Witchfinder General (AKA The Conqueror Worm)
Directed by Michael Reeves
Starring Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies
Review by Jordan
Violent times pollute the minds of those engulfed in them, creating a population clambering for blood and the excuses by which they can see it. The Civil War between the Royalists and Parliamentary Party in 17th Century England was one such time, where superstition reigned in a time of conflict and devious men were allowed terrible control over the minds and lives of villagers whom fate brought before them.
One such man was Matthew Hopkins, a witch hunter for hire who with his sadistic sidekick roamed the countryside and when called upon interrogated, sought a confession from and systematically executed supposed witches. For a fee, of course. Born in 1620 and buried in August 1647, the life of Hopkins has long been a topic of discussion among historians, with Malcolm Gaskil stating that he: “lives on as an anti-hero and bogeyman – utterly ethereal, endlessly malleable.” In 1968, promising 25 year old director (24 when shooting began) Michael Reeves brought this enigmatic figure to the silver screen, in an intense film that has maintained a formidable reputation ever since.
Grounded by an uncommonly stern, career-best performance by Vincent Price as the man who would claim the (unofficial) title Witchfinder General, Reeve’s tale follows Parliamentary soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), who vows revenge on Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne after they target his beautiful finance and her Priest uncle. Marshall faces desertion charges and execution himself for his crimes, but forges ahead with a determined heart to rid the country of this particular vassal of violence, culminating in a comfortless conclusion preceded by a heightening sense of dread as nooses drops, ropes are lowered and fires are stoked.
Witchfinder General is heavy with an overall feeling of suffocation, quickly snuffing out any hope of viewer respite with its bleak tone and unwaveringly evil antagonists. It excels marvelously as a horror film, and is surprisingly competent as a period essay, making effort to explain the era and political landscape and not forgetting it in favor of sensationalism; one can only wonder what it’s director might’ve gone on to achieve were it not for his fatal drug overdose shortly after the film released.
Lacking in technical proficiency and appearing at times to be stumbling from one encounter to the next, Witchfinder General does indeed find itself lacking in certain categories, but these flaws are relegated to the distant background as the atrocities of the time and Price’s commanding presence take center stage. Ultimately, it deserves recognition alongside The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now as one of the most devastating horror films to emerge from the UK, and its bound to ignite historical curiosity in all who dare venture within it’s blood stained walls.