British horror doesn't have too many gems in its war chest to rival 'Witchfinder General' for either genuine shocks or bleak intensity. Looked at from any angle it just feels different compared to other classics of the genre. This could be down to the shockingly graphic violence (for the time), the eerily understated star turn from Vincent Price, or the gritty, raw horror of the subject matter. However, it is much more than the sum of its quality, bloodstained parts.
The first relatively unique aspect to 'Witchfinder' is that it has its roots in documented fact. It is based on a biography of the real Matthew Hopkins, an actual persecutor of witches during the English civil war; so although the events in the film are themselves fictional the roots of the story are in the soil of historical reality. In any event, Hopkins did execute women for alleged witchcraft on a scale that was practically unheard of even at the time, and in a particularly brutal manner. So part of the horror we see in the film is that of recognition - that the rural English village idyll that we recognise was a scene of appalling brutality and cruelty.
The second facet of the film is that it is not about the persecution of actual witches. This film is really about the persecution of women that are accused of being actual witches. We would be doing the film a disservice if we saw it in terms of a battle between Christianity and Paganism (specifically the persecution of the latter by the former), although there is of course an element of truth in that. The definition of witchcraft used by Hopkins was wide enough to cover not just the actual practice of witchcraft (which had some following at the time but not at the level Hopkins suspected) but also Catholics, dissidents, in fact any woman or man who got a bit lippy and stepped out of line.
When we look with 21st-century eyes upon the events in the film we can also see that the perceived reality of witchcraft was fundamentally false; yes, there were witches, but the black magic they were accused of spreading did not exist, and never has. So the central truth of the film is that a semi-legal framework of persecution can be invented, with a remit and methodology that is also invented, to serve a purpose that is constantly stretching to meet the perceived needs of the persecutors – and all in the name of an 'absolute truth'.
This is a very modern sentiment for us from our viewpoint in 2014 – that after the Holocaust, the gulag, the Cultural Revolution, McCarthyism, Year Zero, Srbenica and countless other examples we can recognise that every absolute political certainty is essentially invented, relative, and a tool for the abuse and exercise of absolute power.
Which leads to the third element of the film – the backdrop of the civil war. In 'Witchfinder' the source of political legitimacy depends on who is controlling a particular territory – a field, farmhouse, village or river. Who rules these areas – is it Cromwell, Hopkins, or the King? And as the belligerents move, so does the source of authority.
In a way, none of these three have any inherent legitimacy - Cromwell has created an army by himself, claims to represent parliament, but is in a sense his own invention; Hopkins is a self-appointed judge on behalf of a typically silent God, and even Charles I loses his legitimacy if he loses the support of the people. Essentially all of these forces derive their authority from their military or political power and their current position in a constantly shifting conflict. Their power is entirely arbitrary – so the villagers and soldiers in the film find themselves at the mercy of competing, contradictory and arbitrary sources of absolute power. And without being guided by anything other than abstract certainties these powers cannot help but commit atrocities. And in England, at that!
All of which represents a refreshingly contemporary scenario for the viewer, albeit one which as recent developments in South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Ukraine demonstrate, shows no sign of ceasing to repeat itself in history.