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Witchfinder General

With my second talk on Bela Lugosi behind me (his ghost didn’t show up this time), The Castle Keep has confirmed another event, and its one I am really looking forward to.

On Friday 20 May the Keep will host a screening of the British horror classic Witchfinder General (1968). This special event is in conjunction with the North-East’s horror film festival Screen Demons.

One of the BBC’s top 100 movies, Witchfinder General has long been regarded as one of the greatest British films ever made. Based on Ronald Basset’s novel of the same name, this is a fictional account of the notorious real-life witch hunter Matthew Hopkins. During the height of the English Civil War, Hopkins, a failed lawyer originally from Manningtree, found a profitable side-line in torturing and executing alleged witches. His reign of terror did not last long and after being discredited, lived his final years in obscurity prior to dying of tuberculosis aged 32.

The film shows Hopkins as violent sadist, and it’s the extreme violence and sadism that made Witchfinder General so ahead of its time. More importantly, it gave Vincent Price one of his most famous roles. Unlike the flamboyant chest thumping melodramatic acting of his early work, Price (for once) plays it straight and as such gives a truly terrifying performance as Hopkins.

Witchfinder General also marked the high point of British director Michael Reeves, whose promising career was cut short by a drug, overdoes at 25 shortly after completing what is regarded as his finest work.

The screening will take place in the Great Hall and will be introduced by Kris Atkinson, founder of Screenage Kicks. Once the film has finished, the audience will be taken to the Castle’s Dungeon (where many a witch spent their last day prior to execution) so they can take part in a discussion with a panel of experts. I will be part of that panel alongside fellow film buff Stephen Laws. Stephen and I will be discussing the film to the audience. Also joining the panel is Dr Jo Bath, author of Dancing with the Deviland Other True Tales of Northern Witchcraft, who will give a talk about the real-life Newcastle with trials of the 1650s. This will look like an incredible night.

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