8. Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder General
I will sing to the heavens praises of Vincent Price to anyone who will listen, and even to those who would prefer not to. Picking a favorite Vincent Price villain is like trying to pick my favorite breath. Even the worst one is still good because it keeps me alive. The breath does, anyway. As far as I know, Vincent Price was not a necromancer in real life. Although, how freaking cool would that be?
Vincent Price is one of the quintessential Hollywood villain actors. Hammy, campy, and fun, he played everything from aristocratic playboys to flamboyant scarred maniacs. You could always tell he was having more fun than anyone else in the movie. Looking back on his oeuvre, you would be forgiven for thinking he was more in line with the hijinks of Abbott and Costello than the more menacing offerings of Christopher Lee. In fact, Price provided the voice for the Invisible Man in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In my opinion, he’s the funniest part of that movie even though he’s only in it for about a minute and a half.
With movies like The Abominable Dr. Phibes and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machines, it’s easy to see him as horror’s hilarious uncle rather than its evil father. You only have to watch Witchfinder General (The Conqueror Worm, as it was called here in the US, but I like the other title better) to have the absolute shit scared out of you. I’ve only watched the movie once, and it has stuck with me even after a couple of years how brutal Price could be. No scarred Dr. Phibes and his Rube Goldbergian schemes of revenge here. No Dr. Erasmus Craven having a delightful duel of magic powers with Boris Karloff. No, Price’s Matthew Hopkins is a cruel, cold, manipulative, evil bastard of a man. His portrayal is so chilling because Price commits to the role so hard that you would think he not only has skeletons in his closet, but maybe the skin of the devil, too.
Hopkins is based on the real-life Matthew Hopkins, a notorious witch hunter who extracted confessions from accused witches by any means necessary. Price’s Hopkins does the same, preying on everyone who comes into his path and taking them for whatever he can get. He terrorizes the villagers of every town he comes to with stories of witchcraft and satanism. He turns them against each other, and then takes great pleasure in torturing them until they confess. He’s an extortionist, demanding money and sex to keep from dragging innocent people into his deadly web. He’s a rapist and a murderer, and yet so charismatic that it’s easy to see how village after village falls prey to his will.
You could draw a lot of parallels to any number of events in history. The twentieth century alone gave us the McCarthyism Red Scare of the fifties and the Jim Crow era. During the bloodied and violent Civil Rights movement of the sixties, the Ku Klux Klan gladly stepped in to punish anyone not upholding their version of Christianity. Even in today’s political turmoil of immigration, LGBTQ rights, the fight for women’s reproductive rights, and the war on terror, there is always someone willing to exploit people and their fears for their own gain. The Westboro Baptist Church comes to mind, but you can’t spit without hitting someone with a favorite ax to grind. People willing to manipulate, bully, and seduce their way to power have risen time and time again.
Price is no cackling boogeyman here. No plots, no masks, and no magic powers. He’s an upright, respected member of the community, a man people look up to. A man who wields incredible power with little regard for anyone who gets in his way. Any number of politicians could be this person. Any church leader with too much sway over a community. A teacher threatened by a student’s talent or intelligence. A boss or a coworker who cares nothing for the other employees and even less for their underlings. Abusive lovers who manage to convince their victims that no, really, I’m doing this because I love you. I have your best interests at heart. I know best.
Price’s Matthew Hopkins is someone we all know. Everyone has had someone in their life who, when they were certain no one else was looking, dropped the facade and revealed the inner sadist. A monster who delights in hurting other people for no other reason than just because they can. They are master manipulators and their only concern is their own gratification. If that means destroying someone who gets in their way then so much the better. Price brings a quiet, understated menace to Hopkins that no amount of screaming, monologue-ing, or violent tantrums could ever convey. He’s not a madman. He’s not a vengeful killer or a screaming maniac. He’s fully in control and knowledgeable of every single things he does.
He just does not care, and that makes him more dangerous than a hundred maniacs in hockey masks.