The Dark True Story Behind Vincent Price’s Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins

Like the other folk horror films of the Unholy Trinity, “Witchfinder General” sets scenes of horrific violence against a pastoral backdrop. In the opening scene, a man builds a gallows in an open field ready for a condemned witch as Vincent Price’s Matthew Hopkins and his sadistic assistant John Steame (Robert Russell) look on. It is 1645, and the lawlessness of Civil War England provides ample opportunity for men like them to make good money witch-hunting. As the poor woman hangs, they head to their next payday in the small Suffolk village of Brandeston.

Young Roundhead soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) returns home to the village on leave to ask permission from the priest, John Lowes (Rupert Davies), to marry his niece Sara (Hilary Dwyer). The old man gives his consent, making Marshall promise he will take her somewhere safe as they have become outcasts in the community. Marshall happily agrees and rejoins his regiment.

In the meantime, Hopkins and Steame arrive in the village to investigate Lowes, who is accused of idolatry and witchcraft. They try to force a confession from him through torture, and Sara tries to save him by offering herself to Hopkins. She only manages to buy her uncle a brief reprieve in prison, however, as Hopkins changes his mind after Steame sexually assaults her. Lowes is hanged along with two women.

Marshall returns to Brandeston and vows revenge, setting him on a hellbent path that turns the upstanding young soldier into a vindictive man just as violent as his enemies. “Witchfinder General” is a stark and unsettling tale of corruption, greed, and abuse of authority; unlike its fictional counterparts in the Unholy Trinity, it derives its disturbing power from being based on real events.

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