Witchfinder General – U.S. Title: The Conqueror Worm (1968)

Witchfinder General (poster)Conqueror Worm (poster)

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.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Pit and the Pendulum, the 1961 thriller which was the follow-up to Roger Corman’s surprisingly successful House of Usher, and the second of what would ultimately be eight of Corman’s Poe-based independent features. Once again starring horror film stalwart Vincent Price, and shot on an elaborate set built from cannibalized pieces rented from other studios, it was an even bigger hit than its predecessor and achieved a substantial amount of critical acclaim, despite its low budget, becoming a classic staple of later TV “creature feature” programs and providing considerable influence over the future of horror films, particularly those produced in Italy through the late ’60s and ’70s.

The original short story by Edgar Allan Poe is a brief, moody affair, more or less the description of a prisoner’s experience as he is tortured by the Spanish Inquisition with the swinging, bladed contraption of its title. This being clearly insufficient as the basis for a feature-length film, Corman re-hired Usher screenwriter, Richard Matheson- a respected wordsmith responsible for, among other things, numerous well-known stories and several classic episodes of The Twilight Zone– to fashion a suitable narrative that could feature Poe’s horrific scenario as part of a longer tale. Matheson’s solution is the 16th-Century tale of a young Englishman who travels to the remote Spanish castle of Don Nicholas, son of an infamous Inquisitor, seeking an explanation for the unexpected death of his sister, who had been the Don’s bride. Though his host is cordial and consumed with sorrow over the loss of his love, the young man’s suspicions begin to deepen as dark secrets are revealed surrounding the castle and its lord- including the presence of a horrific torture chamber which lies beneath it. The common threads of Poe’s work- madness-inducing grief, untimely death, premature burial- are intricately woven into Matheson’s script, giving it a strong feeling of authenticity, though there is little resemblance to anything in the author’s actual story; even the original setting within the Spanish Inquisition has been distanced, if not quite removed, by an intervening generation- though the connection has been maintained enough to provide the means of replicating Poe’s vision for film’s climactic sequence. Matheson was (and is) a highly renowned writer, and it is probably not an exaggeration to say that it was ultimately his contribution, more than any other, that raised The Pit and the Pendulum, as well as many of the other Poe features, above the level of the usual cheap exploitative fodder for which Corman was known; his fabricated storyline includes compelling situations and characters, clever and intricate plotting with a heavy sense of irony, and rich thematic layering which touches on our most universal fears and subconscious concerns.

It’s not prestige-picture material, though, make no mistake. Many of the conceits Matheson puts into place to facilitate the developments of his melodramatic plot do not hold up to even the most cursory logic. It’s also worth mentioning that some of the dialogue has a jarringly modern, banal sound to it, especially against the gothic backdrop and in comparison with some of the more florid passages in his script; coupled with the contemporary bearing and mannerisms of most of the performers, who seem vaguely uncomfortable and out of place in their period costumes, it makes for a certain low-brow quality that reminds us just how far-fetched the whole thing is. But that, of course, is part of the fun; The Pit and the Pendulum is a no-brainer, designed to keep its audience on edge not because of some vague intellectual idea of horror, but in anticipation of the inevitable gruesome shocks promised by its premise. Corman’s filmmaking agenda as a producer was always about knowing what his audience wanted and giving it to them, and he knew that what they would want was no different with these Poe films than from any of his other shockers, despite their literary pedigree. His goal was to provide a good hour and twenty minutes of chills and thrills, and that is what he delivered, with little concern for stylistic considerations that would make for a more erudite filmgoing experience.

This is not to say, however, that Corman the director eschews all artistic concerns; on the contrary, his work here is remarkably polished and coherent, with a highly effective visual style that goes a long way towards creating the film’s luridly baroque air. He adheres to a conceptual notion in which the events of the film, like Poe’s fiction, represent the contents of the subconscious, welling up to manifest in his woeful tale; consequently, he takes pains to establish his setting as isolated from the real world, surrounding the seaside castle with endlessly crashing waves and stormy skies. Further underlining the psychological nature of the drama, he depicts various memories and perceptual experiences in heightened style, shooting some sequences in deep monochromatic hues, using extreme distortion and camera angles, and steeping everything in a garish, dramatic palette- starting with a psychedelically surreal opening sequence featuring swirling pools of liquid color. Beyond his deliberate visual touches, he also delivers a well-paced, savvy piece of cinematic narrative, keeping the aura of tension and impending menace quite tangible despite the fact that much of the film contains no overtly horrific content. To be sure, when it’s there, he lays it on as thick as the cobwebs which cover the walls of the castle’s secret dungeon, which of course, as has been noted, is precisely what we want; and when we reach the payoff, the final sequence in which our young hero is subjected by his now-demented brother-in-law to the titular torture device, Corman’s efforts come to their fruition. It’s a genuinely hair-raising scene, enhanced by weird and stylized filmmaking, which truly captures the core of what makes this concept horrific- the psychological terror of awaiting the inevitable, grisly doom that methodically descends like clockwork, an imagined outcome that is ultimately far more disturbing than any blood-soaked act of dismemberment that might actually be shown onscreen.

Corman’s success at cashing in on popular trends with his cheaply-made quickies (he famously shot one of his most lucrative earlier films, The Little Shop of Horrors, in two days and one night) had by this point in his career afforded him the opportunity of securing bigger-name talent to help hedge his bets at the box office. Vincent Price, well established as a popular horror star, had taken on the lead role in Usher, and here returns once more, as he would continue to do throughout Corman’s “Poe cycle.” This time around he plays Don Nicholas, a sensitive soul living in the shadow of his father’s cruel public image and even crueler private deeds, and driven to the point of madness by the tragic death of his beautiful wife. It’s a foregone conclusion that he will eventually lose his sanity, of course; and Price plays with that boundary like the pro that he is, giving us a doe-eyed, fragile gentility that contrasts- and yet nevertheless offers frequent glimpses of- the roaring monster he will become by the end, with lots of overwrought moments of soul-shaking despair and horror thrown in throughout. It’s a flamboyantly campy performance, really- almost, but not quite, over-the-top; but after all, this kind of vaguely hokey melodrama requires a bit of hamminess in order to keep the emotional pitch high, and Price certainly provides it. Upon the film’s release, his work was roasted by several critics as laughable; in retrospect, however, it’s precisely the right blend of the serious and the ridiculous to keep us engaged and entertained, and the sense of gentle self-parody it suggests has come to be seen as one of the familiar hallmarks of this particular style and era.

It’s a good thing, actually, that Price’s work here is so gleefully theatrical, for his co-stars are considerably blander. The ostensible leading man, John Kerr, was a Tony-winning actor who started his Hollywood career as one of the most promising young actors of the late ‘50s; by the time he made this film, his star was almost faded. He is handsome and capable, but there is a lack of passion here that makes him far less interesting or sympathetic than his supposed antagonist, and he has a certain frat boy quality that hampers his believability as an early Renaissance nobleman. I’m not saying his performance is weak- indeed, he is more than adequate and far more convincing than many of the actors who filled this type of role in other Corman films, and by the time he gets strapped down under that swinging blade in the finale we definitely care about his fate- but he is far less compelling or memorable than Price. More interesting is Barbara Steele, fierce and beautiful as the doomed, not-quite-innocent young bride- though Corman dubbed her lines with another actress, fearing that Steele’s coarse English accent would not jibe with the sound of the other players. Luana Anders exudes kindness and refreshing normalcy as Price’s younger sister and Kerr’s obligatory love interest; and Anthony Carbone is fine as the family friend and doctor, though he would be likely be more convincing as a Vegas mobster in a slick suit. On the whole, unquestionably, it’s Price’s show- but that, perhaps, is as it should be.

No doubt due to the fact that, by the time of The Pit and the Pendulum, Corman and his crew were well-schooled in the art of movie-making on the fly, the film overall has fine production values. Considering it was filmed in three weeks with a reported budget of $300,000- a third of which was Price’s salary- it has a surprisingly polished and professional look. The sets are truly impressive, executed by Daniel Haller and Harry Reif on a large soundstage and using, as mentioned above, rented set pieces from other studios to patch together the interiors of the Don’s foreboding castle. For the exterior shots, process shots featuring matte paintings create a decidedly artificial look (it should be remembered that these kind of effects looked considerably more convincing, somehow, on a big screen) which nevertheless contributes to the film’s dreamlike- or should I say nightmarish- effect. The cinematography by Floyd Crosby is rich and weighty, and the score by Les Baxter (who was a well-known singer and arranger of jazz and popular music) is serviceably eerie, if not exactly memorable.

The Pit and the Pendulum is one of those movies that has become a classic despite itself, a monument to a particular era of filmmaking that contains numerous influential elements; these elements were not intended, necessarily, to be groundbreaking, just to be scary- such as the shots of a desiccated corpse frozen in the agony of trying to claw free of a premature grave, an iconic moment which has been echoed countless times over the subsequent decades. The movie’s status is partly to do with its exposure on television, where a whole generation of impressionable young people was acquainted with its fruity frights. Just because it’s a classic, however, doesn’t mean it’s a masterpiece; it’s still an example of hack-work elevated by the contributions of a few ringers, and boosted by the self-assured confidence that comes from being on a roll, as Corman and his team certainly were. Still, even if it’s not a great movie, it’s a damn good one, with a respectable commitment to quality and a strong dedication to good story-telling. If that story is ultimately more than a little cheesy, it is nevertheless engaging and- more to the point- undeniably spooky and disturbing, even as it generates laughs (which may not be as unintentional as one might think. This is no small feat, and it doesn’t happen accidentally; The Pit and the Pendulum succeeds thanks to the skill of the artists behind it, whose sole purpose was to stir up the uncomfortable corners of the psyche, and in the end, that’s about as close to the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe as any filmmaker could hope to get.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055304/