in the same situation). Marshall winds up saving his CO's life when he spots a wounded but not yet dead Royalist with a gun and shoots him before the man can kill the man with the plume in his helmet.

Saving your CO's life turns out to be good for a weekend pass out of the war, so Richard is going to go back home to the map-speck village of Brandeston and see his girl, Sara. The other soldiers razz him about his plans for the two day pass, but it's pretty obvious that they'd swap places with him in an instant. Richard makes his way home (and I got impressed by the way the director and cinematographer made sure nothing from 1968 appeared in the shot; it can't be easy making a historical epic on a low budget). John Lowes, the town's priest, greets him happily and questions Richard about his experiences in the war. Then he shifts gears and asks if the young man would want to marry his niece Sara and take her away from Brandeston (and to a bustling metropolis like Ipswich).

Turns out that there's more than one way to get killed during the war--true, Brandeston is tiny enough that the Royalist soldiers aren't quartered there, but with so little law and order in the country any son of a bitch willing to throw his weight around can do whatever he likes. And the vicar realizes that one such SOB is coming for his town. When that happens, he wants Sara as far away from the village as possible. And then who should show up at the church sanctuary but Sara herself? Her uncle takes off (after gently hinting that he's expecting supper at the usual hour, which is probably the least sanctimonious way possible to say "do not have sex with your boyfriend right now") and Richard tells his girl that her uncle has consented to their marriage. Notice that he doesn't ask Sara about this; the more charitable view, which I happen to think is also the true one, is that Sara and Richard already planned to get hitched, so getting the priest's okay was a formality more than a transfer of property (Sara) from her uncle to her husband.

And Sara's delighted to get that news, running over to embrace Richard and then chiding him for his roughness (blaming his time in the military for his coarse manner when he kisses her). But Richard's good enough that he breaks away rather than pressing the issue, and also good enough to ask what's going on with Sara's uncle and why he wants her away from the village. Turns out that the villagers don't like the well-fed, educated priest very much. Right now they're just calling him a Papist and an idol-worshipper and the graffiti is limited to chalk instead of paint for the time being. But Lowes can see the literal writing on the wall when it's there and wants Sara out of danger. I'm assuming that the Catholic-versus-Anglican issue got settled in blood quite a bit in the 1600s, and that all the characters in this movie would know about the bad blood between sects that could lead easily to someone getting killed..

Sara, for her part, is also worried about what's going to happen and Richard reassures her--he gives her his oath that nobody's going to hurt her. Of course, he's only in town for two days, so what he's going to do to protect his fiancee after that is an open question. Over dinner that night the priest says the wedding date has to be soon and Richard points out that the army has much more say over his schedule than he does at this point. Then Lowes leaves for bed, after reminding his niece to make sure the doors to the church and sanctuary are bolted before she turns in for the night. Richard and Sara talk for a little while about whether or not she's going to make a good wife and mother, and retire to bed (together) in a scene that's a touch more explicit than I was expecting from 1968. For that matter, the matter-of-fact way that the priest treats fornication under his roof is something I wouldn't have thought any studio film could get away with that year, let alone one in Britain where there was a national censor board that could prevent anything getting made that they didn't want to be made.

The next morning, we don't spend time with Richard and Sara as they wake up; instead, it's two men traveling on horseback through the countryside. The older, more cultured, better-dressed and sharper-tongued one is openly tired of traveling with his greasier, heftier, coarser companion. It soon transpires that the older one is Matthew Hopkins, and the younger is his assistant and chief torturer, John Stearne. They're on their way to a quiet village with a priest who's been accused of Satan worship. And both Hopkins and Stearne know that where there's one warlock in a position of authority, they're bound to find other people who have also been corrupted and need to be purified by fire. As a not inconsiderable side factor, Hopkins and Stearne are paid for every witch they discover and execute, which means that there's quite an incentive to torture someone until they'll say anything to stop the pain, take that as "proof" of witchcraft, and then bill the town for their valuable services. Something tells me that Burke and Hare would get along quite well with the Witchfinder General and his assistant.

Now it's time to watch Richard saying goodbye to Sara and her uncle as he goes back to his troop and to the war. During a "heavy filters mean that this takes place at night" sequence he comes across people from his home village, who are out waiting for the arrival of Matthew Hopkins. They refer to him as a lawyer, not a witchfinder, but the audience knows what's going on (and the filmmakers show who's approaching and who's leaving the village by blocking the horseback-riding shots; Hopkins and Stearne travel from the left of the screen to the right, while Richard--who is leaving the village--is depicted moving from screen right to screen left). Richard promises to tell any lawyers that he runs across about the welcoming committee and rides off. And, of course, he does encounter Hopkins and Stearne and asks them politely enough what a lawyer could possibly be looking for in Brandeston. Hopkins tells the soldier that there's a man there who might not be the person he's been presenting himself as. I don't know how advanced the life-insurance industry was in rural England in 1645, but for John Lowes' sake I hope he's got a great policy and he hasn't skipped any payments.

Although things don't appear to be completely one-sided, at least at the start. While talking to some peasant rabble about Lowes, they tell Hopkins that the priest is Catholic and burns candles. The Witchfinder says that's not actually proof of Satan worship. Hopkins says he'll find the truth, and seems to be just the slightest bit dismissive of the ill-formed suspicions that the villagers are mentioning to him. When Hopkins, Stearne and the group of peasants get to Lowes' house, the two chief antagonists get inside along with their backup rabble. And once they're there, Lowes tells them that he categorically denies the accusations of witchcraft and devil worship (pointing out that he's a priest, which is traditionally not an occupation for people who would work in league with diabolical powers). Hopkins has enough of this "actually I am not a devil worshiper" bullshit and has Stearne slap the priest around a couple times before telling his underling to search Lowes for a "Devil's mark". I'm willing to bet everyone reading this has some skin tag on their body that would have worked as a death sentence if the Witchfinder came calling (I'm thinking of the mole that my barber re-discovers every time I get a trim right now myself). Anyway, once Stearne finds a birthmark or mole on the priest's body that doesn't bleed or hurt when he stabs it, that's proof that John Lowes is secretly a slave of nefarious powers. And every time he stabs Lowes and provokes a scream of pain and a flow of blood? Well, there's a proverb about omelettes and broken eggshells that undoubtedly comes to the torturer's mind.

While Stearne is brutalizing the priest, Hopkins looks out the window and sees a friendly peasant running to warn Sara that the torture gang is in town and they've got their sights on her uncle. Since stabbing the priest in the back a dozen times or so hasn't shown any evidence of Satanism, Hopkins tells a couple of the villagers to force the priest to run around his dining table until he's exhausted and a bit more pliable when the questions come out. That scene jumps to Sara running towards her uncle's house, where Hopkins grabs her the second she gets to the door. One imagines that he's got plenty of experience with people sprinting back to where their loved ones live when they hear that the Witchfinder General is asking questions. The first thing Hopkins tells Sara is that he's there as a witchfinder; the second is that since she's a blood relative of an accused warlock, she may well be corrupted and investigation will be necessary.

Sara's no dummy, though. She tells Hopkins that she's an orphan adopted into Lowes' household rather than an actual relative (and she might be telling the truth, for all the viewer knows). Hopkins listens to Sara's explanation, which involves her being taken into the Lowes household by his late maidservant and taking over as majordomo of the priest's house when she was old enough to do so. He doesn't think it's one hundred percent jive, but also doesn't think Sara's telling him the complete truth. He's willing to let that go for the time being, telling the young woman that they'll be talking privately later about whether or not Lowes is truly guilty of witchcraft.

Sara figures out instantly what Hopkins really means and makes arrangements for him to come to her bedroom that night (and Hopkins' completely blase attitude about this exchange of favors leads one to believe that he's very, very used to finding cute young ladies in his travels and extorting sexual favors in exchange for innocent verdicts). And to her credit, Sara uses this leverage instantly to protect her uncle. I'm sure there are some viewers or critics that would blame her for using her body to keep Lowes safe, but we've already been told that England is in a state of total lawlessness thanks to the civil war. She's using the weapon she has to protect her uncle; yes, she's doing something that most of the viewers would find repellent but she's doing it to prevent someone she loves from being tortured to death. There is a villain in this movie, of course. It's not Sara.

Hopkins says it's time to throw Lowes in jail. Stearne is perplexed, because they haven't gotten a confession out of him yet and there's still plenty of time to stab him or make him run around his table until he's willing to say anything to stop the pain. But he's also second in command, so he shrugs and tells the two peasants he's pressed into service that it's jail time for the priest.

That night Stearne is loudly regaling the peasantry with Tales of Witch-Hanging,drinking steadily and fondling the local girl who's sitting in his lap. Hopkins sneaks out while Stearne is talking about different women he's killed and the circumstances of those deaths (and the disapproval on his face is wonderful--nobody could frown like Vincent Price).  It's also wonderful for the audience to realize that the Witchfinder General is showing his disapproval of Stearne drinking and putting the moves on the village woman as he's creeping outside to go force himself on Sara. Maybe he's against drinking. Or perhaps he just thinks talking about all the things he and Stearne have done is the real sin.

At the priest's house (sans priest, of course) Hopkins shows up to interrogate Sara. This "interrogation" lasts all of forty seconds before the lawyer tells Sara that her uncle is going to be tortured until he confesses and then executed, and that it'll all be over in a day or two. Sara counters by asking if there isn't anything she can do to save Lowes, and of course there is. The next afternoon (Stearne has slept literally half the day away on the tavern floor) Hopkins kicks his assistant awake and tells him it's time to get back to work. Although in this case, Stearne is a little baffled that Hopkins isn't planning to get a confession out of Lowes. But as long as he gets to "interrogate" some local women, he doesn't care about some old priest. He also needles Matthew Hopkins about where the older man spent his night, though I'm guessing Stearne didn't have much time to gossip while he was snoring on the barroom floor.

In his cell, Lowes is chained to a wall and there's the obligatory establishing shot with a rat showing that it is indeed a dungeon. But the jailer stops by to tell the priest that he's not going to be interrogated any further, and that night Stearne follows his boss to see what's going on when Hopkins leaves their room at the inn. Stearne may be a greasy, sadistic thug but he's not completely stupid. He's also a grudge-holding asshole and takes it quite badly that Hopkins is coercing sex from the best-looking woman in the village without letting his chief torturer take a turn in the rotation. The investigation scene with Stearne looking around for his boss is another one of those "blue for night" sequences, but you can tell what's going on.

What's going on:  Stearne is frustrated, bored, horny and pissed off that Matthew Hopkins is keeping his latest conquest for himself. So of course Stearne goes to the dungeons and starts slapping a woman around while she's chained to the wall (I wonder how intentional that jump cut was, and whether or not the director wanted Stearne to be so transparently misogynistic). It also appears that Stearne was freelancing that interrogation, with Hopkins pointedly asking if he's sticking to the "prescribed methods" of torturing answers out of a helpless woman. I know exactly what I was thinking in 2015 when Hopkins asked that pointed question, and I can only assume audiences in 1968 arrived at the same conclusion.

Stearne gets put in charge of the witch-finding efforts in Brandeston while Hopkins is away (he's got an errand one town over that's going to take all day for him to perform). He reiterates that Lowes isn't to be stabbed or set on fire in his absence and leaves as Stearne goes back to slapping the woman in the cell hard enough to draw blood. But he only sticks to that long enough to make sure his boss is out of town; as soon as he figures he's safe to act he goes looking for Sara, who instantly realizes how much trouble she's in. She makes a run for it once Stearne mentions that he's in charge of the witch-finding in the village for the time being but he catches her and rapes her in a field (the grin on the bystander's face is actually worse than anything Stearne does in this scene, if you ask me). And since it was 1968, there's nothing explicit on the screen, which doesn't make it any better to overhear.

When Hopkins gets back to Brandeston, there's someone waiting on the road to tell him about what's been going on with Sara and Stearne. Apparently the hick tells Hopkins that it was consensual, or Hopkins just doesn't want to touch Sara at all now that he knows who's been with her (earlier, he asked about Sara's "innocence", which is a code word for "virginity" in this context). He goes back to the tavern and tells Stearne that they're going back to beating Lowes until he mumbles something that can be taken as a confession in front of witnesses (who are threatened into compliance by Stearne's brute force and Hopkins' ice-cold malice). It's obvious at this point that Hopkins and Stearne have no illusions about who and what they are.

Hopkins has Lowes and two women accused of witchcraft dragged to the local river, where he will have them thrown into the water to see if they sink or float. If they sink, they're proven innocent of witchcraft and are merely known to have made a false confession under duress. If they float or swim, however, they've been rejected by the water (which is some kind of religious mumbo-jumbo about the divine authority that makes the rivers run rejecting the accused) and they'll be hanged until they're dead. One of the women says that she's pregnant and can't be hanged--which might even be genuinely from the legal system of the time. Stearne sidesteps that issue neatly by joking that nobody would want to get that woman pregnant. The peasant mob laughs and the issue is avoided completely.

The three accused are lowered into the local river on ropes that cannot have been comfortable for the actors to wear. Two of the "witches" don't drown instantly, so Hopkins declares that they are to be hanged. The third dies during the test, which means that Hopkins (and Stearne and the villagers) have all conspired to kill an innocent person. But she went straight to heaven, so that's all right. Lowes tells his accuser that God will have to forgive him for his crimes, and winds up swinging on the end of a creaking rope, hanging from the closest tree. Check it out, incidentally--there's a third noose swinging emptily between the two bodies, because Hopkins was planning to kill three people that day.

After the hangings, Stearne goes to the local magistrate and picks up the nine-guinea fee for the three witchcraft trials. Using The Google and some fairly dodgy math, I arrived at the figure of $26,334.00 American dollars as the value of nine pounds and nine shillings in 1645. So whatever else you can say about Hopkins, he's figured out a very profitable racket. I'm betting that he gets paid very promptly, as well, because if you don't pay him off he'll stick around and accuse more people of witchcraft (perhaps starting with the people who stiffed him on his paycheck). The peasantry go back to the farms and fields of Brandeston and the two witchfinders go off to torture and execute some other completely innocent people somewhere else.

And Richard Marshall comes back into the narrative, looking for replacement horses to make up for campaign losses that Cromwell's army has suffered. He asks the horse trader about Brandeston while making small talk, and finds out about the witch trial and mass execution that just transpired. He charges off to his hometown and tells the horse dealer to report him as "delayed" when the other troopers come by to purchase mounts. He makes it back to Brandeston and finds Sara, who flees into the vandalized church and sanctuary when he shows up.

The film shows enough discretion to keep its distance during their reunion, but Sara tells Richard what she did to try and save her uncle's life. Richard's eyes go dead as stone when he realizes what his fiancee did in order to help someone she loved, and guides her to the desecrated altar where he draws his sword and kneels down to perform a do-it-yourself marriage ceremony with Sara before praying that the murdered priest rests well in his grave. And then he swears before God that he's gonna track down Hopkins and Stearne so that they can account for their sins before the Almighty. Which will mean besting the pair in a physical struggle--Hopkins is an old man and Stearne is a thug while Richard is a trained soldier and combat veteran, so honestly I'd bet on Richard even if he wasn't the protagonist of the film.

Under Richard's orders, Sara takes money from him and flees for Lavenham, a nearby town, where she will find some place to live and wait for his arrival. But unfortunately he's got obligations to the army that he can't forswear, so she'll have to do well on her own until he can return to protect her. There's some nice rural English scenery here while Richard goes back to where he needs to be (although there's one shot filmed at an angle that made the horse look like it was walking sideways and that was distractingly goofy to behold). He's probably going to have to come up with a world-class excuse for his captain when he gets back to his troop, but for the time being Richard's tracking down the witchfinders. Who turn out to be close by, according to a shepherd that the soldier questions while he's out looking for leads.

Thanks to Richard wanting a drink after a day's riding and Stearne wanting to grope the local barmaids, Marshall finds at least one of the people he's looking for pretty much instantly. Stearne thinks that Richard wants to accuse someone of witchcraft and assures the younger man that he can get a confession out of anybody when the time comes. He even brags that he's the one that really does the torturing out of that partnership, expecting the soldier to be impressed when he hears that. Instead Richard decks Stearne and sets off a furniture-wrecking bar brawl. Full marks to the actors and stuntmen for this one, by the way--wearing period clothing and throwing yourself headlong onto stone floors and wood furniture can't be any fun at all, but they really commit.

Stearne is very much worse for wear by the time the barkeep breaks his under-the-bar persuader over the back of Richard's head; the thug gallops off and Richard follows closely after in a lengthy sequence of two horses galloping over hill and dale. Stearne happens across the Witchfinder General while he's fleeing and calls out to the other man. They hide in a forest (and no explanation is asked for or given by either man, so I'm betting they're both used to having to duck out of sight after killing someone who had friends and the desire to take revenge). Marshall rides by their hiding place and Stearne explains what's going on with this particular campaign of vengeance. Stearne is all for splitting up and laying low for a while, but Hopkins won't be deterred from his course. He's got a client in Lavenham and he's going to go there forthwith. Hopkins is also one cool customer, pointing out to the frazzled (and bleeding) Stearne that they'll be safe from Richard Marshall about ten minutes after they accuse him of witchcraft. Since he's out to kill them, Hopkins reasons, it's a sensible precaution to make sure that Marshall dies first. And they've got several different ways they could bring that outcome to pass.

Hopkins and Stearne head off for Lavenham while Richard comes to grips with the fact that he's utterly lost track of his quarry. The next we see of him he's in a command tent being told that desertion is a capital offense and that even saving his commanding officer's life isn't enough of a mitigating factor to keep him from the gallows if he runs off with a wild hair up his ass a second time. ("You're a good soldier most of the time" and a planned assault on the Royalist army that needs every warm body Cromwell can get is the other mitigating factor.) Once Marshall's left the tent, though, the officer says a quick prayer to aid him in his search for Hopkins and Stearne.

One of the other soldiers says he heard about the events in Brandeston, and cautions Richard that even if he does find Matthew Hopkins and his thuggish henchman, the word of one woman who had an uncle executed for witchcraft probably won't be enough for a magistrate to declare anything against the witchfinders. Of course, Richard isn't planning to involve the legal system at this point; one assumes that if you're willing to carry out your own wedding ceremony instead of having it done properly that the civil laws of the realm are not a concern at all.

While Hopkins and Stearne are making their way to Lavenham they run across several of Richard's comrades. Stearne is ready to panic and flee while Hopkins believes he can talk his way past them (and also knowing that if he and Stearne run they'll be shot down like rabid dogs; soldiers in a civil war don't tend to ask a lot of questions if they feel threatened or think someone's working against them). Stearne gets yanked off his horse and Hopkins bails (what a bastard!), galloping away while the getting's good. He also shoots the horse of the soldier pursuing him, which buys him enough time to escape. Stearne's going to be press-ganged into the army if the soldiers who snagged him have anything to say about it. But Stearne's going to stab the men frog-marching him back to their corps and flee on foot if he's got anything to say about it. Alone, on foot, bleeding from a bullet in his shoulder and without so much as a crust of bread--if Stearne wasn't such an utter son of a bitch I'd feel sorry for him (especially when he has to dig the bullet out of his own shoulder with his knife). He passes out after performing that impromptu surgery and comes to later, with his wound closed up and some of his strength back.

Oh, and now there are two people who would like to kill Matthew Hopkins, because running off and abandoning your partner to his fate is simply not done. Even a thuggish rapist and torturer has some things he can't overlook and won't forgive. And he knows exactly where his partner is planning to go, so Stearne has a piece of information that Marshall doesn't. Off in Lavenham, Master Webb, the local bigwig, is explaining to Hopkins what's going on (two young women and one old one have been accused of witchcraft; Hopkins wants the young ones brought to his room at the inn, of course). He also tells Webb that he's got a brand new way to kill witches, and will need his assistance to carry it out. He then muses on why God had to make women so evil that witchfinders need to go around killing so many of them, which...yeah. I swear, that's the same logic you can find in any comment section on the internet. I don't even want to crack jokes about it because it's so depressingly realistic.

I know I mentioned Price's performance at the start of my review, but it bears mentioning again--he's playing Matthew Hopkins without a hint of the usual smile and twinkle in his eye that let the audience know Vincent Price was enjoying himself playing the baddie in a harmless thrill ride of a horror film. In this movie Matthew Hopkins is a cruel, vicious, sociopathic murderer who hates the society that lets him get away with everything he does just as much as he despises his victims. It's a genuinely unsettling performance and the single best thing I believe I've seen from Vincent Price in the three dozen or so of his films I've had the good fortune to watch.

Meanwhile, back in the narrative, General Cromwell himself is wrapping up an outdoor dinner with a selection of his officers and troops. Marshall shows up too late for dinner but just in time for Cromwell to promote him to Captain and give him the special mission to find and grab the King of England before he can flee off the island and go somewhere safe for royals so that the civil war will continue for another few years. Captain Marshall snags a few of his friends and goes off to look for the King as well as Hopkins and Stearne; his fellow soldiers all understand why he wants to go on his vengeance rampage, but warn him repeatedly that deserters are hanged in Cromwell's army.

Of course, Richard isn't the only one looking for a sign of Hopkins; when Stearne buys a horse from another rural horse-trader he hears the magic word "Lavenham" and sets out immediately to find his boss. And Marshall finds the man who sold a boat ride to France to the King-in-exile ("I didn't know there was a war on till you soldiers told me" is the man's excuse for helping the royals get away, and it might even be true--rural pre-literate England more or less had the technology of shouting to spread news). At any rate, Richard now gets to plot his course back to Cromwell, where he can tell the general that the King got away days before anyone showed up to look for him.

And the boat owner happily tells Richard that there's plenty of excitement in Lavenham, what with all the witch burnings. Well, that tears it. Time for a two-day ride to Lavenham, which is at least theoretically on the way back to Cromwell's camp. The other soldiers have no choice but to follow their comrade as he guides his horse off at a gallop.

Over in Lavenham, Hopkins is overseeing the execution of a few accused (and, no doubt, self-confessed) witches. There's a bigger crowd here than at any other point in the film, and they're dressed better than the soldiers or the peasants that had been in any other scenes so far. It's an interesting way to show another stratum of society that watches with ill-concealed glee and arousal as women are tortured and killed--I imagine pay-per-view witch burnings would probably make a lot of money for whatever cable company is the first one to go for that. The husband of one execution victim has to watch as his wife is tied to a ladder and lowered onto a bonfire to burn to death; he, like many of the other spectators, is there to watch so that he isn't seen not watching. In times where suspicion is proof and guilt is irrelevant, it's a matter of life or death to get along with one's neighbors.

The execution goes on as long as the director can get away with--then the church bells ring to tell everyone that the first witch has been killed. Stearne rides up just as Hopkins calls for the other two women to be executed. Time jumps forward as children roast potatoes in the ashes of the bonfire and Hopkins gets a purse full of twelve silver guineas for his work; the magistrate also thanks him for his service to God and to Lavenham. And, horrifyingly enough, the magistrate seems to be totally sincere. When everyone is ignorant and social order breaks down, any old fraud can prop himself up on a pile of bodies. But the people who help stack the bodies like cordwood so someone else can ascend? In some ways the followers are even more reprehensible than the leaders.

After getting paid, Hopkins is ambushed by Stearne, but the elder witchfinder pulls a flintlock out and assures his subordinate that he won't hesitate to shoot. Stearne believes him, as he should, and allows himself to be persuaded into partnering with Hopkins again and getting half the pay for the Lavenham job as a sign of good faith. Beats a pistol ball to the midsection any day of the week and twice on Saturday. While renewing their partnership Hopkins and Stearne go for a walk in the Lavenham town center and spot Sara; Stearne wants to go get reacquainted with her right that moment but Hopkins realizes that if she's here, Richard Marshall will be around sooner or later.

Hopkins decides that running away since they're forewarned will only be a temporary solution--he knows that Marshall isn't ever going to stop hunting him down. But if he can get a witchcraft charge to stick, the soldier will be permanently taken out of the witchfinder-finding business and he and Stearne can go back to their lives of unrepentant evil. Hopkins is also clever enough to realize that grabbing Sara while they can ensures that they'll get Richard when he returns to the town. Really, it's fortunate that Stearne ran across his boss when he did; Hopkins is much better suited to be the brains of that operation. Which leaves Stearne as the muscle, which he's perfectly suited for.

When Sara hears a knock on the door and hears Richard's voice she thinks it's too good to be true, but it turns out her husband is there, and he already knew about Hopkins and Stearne's presence in the village. Stearne runs back to the inn (in a really neat shot that follows him from the side as he barrels through the people walking around), and gets his marching orders from Matthew Hopkins when he reports Marshall's arrival in the village--he's to get another goon from town, round up Richard and Sara, and take them to the local castle for interrogation and a death sentence. It'd be great if he didn't tip off the other three soldiers in town about what he's doing, too.

So off Stearne runs to carry out his mission, but he gets spotted by that grieving husband from the earlier execution. While Richard and Sara are trying to figure out where it's safe to go or stay, they get a knock on the door from Hopkins and Richard finds that bringing a sword to a pistol duel means that he's got to stand there while some schmuck from town accuses him and Sara of having familiars and making "the sign of Satan", whatever that's supposed to be. It's about 315 years too early for a Dungeons and Dragons book to serve as a sign of devil worship among small-minded hicks, but I'm sure Hopkins will think of something just as convincing when he gets around to it.

Sara and Richard refuse to confess when confronted with this "evidence", and Stearne halls them off to the castle dungeons. That angry husband is waiting for Hopkins in the parlor of the inn, and gets a pistol ball to the torso when he pulls a knife (so much for rash vengeance). At the local castle, Sara and Richard are taken down to a subterranean vault where they can be fully questioned. Meanwhile, the mortally wounded angry dude from the inn is telling the soldiers where Sara and Richard have been taken, so the remaining question for the film is whether Richard and Sara and going to survive and what's doing to be left of them if they do. Stearne starts stabbing Sara in the back looking for a witch's mark and Richard looks Hopkins straight in the eyes while he listens to his wife's torture.

The soldiers, running to the rescue, get questioned by a guard about whether or not they have a signed pass to allow them into the dungeon; down in the bowels of the Earth, Matthew Hopkins has heated a branding iron and tells Sara that if she faints or screams when he presses it to her back, it will be taken as a sign of guilt. And, yes, this is one of those historically accurate things that just makes you feel sick to your stomach when you realize "don't float and don't scream when someone hits you with a goddamned branding iron" were ways for people to prove they were innocent in a court of law. It's almost as if the actual determination of guilt or innocence was secondary to making sure unpopular people were brutalized until they died and the great mass of average humanity was trained to be too fearful to stand up to anyone in authority. Thank goodness regular old people don't do reprehensible things now just because someone who claims to be in authority tells them to.

Speaking of reprehensible things, Hopkins tells Richard that if he confesses to witchcraft (which will be a swift death sentence), Sara will be spared. Richard just swears to Hopkins that he'll kill him by way of response. The soldiers finally overcome the guard upstairs and rush down to the rescue, while Stearne gets worried and Hopkins says they need to continue doing God's work before the cavalry arrives. While the guards outside are getting taken out, Marshall overcomes Stearne when he gets untied so he can watch Sara's torture and puts the thug's eye out with his boot heel (there's plenty of bright red stage blood at this point, as there was in the earlier gun fights and torture sequences; it's something I'm not used to seeing that much in movies of this vintage and it looks suitably shocking when it shows up--though the effects enthusiast in me notices that there aren't any bullet-squib or stabbing effects in the film; 1968 was a bit too early for their use).

While Stearne screams on the floor of the dungeon, Richard grabs an axe from a weapons rack and charges Matthew Hopkins, who is absolutely no match for the younger, psychotically angry soldier. The final couple of minutes of the film feature Hopkins trying to crawl away from Marshall's axe, having been wounded horribly but not quite dying from his injuries yet; one of the soldiers shoots him as an act of mercy and Marshall gets pushed fully into madness when he realizes that he broke his oath to protect Sara when she was harmed, and his oath to Hopkins when someone else killed him.

The last sound the viewer hears in the film is Sara sobbing and screaming, her cries echoing through the dungeon and up the stairs. There's absolutely no attempt for the film to reassure the viewers that the monster is dead and everything's going to be all right; instead, the audience knows that some things can never be put right, and that Hopkins might have been the most prominent witchfinder in the film's universe, but he had so much help from so many other people that someone will certainly be stepping into his shoes and racking up those silver guineas within a day or two.

My entry to the roundtable is nice and late owing to a horrible cold that I got while everyone else was writing up their reviews, and out of my reluctance to watch a film about witch-hunters. I don't like that character as an archetype, because witch hunts never actually find any witches. They just find people to punish so that rubes can feel better about their lives and act like they're being righteous when they're really just aiding and abetting a bullying asshole that wants to ruin someone's life. After all, the safest place to be when a bully starts throwing his weight around is backing him up rather than trying to stop him. And that's a horrible thing to realize about the human condition, made worse because it's so true and because it happens every time someone decides that an unpopular minority needs to be blamed for conditions being bad. After all, if witches (or Jews, or Muslims, or illegal immigrants) are really causing all of the problems, getting rid of them can only mean everything's going to be perfect forever with them gone.

And that's a song and dance that people fall for again and again and again, with future historians looking back and sadly shaking their heads when they realize it's happened again. Even worse? It's guaranteed to happen more in the future, because people tend not to learn from history or from example if they get a chance to have the whip hand for once.


  1. Regarding the uncle's consenting to marriage and Richard summarily (albeit happily) informing Sara of her impending nuptials:

    I interpreted these acts as a transfer of property even with no goats transacted…but I viewed that as a rather courageous film-making decision, to stick with a best-case-scenario-for-women in 16XX and refusing to massage it to make it palatable for a twentieth century audience. But your version makes sense. Could be that I'm a cynic.

    This review is one of your more memorable rants, by the way. (Not unjustifiably, of course.)

  2. This movie is positively brutal, I watched it once just to see Price's amazing performance, but no real urge to watch it again. I pity the viewer who goes in expecting Theatre of Blood or The Wax Museum.

    I do think Price is often under-rated, because he was usually called upon just to chew scenery (which he did with such panache!) But this movie, his amazing dual role in The Haunted Palace, and his goofy-yet-moving performance as Dr. Phibes, among others, show how skilled he really was.