In cinematic terms, it wasn’t a good time to be a witch in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Between 1968 and 1972, more witches were put to death on film than at any time before or since. It truly was the Dark Ages of horror.
Of course, there had been witch-hunts on film previously. Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages) is a cheerful romp through the world of the occult dating from 1922 and features plenty of inquisitorial action by witchfinders.
This notorious Swedish film caused outrage on its original release, with salacious scenes of black magic practices and even entire disrobing, so even now packs a real punch. A heady mix of documentary, surrealism, and sensationalism, Häxan remains one of the cinema’s most unique moments.
1937 saw Maid of Salem, directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Claudette Colbert. The film used the Salem witch trials as the setting for a drama that reflected Arthur Miller’s famed play The Crucible to a large degree.
Roger Corman’s The Undead (1957) involved witches but was more inspired by reincarnation. The Witches of Salem (confusingly retitled The Crucible in America, despite not being based on Miller’s play) appeared in 1957 from France. Director Raymond Rouleau adapted a story by Jean-Paul Sartre, and the cast was headed by Simone Signoret.
The City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel, 1960) opens with accused witch Elizabeth Selwyn being burned alive by a full-blown angry mob in 1662 Massachusetts. And this case, she returns to avenge herself, aided by a coven of black magic devotees that includes Christopher Lee as an icy academic.
It was the appearance of Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder General (to give the film its onscreen title) in 1968 that was to open the floodgates to a mini-boom of witchfinder films over the next few years.
Michael Reeves had previously directed the Italian horror film Revenge of the Blood Beast and the British made The Sorcerers, starring Boris Karloff. Both films were effective shockers that marked Reeves as a talent to watch. With Witchfinder General, his talent peaked. Sadly, he took an overdose – whether by accident or design – a year after making this film.
The film is loosely based on the true-life story of Matthew Hopkins (the screenplay being adapted from the historical novel by Ronald Bassett), who terrorised East Anglia during the Seventeenth century. Together with assistant John Stearne, Hopkins moves from town to town, extracting “confessions” from those accused of witchcraft, before hanging them. Woven around this real-life horror is the fictional story of Roundhead soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), who is part of Cromwell’s army fighting the Royalists. He is soon to marry sweetheart Sara, the niece of Father John Lowes, but whilst he is away on duty, Hopkins arrives in town, summoned by villagers who distrust the priest because of his Protestant leanings. Lowes is tortured but allowed to live for a while after Sara seduces Hopkins. However, when Hopkins is called away on business, Stearne rapes the girl, and once Hopkins discovers this, he orders the death of the priest.
Marshall arrives at the church to discover a distraught Sara, and vows vengeance. He sets off in pursuit of Hopkins, leading to the inevitable showdown. The ending of the film is one of the most powerful moments in horror film history: After being captured by Hopkins and seeing Sara tortured, Marshall escapes and attacks Hopkins with an axe, literally hacking him to death. A Roundhead colleague (Nicky Henson) stumbles onto the scene and, horrified, shoots the witchfinder. The film ends with Marshall’s screams: “You took him from me!”
Ironically, this scene was the result of a continuity error. The original script had Henson shooting both Hopkins and Marshall, but Reeves realised that previous scenes had shown Henson to only have a single flintlock pistol. A hasty rewrite brought about one of the great moments in cinema! Witchfinder General is a stunning film. Utterly nihilistic in approach, it has all the power and inevitability of a Shakespeare tragedy. Reeves’ direction is confident and flawless, making a mockery of the low budget. He makes excellent use of the English countryside, contrasting the beauty with the horror that takes place.
Of course, a film like Witchfinder General was bound to run into problems. After all, British horror in 1968 meant The Devil Rides Out, not a brutal, realistic and shockingly angry film like this. The British censors felt that Witchfinder General was too much to take. The whole despairing atmosphere of the film worried them, as did the effect of Paul Ferris’ haunting score, which censor John Trevelyan felt heightened the violence even further. Major cuts were made, much to the consternation of Reeves, who had stated that “violence is horrible, degrading and sordid. It should be presented as such, and the more people it shocks into sickened recognition of these facts, the better.” Trevelyan accepted Reeves’ arguments, but most of his outraged BBFC staff felt the film was exploitative and needed cutting.
Despite these extensive cuts, the film still caused critical outrage at the seemingly unprecedented violence. In America, it was retitled The Conqueror Worm by AIP (whose press book for theatre managers gleefully declared: ‘sorcery and witchcraft flourishing business in jolly old England”), as a desperate attempt to milk the Vincent Price/Poe connection for all it was worth. To justify the connection, a new prologue was shot with Price reading Poe’s poem. As its reputation grew over the years, many attempts were made to restore the missing footage to Witchfinder General, but to no avail. So it was a major surprise when Redemption announced the release of a restored version in 1995. And not only does this print contain all the cut scenes, but also has some additional nude scenes that were shot by Tigon head honcho Tony Tenser for export versions of the film. This longer version is now widely available.
The film also inspired Witchfinder General, a 1980s British heavy metal doom band, who named themselves after it and courted controversy with sleazy album covers. Sadly, their unexciting music did not match the lurid imagery used to sell it!
The success of Witchfinder General inevitably led to imitations. The best known of these was Mark of the Devil, a West German production from 1969. Like its inspiration, Mark of the Devil was directed by a young British director, Michael Armstrong, who had previously made the violent psycho film The Haunted House of Horror.
Mark of the Devil tells the story of Count Cumberland (Herbert Lom), who arrives in an Austrian village to become the official witchfinder. At first, his presence seems to bring a degree of justice after the excesses of Albino (played by Reggie Nalder); however, he soon proves to be just as cruel and corrupt.
Whilst powerful and well crafted, Armstrong’s film is nowhere near as good as Witchfinder General, though it does share many of its elements. The film has a strong sense of indignation and anger at what it portrays, and is certainly unflinching in its approach: American distributors rated it “V for Violence” and offered vomit bags to patrons, while the BBFC initially refused a certificate outright (before finally relenting in 2014 and allowing an uncut Arrow Video Blu-ray release). It also makes use of haunting music to contrast with extreme violence.
Current prints of the film all end rather abruptly. For some reason, the original ending, which featured the dead returning to life, has vanished and cannot be found (although stills exist showing what it looks like). This might not be such a bad thing: a supernatural conclusion would have damaged the story considerably, and the brutal manner in which the film now finishes is strangely in keeping with the cold tone of the movie as a whole.
Mark of the Devil had started life as a project by ex-matinee idol Adrian Hoven, who had written a seedy screenplay entitled The Witch-Hunter Dr Dracula, which featured the vampire Count as a witchfinder. Hoven’s producers, Gloria Film, refused to let him direct, and Armstrong was brought in. He immediately rewrote the script (using the pseudonym Sergio Cassner), much to the anger of Hoven, who ended up with a small part in the movie and directed his own scenes after a number of shouting matches with Armstrong.
The success of the film led to a sequel, and this time Hoven did direct. Starring Erica Blanc and Anton Diffring, the film was little more that a lurid rehash of the profitable elements from the first film (i.e. the torture of scantily clad women), without any of the intelligence of power.
Witches’ Hammer, a Czechoslovakian drama film was released in 1970. This black-and-white allegorical film, full of symbols, follows the events from the beginning until the trial and execution of the priest Kryštof Lautner. Unwillingness to stop the evil in the beginning only encourages the inquisitor to graduate his accusations and use torture. The vicious circle scares everyone from resistance. Despite being made behind the Iron Curtain, the film features a surprising amount of nastiness and disrobing.
Following Witchfinder General, Mark of the Devil and Witches’ Hammer, a number of other films would deal with the “witch hunt” theme. However, these differed from their predecessors by giving the witchfinders some justification for existing: in these films, the witches were real. Tigon Films followed Witchfinder General with an unofficial sequel, The Blood on Satan’s Claw in 1970.
Director Piers Haggard (Venom) follows the visual style of Reeves quite well in this effective study of corruption and evil. Linda Hayden played the leader of a teenage cult that spreads throughout a village after a demonic skull is unearthed in a field. With some graphic gore and frank sexuality (Hayden strips to seduce a priest in his own church), the film makes a more than adequate companion piece to its more illustrious predecessor.
The same year saw Cry of the Banshee, with Vincent Price returning as a sadistic witch-finding magistrate. A mixed affair, the film is not without effective moments, but often descends into silliness, with rather contrived orgies and clumsy attempts at shock sequences.
Nevertheless, the film remains interesting throughout. Witchfinder General star Hillary Dwyer appeared in the film, adding to the feeling that these movies were all somehow inter-connected (Patrick Wymark appeared in both Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Score).
Perhaps inevitably, Jess Franco made a couple of witchfinder films. The more “respectable” of the two, The Bloody Judge (1969) starred Christopher Lee as Judge Jeffreys – like Matthew Hopkins, a notorious real-life witch hunter of the Seventeenth Century. The film is well shot and dwells more on the historical elements of the story than the exploitative ones. The American version, retitled Night of the Blood Monster, removed all the stronger elements to obtain a PG rating, leaving the film little more than a worthy but dull low budget historical drama. The current UK and US DVDs are restored versions with the seedy and nasty bits inserted into the longer, tamer edition.
A couple of years later, Franco returned to the theme with The Demons (1972). Here, he again uses Judge Jeffreys, but there the similarity ends. The film was a tacky and thoroughly ludicrous slice of sleaze, with its female victims suffering various indignities and satanic rituals. It is nonetheless entertaining un-PC nonsense for the broad-minded.
There was a flashback to a witch-burning in Don Henderson’s 1971 movie The Touch of Satan, although hardly any filmgoers outside of the US drive-in circuit saw it, despite several re-titling attempts to wring more dollars out of its slow supernatural theme.
Hammer was also tempted to dabble with the witchfinder theme. Twins of Evil was the final film in the Karnstein trilogy and featured Peter Cushing as a puritan witchfinder who rampages across the countryside burning innocent women at the stake. When one of his twin nieces becomes a vampire, life takes a “difficult” turn for him! One of the best films to emerge from the famed studio, Twins of Evil also starred Playboy centrefolds Mary and Madeline Collinson and David Warbeck.
The best known, and still the most controversial of the witchfinder films, was Ken Russell’s The Devils, based on Aldous Huxley’s historical novel The Devils of Loudon. The film continues to split critical opinion to this day with those who love it and those who find it loathsome for its hysteria-induced histrionics. Naturally, being the enfant terrible of British sinema, Russell didn’t shy away from showing excessive scenes of religious repression, corporeal suffering and libidinous mania, and the film became a victim itself at the cuts at the hands of the censorious BBFC. Some of this footage has since emerged and appeared on a Channel 4 documentary, but amazingly, Warners still refuse to restore the film to its blasphemous glory, and the recent BFI release is the cut X-rated version that first played UK cinemas.
Inquisition (1976) was a rather late Spanish addition to the witchfinder sub-genre, with horror star Paul Naschy using Catholic cruelty to do the nasty work of the Church in rooting out perceived ‘evil’.
Inevitably, for the British, one place for the witchfinder to go after this was into dark comedy. As early as 1974, Monty Python and the Holy Grail included arbitrary witch-hunting amongst its anarchic targets, with the revelation that a witch weighs the same as a duck!
Actor Frank Findlay (The Deadly Bees) cropped up during the first series of TV comedy show Black Adder, playing the Witchsmeller Pursuivant, falsely accusing Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) of black magic! A witty spoof, it managed to show the insanity and maliciousness of the witch trials as effectively as any serious exposé.
It was up to Americans to keep witchfinders in business and so in 1981, Bert I. Gordon (the director of many B.I.G. monster movies in the 1950s) came up with The Coming (later retitled Burned at the Stake, in case audiences didn’t get it) about a young woman, a descendant of a 1692 accuser, that suffers recurring nightmares. Don’t we all?
Not to be outdone, another infamous low-budget filmmaker, Ulli Lommel (The Boogey Man), cast his then-wife Suzanna Love in The Devonsville Terror in 1983 as a schoolteacher who also has nightmares about being reincarnated as a witch.
Obscure British filmmaker Michael J. Murphy’s 1985 Bloodstream remained, unfortunately – and ironically, as it was an attack on the VHS industry – unreleased, yet it contains perhaps one of the most pertinent witch-burning segments. After sending a witch to her death, film director Alistair Bailey imagines himself being burnt as a witch!
In 1990, the Atari computer game Midnight Mutants featured an intro with a burning witch who then comes back to wreak havoc on her oppressors.
In 2001, the BBC broadcast Doctor Terrible’s House of Horrible, a truly ‘horrible’ British comedy-horror anthology series created by Graham Duff, and co-written with its star, Steve Coogan (most famous as Alan Partridge). The episode ‘Scream Satan Scream!’ directly spoofs Witchfinder General (1968) and Cry of the Banshee (1970). Witch locator Captain Tobias Slater travels the north of England accusing beautiful young women of being witches and to avoid the pyre they must sleep with him until he runs across a real coven and Slater is cursed. However, unlike the best of Coogan’s work, Doctor Terrible was truly terrible comedy.
In many ways, the 1970s witchfinder films were typical of many horror movies of the time: cynical, hard, cold and dark… a far cry from the glossy shockers of today.
The closest feature film we’ve had in recent years seems to be the critically mauled Season of the Witch, with Nicolas Cage as an unlikely medieval soldier transporting a woman who may or may not be a witch to trial. As with most of Cage’s movies, it’s not good.
In 2013, Colin Clarke’s short American film, Witchfinder arrived. After putting a witch to death, a righteous witch hunter finds himself haunted by a spectral curse.
And witchery was back big time on the small screen in American TV series Salem, already proving so popular it has been renewed for a 3rd season.
For 2015, Vin Diesel is The Last Witch Hunter with cast Julie Engelbrecht, Michael Caine, Vin Diesel, Elijah Wood and Rose Leslie in support. Directed by Breck Eisner, the film sees a semi-immortal witch hunter (Diesel) wandering the streets of modern New York City forced to partner with his natural enemy, a female witch. The two must stop a villainous witch queen from obtaining a relic and unleashing plague upon humanity. The plot switches between time frames so there’s olde witchery too…
David Flint – with additional comments and information by Adrian J Smith