BARRY McCANN goes behind the legend to discovery the reality of England’s most notorious witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins, who was portrayed by Vincent Price in Witchfinder General
There are some figures in history who have become mythologised by folklorists and writers, mainly when their real life stories contain factual gaps filled by speculation which, in turn, has become accepted as popular truth. Dick Turpin and the Pendle Witches are two examples of this. But, perhaps, the most enigmatic is Matthew Hopkins, the notorious Witchfinder General.
Matthew Hopkins (1620–1647) began his witch-finding career began in 1645 with assistant John Sterne, claiming to have the backing of Parliament (which he did not) and is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 300 women over the course of two years. The pair extracted confessions with methods such as sleep deprivation, or the swimming test where those who floated were declared witches. Hopkins also looked for the Devil’s mark, usually a mole or birthmark. If no such marks were visible, then the accused were pricked with knives and special needles to find “invisible” ones.
Hopkins operated mainly in the counties of Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, and occasionally in Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, and Huntingdonshire, charging 20 shillings a town for his services. His career came to an end when he died at his home in Manningtree, Essex, on 12 August 1647, probably of pleural tuberculosis. Legend has it that he was subjected to his own swimming test and executed as a witch, but the parish registry at Church of St Mary, Mistley Heath, confirms was interned there.
Matthew Hopkins became the subject of Ronald Bassett’s 1966 novel Witchfinder General, a fictional revenge thriller that bore little resemblance to the true story. Tony Tenser bought the rights to the novel and offered the project to Michael Reeves, who had just completed Tigon’s The Sorcerers (1967), starring Boris Karloff. Indeed, Tenser reputedly thought Karloff could take the part of Hopkins, before Reeves pointed out the actor was too infirmed and would be unable to ride a horse.
Reeves and co writer Tom Baker originally had Donald Pleasance in mind to play Hopkins as “ineffective and inadequate … a ridiculous authority figure.” However, once American International Pictures became involved and insisted on Vincent Price being cast, Reeves and Baker had to rethink their original concept as the tall, imposing Price would have to be more authoritive.
Reeves made no secret that Price was not his choice and was determined to reign the actor’s usual infusion of camp. This caused clashes, which Price later commented “He would stop me and say, ‘Don’t move your head like that.’ And I would say, “Like what? What do you mean?” He’d say, “There – you’re doing it again. Don’t do that.” During one argument, Price reputedly said “I’ve made 92 films. What have you done?” Reeves responded “Two good ones.” However, upon seeing the completed film, Price declared it to be one of the best performances he had ever given and realised what Reeves was trying to achieve.
There was also a problem with the original ending in which Ian Ogilvy was to have pushed Price on to a vat of burning coal, engulfing him in flames. The required pyro technique could not be staged in the end, so it was suggested that Richard Marshall (Ogilvy) should hack Hopkins to death, as the Nicky Henson character bursts in and finishes the job with his flintlock. A now insane Marshall goes for his friend and is himself shot dead. However, Henson pointed out to Reeves that a flintlock is not a revolver and has to be reloaded after each shot. Reeves, on the spot, decided to have Marshall ranting “You took him away from me” and the camera freeze on Sara screaming, creating one of the most memorable endings in horror film history
Upon release, the film’s violence inevitably attracted negative reviews, particularly from playwright Alan Bennett who attacked it as “the most persistently sadistic and morally rotten film I have seen. It was a degrading experience by which I mean it made me feel dirty.” Reeves responded with “Surely the most immoral thing in any form of entertainment is the conditioning of the audience to accept and enjoy violence … Violence is horrible, degrading and sordid. Insofar as one is going to show it on the screen at all, it should be presented as such – and the more people it shocks into sickened recognition of these facts the better. I wish I could have witnessed Mr. Bennett frantically attempting to wash away the ‘dirty’ feeling my film gave him. It would have been proof of the fact that Witchfinder General works as intended.”
AIP released it in the States as The Conqueror Worm to tie it in with their cycle of Poe movies previously made with Vincent Price. It went on to gross 10 million dollars, much to everyone’s surprise. But, then, it is in many ways a western and would connect with the American psyche as such. Apart from horse riding chases, the plot revolves around a hero returning to the ranch, only to find it has been raided by outlaws and his woman violated. So off he goes to hunt them down and exact revenge. Comparisons can be drawn with such westerns as Rancho Notorious and The Searchers.
More recently, the story of the making of Witchfinder General became the subject of a radio play. Vincent Price and The Horror of The English Blood Beast by Matthew Broughton, first broadcast in March 2010 on BBC Radio 4. Vincent Price played by Nickolas Grace.