In the 17th century, as plague rages through England, comely young widow Grace Haverstock (Charlotte Kirk) fends off the advabces of her landlord, the castle-dwelling Squire Pendleton (Steven Waddington). In retaliation, the dastard accuses her of consorting with the Devil and calls in witch-burning judge Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee) to force a confession out of her. But the strong-willed Grace resists torture.
Director Neil Marshall, who also co-wrote with star Kirk and Edward Evers-Swindell, is obviously working under the long shadow of Michael Reeves’ Matthew Hopkins Witchfinder General – though this is closer in tone to Michael Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil and various other Reeves derivatives of the early 1970s in its blend of old-fashioned period melodrama (when was the last time you saw a film with a wicked squire), torture-fetish grand guignol (authentic and inauthentic witch-finding devices alike are used on innocents), and hallucinatory horror movie.
Though Grace plainly isn’t a witch, she does have visionary nightmares of congress with her dead husband (Joe Anderson) or the Devil (Ian Whyte) and – after a long hour and a half of suffering – transforms into a red-dressed avenger for a satisfyingly busy finale. The point that torturing people is bad gets made early and repeated, to the point when many audiences will be too numbed to perk up for the wish-fulfillment vengeance spree in the last act, which has the feel of a bloodier version of those 1950s swashbucklers like The Black Shield of Falworth or Prince Valiant.
It has a different look to the historically authentic Witchfinder General, with the squire’s vigilante mob sporting grotesque plague doctor masks, the judge’s sidekick (Suzanne Magowan) a veiled half-burned ex-witch, and dollops of squelchy gore as witches get abused and (in the later stages) abusive men get their heads smashed like rotten pumpkins. It has a few contemporary touches – at one point, Grace self-isolates for a week to prove she and her baby don’t have plague, and there’s a lot of business about the brutality of bullying men who can’t brook even mild criticism from women.