This 1968 gut-wrencher was
the final film of Britain’s talented Michael Reeves, and one of the highlights
of British horror in the sixties. It remains a uniquely tough, uncompromising
film, and contains perhaps the best-ever performance by the late Vincent Price.
Michael Reeves was just 23 years old when he
made the historical horror fest MATTHEW HOPKINS WITCHFINDER GENERAL, a.k.a. THE
CONQUERER WORM, a.k.a. WITCHFINDER GENERAL. Co-financed by American
International Pictures, who where responsible for the presence of their house
star Vincent Price in the title role, it was easily the finest of Reeves’ three
features (the others being THE SHE BEAST from 1965 and THE SORCERERS from
1967). It also marked a turning point in British cinema, which following its
release turned out an increasing number of taboo-shattering works like GET
CARTER, PERFORMANCE, THE DEVILS and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, all a far cry from the
likes of BRIEF ENCOUNTER or KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. Unfortunately Michael
Reeves died of a barbiturate overdose in 1969.
The extreme violence of WITCHFINDER GENERAL was
controversial for its time, and although the film was released more-or-less
intact by British censors, it was heavily cut for its initial US release. As
for the film’s numerous home video incarnations, the most complete version can
be found on MGM’s 2007 DVD release.
The year is 1645 and England is gripped by civil war.
Matthew Hopkins is a self-ordained attorney who travels from town to town in an
effort to ferret out witches through gruesome “examinations”. He’s paid
handsomely for these sessions, of course, and always makes sure to give his
suspects a full dose of torture.
Enter Richard Marshall, a Cromwellian soldier in love
with the pretty Sara. Hopkins enters their town and immediately sets his sights
on Sara, who ends up violated at the hands of Hopkins’ psychotic assistant
Stearne. Sara, it turns out, is one of the lucky ones: Several other town
citizens are accused of witchcraft, including a local priest, and all lose their
lives at the hands of Hopkins, who then departs for another town.
Richard becomes determined to track down Hopkins and
make him pay for his transgressions. But he’ll have to stand in line, as
Stearne becomes equally disenchanted with his employer after Hopkins leaves him
to be manhandled by an invading army. A plague of violence, fostered by
Hopkins, spreads across the land, and is set to engulf Hopkins himself along
with everyone around him.
For unadorned brutality this film, nearly forty years
after its inception, has few rivals. It contains many graphic torture sequences
crafted with a minimum of cutaways; Michael Reeves ensures that we get all the
gory details, with a particular emphasis on pain. The victims here both
male and female scream for all they’re worth upon getting stabbed, drowned or
beaten, which causes great discomfort in the viewer (as it should). While some
clunky elements (such as a noisy, over-insistent score) common to traditional
British genre fare remain, the film is largely unique in its cold, almost
clinical approach to violence.
The point seems to be to demonstrate how in the dark
days of the Seventeenth Century bloodlust spread like a contagion, engulfing the
sadistic Matthew Hopkins and the film’s square-jawed hero in one of the
most vicious climaxes you’re ever likely to experience. WITCHFINDER GENERAL is
less a pure horror film than a violent action drama--even, as has been
repeatedly stressed by various commentators, a western. But as such it’s more
in line with the dark revisionist westerns of the seventies (like DIRTY LITTLE
BILLY, THE HUNTING PARTY and SOLDIER BLUE), which stressed moral ambiguity over
One of the film’s finest elements in my view is Vincent
Price in the title role, who amply demonstrates why he was a horror icon.
There’s a debate among WITCHFINDER fans as to whether Price, traditionally known
for campy roles in grade-B fare like THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHILBES and the original
FLY, hurts or harms this heavily naturalistic film. I say he’s an invaluable
asset whose sheer presence all-but burns a hole in the celluloid.
WITCHFINDER GENERAL (a.k.a.
MATTHEW HOPKINS WITCHFINDER GENERAL; THE CONQUEROR WORM)
Director: Michael Reeves
Producers: Louis M. Heyward, Philip Waddilove, Arnold Miller
Screenplay: Michael Reeves, Louis M. Heyward, Tom Baker
Cinematography: Johnny Coquillon
Cast: Vincent Price, Ian Oglivy, Rupert Davies, Wilfrid Brambell, Patrick Wymark,
Hilary Dwyer, Robert Russell, Michael Beint, John Trenaman, Godfrey James, Tony
Selby, Nicky Henson, Bill Maxwell, Paul Ferris, Maggie Kimberly