Folk Horror: Witchfinder General
Brutal, sadistic, bloody and very very cheap, Witchfinder General was the fourth and final film made by the young and exciting Michael Reeves. The film concerns a fictional account of the activities of Matthew Hopkins, authorised in the film by Cromwell to smoke out any witches that may be operating in the country. Along with his brutal aide, John Stearne, he travels from village to village accusing people of witchcraft before having his assistant ‘extract’ a confession. It’s an interestingly cruel presentation of violence and misogyny and Vincent Price as Hopkins is inspired casting. As his lip curls and that tell-tale voice slithers out proclaiming that he is ‘Here to do God’s work my child’ there’s nothing camp here. Instead we get only the sinister look into the sadistic and perverted eyes of man with a mandate for cruelty.
What makes this film folk horror then? Well, unlike many of the other films I’ll be looking at, this one is a steadfastly anti-supernatural. Really it doesn’t actually present any of the pagan activity that other films tend to revolve around. Hopkins is persecuting supposed witches but the film merely presents the victims as falsely accused people at the hands of a maniacal killer. The setting and locations chime with the likes of Blood on Satan’s Claw and there’s some lovely puritan outfits on display but let’s get to the details.
Here’s my scientifically lacking pursuit of cataloguing the things which make something folk horror.
- Witchfinder General is a grubby little film, full of grime and dirt and a particularly nasty bit of rape in a field. There’s also plenty of greenery and vegetation dotted around but it looks curiously pale, like Reeves drained the colour out of the film stock. Or, more likely, it was cheap film.
- Bizarrely the religious friction in Witchfinder is its weakest link to folk horror. It isn’t playing the church against the malign influences of an older and more pagan religion. Instead Cromwell’s puritan warrior is actively pursuing an anti-papist agenda, hence the reason the priest gets it pretty early on. The false pretence of paganism is invoked but that’s all.
- Burning isn’t going to be missed in a film about witches. There’s even a cracking scene where some peasants have cooked their potatoes in the embers of a burnt ‘witch’. Brutal stuff.
- The only procession in the film occurs when the suspected witches are being led to the bridge for the drowning test, you know the one – where it’s remarkably difficult to live given the criteria.
- Flowing white robes/dresses Well the priest wears them, obviously, but there’s also a disrobing scene where Hopkins has his way with the priest’s niece.
- The Catholic church is reduced to ruins in the wake of the priest’s death.
- There’s some form of torture cropping up in the film quite a lot. Extracting them ‘confessions’ you see.
- Whilst it isn’t quite as pronounced as it is in the other films there are plenty of isolated communities at play here. Especially the town where the priest is tortured and killed.