Known as one of the best British horror films, Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm) was recently re-released stateside by MGM on DVD. Though I don’t think it lives up to the title as one of the best British horror films, it certainly showcases the evil, cruel and sadistic nature of man during England’s infamous witch trials.
In civil-war torn England circa 1645, Cromwell’s Roundheads are fighting against King Charles’ royalist troops. The land is in upheaval, full of lawlessness, distrust, religious persecution and superstition. It is in this unpredictable atmosphere that Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), otherwise known as the Witchfinder General, travels from town to town along with his assistant Stearne (Robert Russell). The two men obtain confessions from accused “witches” (usually just unpopular townsfolk) by viciously torturing them. Hopkins and Stearne do this for money, but also for the pleasure of watching others’ displeasure. If they cannot obtain a confession by torture alone, the two perform “tests” (such as seeing if the accused will float or sink in water) to prove they are the Devil’s servants.
Meanwhile, a young soldier named Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) is planning on marrying Sarah (Hilary Dwyer), niece to a Catholic priest (Rupert Davies) in quaint Brandeston. On a short leave from duty, he visits the two and receives the uncle’s blessing for the marriage. He happily takes his leave to go back to his post, but unbeknownst to him he runs into the Witchfinder General on his way into Brandeston to condemn the Catholic priest!
After gathering the mob who accused the unpopular priest of working for the Devil, Hopkins and his assistant invade the priest’s home and brutally beat and stab him. Sarah pretends to be but a lowly servant girl and offers herself to Hopkins to save her uncle’s life. The torture stops, but the priest is thrown in prison to rot. When Hopkins’ bloodthirsty assistant learns of the “understanding” between the Witchfinder and Sarah, he violently rapes her. After Hopkins finds out about this, he wants nothing more to do with her and the torture of the priest reconvenes. The priest is eventually hung, leaving Sarah distraught and dishonored.
Richard soon discovers what has occurred and hoofs it back to Brandeston. There, he and Sarah have an impromptu wedding before he sets out to track down the Witchfinder General for revenge!
There is no question that Witchfinder General is full of sadism and brutality. Its depictions of unjust and unfair witch trials are appalling and extremely hard to watch, especially if you keep in mind that these things actually happened. Still, despite its cult status as one of the best British horror films ever made, it still has several flaws that dampened my enjoyment of this film.
The pacing is probably the number one problem, and the film feels like it starts and stops, starts and stops one too many times. Scenes seem to drag on and on as the film meanders to its maddening end. There are several instances that I was overwhelmed with boredom and just wished the film would get on with it already! The script (based on a book by Ronald Bassett and written by Tom Baker) should have been considerably tightened up to flow more smoothly and tell the story better.
Witchfinder General is not all bad, though. Fans of British horror films will probably eat it right up. It also features great acting, especially by the usually over-the-top Vincent Price, who puts on a very subtle and cruel performance as the Witchfinder General. The rest of the cast does a marvelous job as well, including Ian Ogilvy as the heroic Richard, Hilary Dwyer as a strong but very frightened Sarah and of course Robert Russell as the reprehensible and sadistic Stearne.
Another positive of the film is the unabashed cruelty portrayed. The film looks unflinchingly at the horrors experienced by accused witches and, to this day, it’s quite hard to watch. The ludicrous tests for witchcraft (including the sink or float theory mentioned above), along with the vicious torture of the accused all culminated in hanging, being burned at the stake, or some other unthinkable act. This film really explores the evils people are capable of inflicting on their fellow human beings, which, in the realistic setting of witch trials, is truly terrifying.
Also worth mentioning is that this was director Michael Reeves last picture before his drug overdose (a reputed suicide) at age 26. He had only made two films before Witchfinder (The She-Beast with Barbara Steele and The Sorcerers with Boris Karloff). It was reported that he had some fantastical arguments with Vincent Price while shooting the picture!
Witchfinder General may not be the best British horror movie ever, but if you are a big fan of British horror films or a witch trial history buff it will definitely deliver. As for the rest of us, a rental will probably suffice.