Today’s cinema adventure: Witchfinder General (released in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm), the 1968 historical horror drama directed by short-lived filmmaker Michael Reeves and starring Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, a 17th-century lawyer who used his self-appointed position as a prosecutor against sorcery and witchcraft to fuel a reign of terror across the countryside of Eastern Britain during the English Civil War. Produced on a modest budget by Britain’s Tigon Studio, in partnership with American International Pictures (the U.S. company renowned for its success in churning out cheap exploitation films for the drive-in and grindhouse crowd), it was largely deplored by English critics for its then-excessive depictions of sadistic torture and violence and dismissed by American critics as insignificant and mindless pulp; nevertheless, it enjoyed considerable box office success on both sides of the Atlantic and was soon championed by a handful of critics as an underrated gem. No doubt bolstered by the fact that its young director died of an accidental overdose of prescribed barbiturates and alcohol less than a year after its release, the film gained a sizable cult following and influenced a number of important horror movies over the next decade, and it is now regarded by many critics and enthusiasts as one of the best representatives of its genre.
Based on a little-known novel by Ronald Bassett, Witchfinder General is set in 1645, in the midst of the tumultuous war between the British Monarchy and the rebellious Parliamentary Party. With bloody fighting going on across England and a lack of central governmental control, a state of near-anarchy prevails- particularly in the small rural villages which dot the countryside. In the rebel-controlled region of East Anglia, an unscrupulous lawyer named Matthew Hopkins takes advantage of the chaotic atmosphere- and the puritanical fervor that exists in the area’s isolated, superstitious communities- by offering his services as a hunter of witches and sorcerers, extracting a steep fee from local magistrates in exchange for forcing confessions from suspected servants of the Devil and carrying out their subsequent execution. With his unsavory assistant, John Stearne, he carries out sadistic torture and punishment upon the unfortunate accused, using his self-proclaimed power to terrorize and blackmail his way from town to town. In the Suffolk village of Brandeston, he carries out one such persecution against the town priest, a kindly soul named John Lowes, from whose niece, Susan, he elicits sexual favors in exchange for showing mercy; when she is raped by Stearnes, Hopkins loses interest, and proceeds to torture and execute the old man- despite his previous promises- before leaving town to continue his bloody campaign and abandoning the devastated Susan to suffer the torment and ridicule of the locals. Shortly thereafter, her fiancé Richard Marshall, a promising and heroic young soldier in the Parliamentary army, arrives to discover what has taken place; horrified and enraged, he “marries” Susan by his own authority in the desecrated town church, vows to extract vengeance on Hopkins and Stearne for their crimes against her, and sends her to another village, Lavenham, to await him. Tracking the two scoundrels to the next town, he confronts Stearne in a tavern, but the henchman manages to escape and warn his master that they are being pursued. Bound to return to duty with his regiment, Marshall must temporarily abandon his quest for justice; meanwhile, his quarry make their way to none other than the town of Leavenham. There, as they perpetrate their usual horrific cruelty and murder in the name of justice, they discover the relocated Susan, and realizing that her young husband must sooner or later arrive to join her, the two scheme to turn him into a victim of their bogus inquisition before he can strike against them, setting the stage for a grisly final confrontation.
Director Reeves had previously been responsible for two well-received low-budget horror films, Revenge of the Blood Beast and The Sorcerer; he was hired to make Witchfinder General by Tigon executive Tony Tenser, who had read Bassett’s novel before publication and thought it would make the basis for a powerful film. Reeves enlisted lifelong friend and previous collaborator Tom Baker to co-write the screenplay, but their first two attempts were rejected by the British censorship board on the basis of the heavy inclusion of graphic violence and torture. The third draft, substantially tamed down, was approved; even so, the finished film still required so much editing before the board would permit its release that Reeves walked away from it, refusing to make any more cuts himself and leaving the studio to make the final extractions. In America, censorship was not an issue, and the movie was released more or less intact, but the controversy over its gruesome content almost certainly helped to buoy its performance at the box office.
It is the violence of Witchfinder General, of course, that distinguishes it from so many of the era’s other horror movies- indeed, without it, the film could only marginally be called a horror movie, but rather would more accurately be described as historical drama. From the standpoint of plot, it owes as much to the revenge tragedies of classical theatre as it does to the genre to which it belongs, but there is nothing highbrow about its script. Reeves and Baker follow the standard formulas and conventions of such fare, and their dialogue, while not exactly banal, is hardly eloquent. Nor are there any weighty socio-political observations made here; the film is not an indictment of religious hypocrisy or intolerance. Hopkins is merely an unscrupulous opportunist acting in his own interest with no pretensions of moral superiority, and those who enlist his services seem unconcerned with church doctrine or spiritual corruption; the travesties of justice they carry out are motivated by greed and hatred, a desire to advance personal agendas rather than a firm belief, however delusional, in a religious cause. If Witchfinder General has any cultural or psychological theme, it has to do with the breakdown of humanity in the absence of social order. Where it rises above the ordinary crop of this era’s thrillers is in its pervasive mood, its evocation of unspeakable horror lying within the most mundane or idyllic surroundings. The green and sun-drenched English countryside serves as a backdrop for monstrous cruelty and violence; from the deeply disturbing opening sequence in which a hysterical woman is dragged across a moor to be hanged by a strangely disaffected mob, we are inundated with scenes of brutality and bloodshed in the midst of picturesque beauty. Soldiers are ambushed and perish in sudden explosions of gore, a sunlit field is the setting for an ugly rape, a quaint village square plays host to a gruesome immolation; the furtive torments enacted by Hopkins take place mostly in the dark, secret rooms and dungeons we expect, but they are only a portion of the savage grotesquery displayed by the population of this seemingly pastoral world. Even the heroic efforts of our protagonist, cloaked though they may be in righteous outrage, amount to self-satisfying transgressions against the suspended ethical norm; and despite the viciousness of the film’s violence and suffering, in the end the most unsettling element is the calm, detached manner in which it is both perpetrated and observed. Reeves gives us a world of cold dehumanization, in which the tranquility of the surroundings takes on an ominous chill, rendering the pretty landscape into a nightmarish wasteland in which nature itself stands in cruel mockery of man and his struggles. There is ultimately no comfort, and no justice, that is not sullied and degraded by the cruelty of selfism, and in the absence of that moral center provided by a sense of community with others, there is no hope of respite or redemption.
Because it paints such a grim picture of human behavior, Witchfinder General remains a chilling and profoundly disturbing film experience despite the fact that over four decades of carnage on the big screen have rendered its once-extreme violence less shocking than quaint. The amount of visible blood is minimal and unconvincing in its garishly-red theatrical stylization; the scenes of torture and torment are less upsetting for what they show us than for the off-handed manner in which they are enacted. It probably goes without saying that modern-day horror fans will find it tame and even laughable, but for those with an appreciation for subtler-yet-deeper shocks will be rewarded for the time they devote to screening this unusual classic. Apart from its overall effect, there are a number of other significant things offered here, such as the sweeping orchestral score by Paul Ferris- once usurped on home video versions, due to copyright issues, by an overdubbed electronic replacement, but restored in most available prints today. Also notable is the use of authentic locations for the outdoor scenes; set against the backdrop of genuine architecture dating from the period, the bloody injustices perpetrated against victims of opportunistic persecution evoke the uncomfortable realization that similar events did, in reality, take place- events beside which, no doubt, the horror of these dramatized recreations would pale in comparison.
For most viewers, however, and particularly for those who are fans and buffs of classic cinema and its people, the primary interest will lie in the performance of horror icon Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins. It is well-documented that Price and director Reeves had a very difficult relationship during the making of the film. Reeves wrote Witchfinder General with Donald Pleasance in mind for the lead role, a familiar but lesser-known actor who embodied the kind of soft-spoken, officious menace the filmmaker wished to portray; American International Pictures, however, insisted (in exchange for their investment in the production) that Price, their resident horror star and headliner of their highly lucrative series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, play the part instead. Reeves was openly hostile and disparaging to Price on the set, and the normally gracious and polite actor responded- perhaps rightly so- by being argumentative and uncooperative. In spite of this- or perhaps because of it- the finished product offers Price giving perhaps the performance of his career. Eschewing his usual hammy, florid delivery and over-the-top expressions, the legendary actor instead presents us with a brusque, understated persona that makes Hopkins all the more deadly; he is a true monster, devoid of affectation or charm, and unlike most of Price’s creations makes no appeal to our sympathies. The film hinges on this cold, inhuman quality, and the actor delivers it to perfection. Price himself considered it one of his best performances, and it is a testament to the actor’s professionalism and manners that, once he saw the finished film, he wrote a letter to Reeves praising his direction and apologizing for his own behavior; nevertheless, he did suggest afterwards that, had the director been more straightforward in communicating with him what was wanted, he would have been happy to deliver it without protest.
The rest of the acting, perhaps surprisingly for a low-budget film of this nature, is fairly high in caliber, though there are a few clunky moments. In the role of hero Richard Marshall, Ian Ogilvy- another lifelong friend of Reeves’ who appeared in his other films as well- is suitably likable while still maintaining a sort of rigid aloofness that helps to fuel his obsessive quest for revenge; contrasting this is Hilary Dwyer as his fiancée-then-wife Susan, whose warmth and sensuality shine through the prim and modest exterior her social role of her character demands, and who is able to communicate- though no dialogue alludes to it- that she herself might be better pleased to put the horrors of her experience behind her and seek refuge in a new life with her beloved than to watch him pursue vengeance in her name. Robert Russell makes for an intimidatingly malicious Stearnes, though his naturally high-pitched voice resulted in having his dialogue over-dubbed by another actor (Jack Lynn, who appears in another small role in the film). A few somewhat recognizable British character actors also pepper the cast, with Rupert Davies as the doomed John Lowe, and brief appearances by Patrick Wymark (as Oliver Cromwell), and Wilfrid Brambell (best known as Ringo’s dad in A Hard Day’s Night). These and the other performers mostly distinguish themselves with their work, though Price dominates by virtue of his star charisma and his showy role; still, it would be wrong to call Witchfinder General his show- the film owes its eerie power to the vision of Reeves, whose ability to turn his mediocre script into a movie of true stature testifies to a keen talent that might have yet yielded greater works had his tragic death not prevented the continuation of his promising career.
Witchfinder General, it’s worth noting, was marketed in the U.S. by AIP as a pseudo-entry in its aforementioned series of Poe films; retitled The Conqueror Worm, the American print featured an overdubbed reading by Price from the 19th-Century author’s poem of that name, but apart from this manufactured connection there was no connection between Reeve’s movie and any of Poe’s works. This piece of blatant commercial chicanery no doubt contributed to the fact that it was, like many such films among its contemporaries, disparaged and disregarded by “serious” critics and scholars. Despite this initial reception, its popularity and subsequent reassessment led to its becoming an influential and seminal work in horror cinema. It spawned a host of similarly-themed imitators and has been credited with inspiring an entire sub-genre of macabre films with seemingly idyllic rural settings, culminating in the masterful cult classic The Wicker Man. For my own part, though, Witchfinder General falls a bit short of the reputation it has gathered; to be sure, it contains a great deal of effective filmmaking, particularly in terms of establishing and maintaining mood. The weaknesses of its script, however, compounded by a degree of sloppiness in the visual storytelling, keep it from reaching the level of quality necessary to classify it as a truly exceptional picture. It’s not all Reeves’ fault- budgetary constraints- not to mention the imposition of censors’ demands- were at least partly responsible for the rough-edged clumsiness that sometimes overtakes the proceedings. Even so, rather than a definitive masterpiece, the movie is ultimately just an ordinary thriller, decidedly amateurish in many ways, but distinguished by the imagination and talent of a promising young director and the work of a few worthy professionals among the cast and crew. It is for this reason that it remains worth seeing today, but to call it one of the greats is an overstatement. Instead, it stands as a sad indicator of what might have been possible for its young creator had his own tragic fate not intervened.