Michael Reeves, 1968
Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Patrick Wymark, Hilary Dwyer
Based on Ronald Bassett's novel Witchfinder General, the film loosely details the exploits of real life lawyer and witch hunter Matthew Hopkins (1620—1647), who operated during the English Civil War. Hopkins is selfish, murderous, and totally unsympathetic in his search for power rather than truth. He and his accomplices scour the countryside, torturing accused witches — the accusations often come without any proof — and then charging the local magistrates for their work. They accidentally cross paths with Richard, a young solider, and Sara, a lovely farm girl he has recently married. Hopkins and his cohorts imprison, torture, and kill the priest who has raised and cared for Sara, then one of them rapes her. Richard is determined to get revenge, despite the considerable amount of power Hopkins possesses.
Though Witchfinder General doesn't quite live up to the brutal antics of later German film Mark of the Devil (1970), it is still one of the greatest witch-hunting films in horror history and has been suggested as a candidate for the greatest British horror film of all time. While I don't think that's true, it has a number of pleasures, is undoubtedly very well made, and deserves its cult reputation. Though Price gives a great performance as Hopkins, it is strange to see him in a film with actual torture and rape. He plays against type, refusing to chew the scenery, ham it up, or work himself up into a comically maniacal lather. As Hopkins, he is deadly serious and outright unlikable. Though the violence of Witchfinder General isn't graphic enough to really shock today, it is plenty horrifying compared to the average Price film.
Witchfinder General also has a reputation among horror fans for the infamous hatred between Price and director Michael Reeves. Price wasn't Reeves first choice for the starring role (he wanted Donald Pleasance), a fact that Reeves apparently reminded the famous actor of frequently. Price also allegedly complained a lot on set, because the film was mostly shot outdoors rather than in a comfortable sound stage. The set certainly seemed like a tense, humorless place, but this benefits the production far more than it harms it. Price, who was constantly skeptical of Reeves’ abilities, eventually admitted that the film was an understated triumph.
Price and Reeves were supposed to reunite for The Oblong Box (1969), but Reeves died during pre-production and Gordon Hessler took over the film, reworking Reeves’ script about Jekyll and Hyde-like twins. His accidental death at 25 of a barbiturate overdose put a halt to a potentially brilliant career in British genre films and robbed Tigon British Film Productions of one of its brightest stars. Witchfinder General is actually a co-production between Tigon and American International Pictures (AIP), an arrangement they repeated for distribution purposes several times over the years with mixed results, as AIP sometimes demanded the inclusion of American actors (as in the case of Tigon's next outing, The Haunted House of Horror). AIP kept their meddling to a minimum here (one suspects Reeves would not have tolerated it), but for the US release of the film, they used the title The Conqueror Worm in a lousy attempt to cash in on Roger Corman and Vincent Price’s series of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. “The Conqueror Worm” is the title of one of my favorite Poe poems, but it doesn’t have a goddamn thing to do with Witchfinder General or witch hunting.
Though this is not one of my favorite Price films, in part because of its utter humorlessness, it is undeniably a successful and important work of genre cinema. Witchfinder General is a raw, bitter, and loveless work. Nary a tender emotion is experienced in the duration of the film and when the stark ending comes, it is ultimately a relief. Price is great in this atypical role and there are a number of strong performances from British horror regulars, including Reeves' old friend and regular Ian Ogilvy (The She Beast), Hammer regular Rupert Davies (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave), and Patrick Wymark (Repulsion, Where Eagles Dare) all make welcome appearances and Hilary Heath (in the similarly themed if somewhat more fun Cry of the Banshee, also with Price) is memorable as Sara.
This film comes highly recommended and is something every genre fan should see at least once. Witchfinder General is available on a single disc DVD or as part of the MGM Vincent Price Scream Legends box set. If you’re going to purchase or rent an older version, be on the look out for cuts. It was heavily censored in the UK upon its release and though it remained almost unscathed in the US, it was ignored by audiences for some reason.