Remember when one of the most dividing British films was shot in East Anglia?

It was half a century ago when a monster was brought back to life to bring terror, torture and death across Norfolk and Suffolk...but those who met him said he was a jolly nice chap. Derek James reports.

It was one of the most gruesome films ever made across our region starring the merchant of menace himself...Vincent Price.

This was 1967 when the film Witchfinder General about the evil Matthew Hopkins was being made and it was released in the spring and summer of the following year.

At the time I was working on the East Anglian Daily Times and I remember being envious of my colleagues who met and interviewed Vincent, coming back to the office full of stories and saying just what a friendly and lovely man this world-famous Hollywood prince of horror was.

Not on screen in this movie which, all these years on, is still hard to watch and only suitable for late-night viewing.

This was the true, well parts of it were, story of a time in the 17th century when Hopkins cast a dark shadow across the region travelling from town to town, putting women, and men, to death after they suffered at his hands – he was the self-proclaimed Witchfinder.

It also starred Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Dwyer and Rupert Davies. It was directed by Michael Reeves who died a few months after the film was released. He was just 25.

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The graphic content in this X-rated, low-budget offering upset the British Board of Film Censors who insisted on cuts, and many film critics were appalled at the violence. Alan Bennett described it as “morally rotten.”

In America it was given an awful title - The Conqueror Worm.

The original plan had been to ask Donald Pleasence to play Hopkins but when the Americans stepped in they wanted Price, a king of the horror movie.

It was reported that he was paid around £12,000 to become Hopkins and he certainly threw himself into the role of the evil sadist, hunting out these so-called witches across Norfolk and Suffolk.

The interiors were filmed in converted aircraft hangers near Bury St Edmunds. There was witch-burning at Lavenham – Vincent liked the Swan – horseback chase scenes at the Stanford Battle Area near Thetford and filming at Dunwich.

The drowning and hanging scenes were made at Kentwell Hall, Orford Castle, and St John’s Church at Rushford in Norfolk were also used.

One critic summed the film up well saying: “Matthew Hopkins is the best of Price’s recent performances. Witchfinder General is emphatically not a horror film; it is, however, a very horrifying one.”

So just who was this serial killer Matthew Hopkins?

It is thought he was born at Little Wenham in Suffolk, the son of a vicar and certainly no fool. He trained as a lawyer before turning to witch-hunting to augment his salary. There was a widespread belief in witchcraft at the time and Hopkins latched on to this – an easy way of making money.

Protected by his thuggish sidekick John Sterne, they set off and their first victim was a poor one-legged widow, Elizabeth Clarke.

If your crops failed or your children were ill people often pointed the finger at poor folk with no-one to protect them...then along came Hopkins.

He forced confessions by savage tortures which included using a retractable blade to check for “witch-marks,” people were kept naked and awake for days, they were whipped and then there was the “swimming” test when limbs would be tied together and they would be lowered into rivers or ponds by ropes.

If they sank and drowned they were innocent...if they floated they would be tried as a witch and hanged.

The shadow of this man, who became obsessed with magic, devil worship and the power of darkness, fell across the places where we live.

Hopkins travelled from Essex into Suffolk and began to make big money. Around £20 for “cleansing” a place of witches when people were earning a couple of pennies a day.

He called at many places including Ipswich, Stowmarket, Great Yarmouth, Norwich and King’s Lynn trailing death and fear in his wake.

During his reign of terror at least 230 men and women lost their lives...then he started accusing people higher up the social scale and they hit back. The end was in sight.

Mystery surrounds his death in 1648. Did he die of natural causes, or was he accused of witchcraft and hanged or drowned?