Witchfinder General (1968)
During the English civil war, Matthew Hopkins takes advantage of peoples' superstitions and makes money by torturing and executing supposed witches. But when he captures a young woman and her priest uncle who has brought her up, he enrages a young soldier who's in love with her.
The film opens with the dramatic hanging of a woman on a hilltop. It's brutal and disturbing, and sets the tone of the film from the outset. It's also an example of how sound is used to increase the drama - in this case, the loud, stern biblical readings, suddenly switching (at the point of death) to silence apart from the eerie whistling of the wind.
There are decent performances from the principle cast, but it's Vincent Price who really stands out. He brings a cold creepiness to Matthew Hopkins as he goes about his emotionless interpretation of doing "the Lord's work".
There's interesting photography on show, with good use of framing and lighting, and the film makes the most of some well chosen locations. Unfortunately it's let down by the frequent use of day-for-night filming on what was obviously a bright, sunny day. We can see the blue skies and fluffy white clouds clearly, yet the characters in the foreground are so dark it's hard to make out what's going on.
The film owes a great deal to its score, which includes some beautifully written music. It not only enhances the mood, it also makes the movie feel much 'grander' than it actually is.
The visual effects are more of a mixed bag. Some of the more atmospheric scenes are excellent, especially the burnings in the market place, and the hangings. However when the 'witches' are lowered into the river it's hard not to laugh at the limp dummies on the end of the ropes.
Witchfinder General is more a violent costume drama than a horror film. It's similar in style to Hammer films, using impressive locations, beautifully detailed sets, and familiar TV actors in the cast (Ian Ogilvy and Wilfred "Steptoe" Bramble, for example). It's surprisingly brutal for its age (children playfully poking the bonfire ashes with sticks after the burning of some 'witches' is a particularly dark touch). It has an interesting story, though the ending feels a bit rushed. As an example of Vincent Price's work, it's excellent. As a horror/drama, yes it's disturbing and exciting at times, but overall it's 'ok'. Entertaining, but not the best film of its type from that period.