One of Appellate Judge Tom Becker's ancestors was injured during a warlock raid in 17th century Salem, but they took him to Witchfinder General Hospital and fixed him up.
"Do you know what they call me now? Witchfinder General. There are those
who think that I should be appointed such for all of England, appointed by
Vincent Price is so ingrained in our minds as a raving villain in low-budget '60s horror films that those appearances overshadow the fact that he was a successful and respected actor in the '40s and '50s. He appeared three times opposite Gene Tierney, most memorably as a surprisingly sexy cad in the classic Laura. By the time he made Witchfinder General in 1968, Price's floridly gothic performances were already in full bloom, so much so that he had begun to parody them in the Dr. Goldfoot films and as the villain "Egghead" on Batman.
In Witchfinder General, you won't be finding the gleefully hammy Vincent Price you've come to expect from his AIP-produced Edgar Allen Poe outings. This is a lean and somber performance in a serious and disturbing film.
MGM gives us a very good release of this controversial classic.
Facts of the Case
In 17th century England, Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price, The Pit and the Pendulum) and his assistant, Stearne (Robert Russell, The Whisperers), go from town to town, exposing, interrogating, and executing witches. This is the time of civil war, with Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads battling King Charles's Royalists. The divided loyalties of the country prove profitable for Hopkins and Stearne, who are paid a bounty for every "witch" they reveal. The citizens are not above accusing neighbors whose religious or political beliefs they disagree with of practicing witchcraft.
On their way to Brandeston to investigate a priest, they pass Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy, Waterloo), a young soldier who has just proposed marriage to Sara (Hilary Heath, The Oblong Box). Marshall is off to fight with Cromwell, and Sara happens to be the niece of a priest the witch hunters have come to question. When Marshall and Stearne interrogate the priest—jabbing him with a long, thin dagger to find "the devil's mark"—Sara offers herself to Marshall in return for her uncle's life.
Marshall accepts, and the priest is imprisoned but spared. But when Marshall has to leave town, Stearne declares himself in charge of Marshall's affairs.
And that includes Sara.
To say that the set of Witchfinder General was not the happiest place on Earth would be an understatement. Director Michael Reeves had written the screenplay with Donald Pleasance in mind as Hopkins, but when Tigon Productions, which produced the film, received funding from AIP, it came with a price: Vincent Price, who was under contract to AIP, was to take the role. Infuriated, but stuck, Reeves rewrote the part, and denounced the decision to anyone who would listen. Naturally, this got back to Price.
The two men never got along during filming, and Price detested making Witchfinder General. His opinion changed, however, when he saw the finished film and the serious, terrifying performance Reeves had elicited from him.
When Witchfinder General was released, it was condemned for its scenes of excessive brutality. A cut version was shown in the United Kingdom. For its American release, Witchfinder General was renamed The Conqueror Worm, the title of a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, and an opening and closing narration of Price reading from the poem was added. The title change made no sense in the context of the film and was just tacked on to make a connection to Price's AIP films based on Poe's work.
Unlike some period films dealing with abuses done in the name of religion and morality, Witchfinder General does not eroticize its torture sequences. There are no half-naked hotties writhing on racks here, and the tortures themselves are hardly elaborate. Stearne is not an "artist" but a thug, slapping, jabbing, and cutting people; the accused are drowned, hung, and in one gut-wrenching sequence, burned alive. These scenes are effective because of their inelegance. The dungeons are not grandiose settings filled with imaginative devices, just filthy holes where people are chained and confessions beaten out of them.
The depiction of sexuality in the film was surprisingly frank. Richard and Sara are a "proper" young couple. He asks her uncle, the priest, for permission to marry her, but later, they spend the night together. When Hopkins comes to take her up on her offer, you expect something will happen, he will become enraged about something, she will relent, some last-minute event will thwart his plans; instead, they actually do enter into an affair, and the "be-promised" woman is corrupted, yet heroic. Later, when Hopkins leaves town, she is raped by Stearne.
Yet, Sara is not depicted as demeaned or "damaged goods;" nor is she summarily dispatched so that her lover be spared returning to a "tainted" woman. Both she and Richard are more enlightened than the typical hero and heroine, valiant but tragically human.
Price's Hopkins is also tragically human. Vain, pious, flawed, and unscrupulous, his ambition is pathological. We are never sure to what extent Hopkins is buying into his "mission," when he has crossed the line from using "God's work" as a calling card to believing himself a crusader of rectitude. It's a chilling, harrowing performance, one of Price's best.
In the past, I'd bought some of MGM's "Midnite Movie" offerings, and while I enjoyed the films (Theater of Blood, the Dr. Phibes offerings), I was disappointed with the quality of the discs, which generally featured at-best adequate transfers and no extras except trailers. MGM acquits itself nicely with this release. This is the director's cut; scenes that had been excised for previous releases have been restored here. While the transfer is far from perfect, a bit faded and soft in some spots (owing, perhaps, to the source materials), it is overall a very good rendition of a beautifully shot film, quite clean and free of any major damage or distraction.
The case lists the film as being the "musically edited version," which is usually bad news, but not here. When Witchfinder General, as Conqueror Worm, was released on video in the U.S. in the '80s, a royalties dispute caused the original score by Paul Ferris to be replaced. This release restores Ferris's soundtrack, and while the Dolby mono track might not be the best way to listen to it, it does come across clearly. It's a beautiful score; I didn't see the film with the other score (by Kendall Schmidt), but it's hard to imagine Witchfinder General with a different soundtrack.
MGM really steps up to the plate with the extras. First is a commentary with Steve Haberman, one of the writers on the excellent Val Lewton documentary Shadows in the Dark, and Witchfinder Genral's co-producer Philip Waddilove and Ian Ogilvy, who played Marshall and who had known director Reeves for years. The track is wonderful, full of anecdotes and analysis that add greatly to the viewing experience. Catch Haberman's narration over the opening moments for a better appreciation of Reeves' vision.
A 25-minute documentary on the film, "Witchfinder General: Michael Reeves' Horror Classic," features Richard Squires, curator of the Vincent Price online exhibit, as well as Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, who have authored horror stories and edited a number of anthologies, and Chris Wicking, who wrote a number of low-budget horror films in the '60s and '70s, including Cry of the Banshee, which starred Price and Heath. The four offer some entertaining insights on the making of Witchfinder General, and this documentary is a nice complement to the commentary track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is by no means a fun horror movie. There are no Cormanesque flourishes or exhilaratingly dreadful moments. It is a profoundly disturbing—and depressingly contemporary—examination of corruption of power and contains one of the bleakest endings I've seen in a film of this type.
Vincent Price continued his reign of terror on screen until his death in 1993.
Michael Reeves never directed another film; he died of a drug overdose in 1969 at age 25.
Witchfinder General is a fine tribute to the talents of both men.
Strong stuff, highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio commentary by Steve Haberman, Philip Waddilove, and Ian Ogilvy
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