director Michael Reeves
Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General, a.k.a. The Conqueror Worm is another of that tight list of Britain’s best horror films. Interestingly, it’s not so much a horror film really in the least, but rather a pretty gory historical tale with some basis in fact and some in fiction.
The “Witchfinder General” was a real man, a Matthew Hopkins, who during the English Civil war (1642-1651), was “believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 300 women”, in the name of purging the country of witchcraft. Reeves’ Witchfinder General was based on Roland Bassett’s novel of the same title from 1966. While it’s a fiction, there is aspects of fact beneath the story.
The film stars Vincent Price, who was in his late 50’s at the time, playing a role of a much younger man. Apparently Reeves wasn’t happy with the studio selection, originally planning to have Donald Pleasance in the role. Who knows how that would have turned out. Who knows as well about Reeves, who died the following year from an accidental overdose at the age of 27.
Price plays the corrupt and powerful Hopkins, who with his sidekick John Stearne (Robert Russell), traipses around the eastern part of England, collecting money from villages with accused witches, testing them by various brutal tortures, and then hanging them or burning them alive. He’s dirty from his hair to his toenails and Stearne is just the man for the doling out of sadistic cruelty.
It’s horror, but real life horror, not a thing supernatural about it.
Much has been made of Reeves’ approach to the English countryside, shooting the bucolic scenes rather lovingly in stark contrast to the tortures being exercised against the innocent. And it is a fine film, very dark and pessimistic, but apt to its subject matter.
I’d never really “enjoyed” the movie when I’d seen it as a kid. It’s kind of a downer. And while Price does play murderous brutes and monsters in other films, Hopkins is such a callow and beastly character without any charms or redemptions (probably accurately enough). But it’s not a “monster” movie, and in some ways, like I said, it’s not really a horror film either.
I’d seen it again back about 20 years ago, but it’s been a while. It’s another of those “quick, it’s about to be dropped from Netflix streaming!” movies, but it dovetailed with my Halloween Horror Fest too. And it’s Vincent Price.