That sly come hither stare. That strips my conscience bare. It's witchcraft!
Horror may have the most sub categories of any film genre. We have zombies, vampires, werewolves, monsters, ghosts, possessions, exorcisms, exploitations, blaxploitations, aliens, viruses, fantasy, torture, gothic, lovecraftian, creature features and so much more. In other 300 movies, I've pretty much seen them all. Well, at least I thought I have. Today's movie is a request by Justin which brought me into a subgenre I had yet to experience: historical horror. I don't think I can really name any other historical movies off the top of my head, but the idea makes sense. History is full of atrocities and real-life monsters. After all, man is the scariest villain of all.
Witchfinder General (also known as The Conqueror Worm) is a 1968 historical horror movie based on Ronald Bassett's novel of the same name. The film stars Vincent Price (House On Haunted Hill, The Last Man On Earth) as Matthew Hopkins. In 1645, a civil war is raging throughout England. Amidst all the chaos, witch hunter Matthew Hopkins sees opportunity. With his assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell, Doctor Who, The Avengers), Hopkins travels from village to village, torturing both men and women to coerce confessions out of them of being a witch. Hopkins receives payment from the local magistrates for his work, growing his power and influence throughout the countryside. In the town of Brandeston, a soldier named Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy, Return Of The Saint, Death Becomes Her) plans to marry Sara, the niece of the local priest, John Lowes (Rupert Davies, Ivanhoe, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave). Richard leaves for duty just as Hopkins and his men come into the village. They begin to torture Lowes when Sara offers herself to Hopkins in order to spare her uncle. Lowes is thrown in jail as Hopkins has his way with Sara. When Hopkins is called to another village, Stearne rapes Sara. When he learns of what Stearne has done, Hopkins loses interest in Sara, and executes Lowes, along with two other women. Richard returns to Brandeston and is horrified at what has happened to Sara. He marries her in a self-made ceremony and vows to gain revenge on Robert Hopkins. Will Marshall be able to stop the torture-loving man who now calls himself the Witchfinder General?
That hair is clearly the work of Satan
On the surface, some may be quick to dismiss Witchfinder General as a horror movie. Those people would be mistaken. Granted, the movie does not contain anything of the supernatural, be neither does Jaws, and that is unquestionably a horror movie. Much like The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General's horror is out in the open with it's blatant terror. The movie is that much scarier when you know that Matthew Hopkins was a real person and actually committed these atrocities. There are quite a few graphic scenes for the time and the movie was subsequently censored as an “unusually sadistic film experience”. I am certainly no fan of torture, but the movie is tame compared to today's ultra-graphic closeups of cut achilles tendons and snapped bones. The blood used in the movie is actually bright red paint, which comes off as quaint through today's eyes. The violence is quite vicious, especially towards women, so consider this multiple “trigger” warnings. Beyond the action and torture, the movie does have some slow and dry moments.
While the movie may not be entirely historically accurate, I know very little about England's civil war, so it's not like I noticed any mistakes. In a historical context, it is important to bring up the civil war, but it doesn't add a lot to the movie itself. If anything, it takes away from the main focus which is Vincent Price being a sadistic lunatic. Price is as good as always, giving the role of Matthew Hopkins a sinister calmness that other actors would not have been able to pull off. The movie had a small budget, but the acting and direction manages to hide the fact. Having a lot of scenes filmed in the beautiful English countryside certainly helped distract from the rather mundane sets.
Witch: The other white meat
I may not have watched Witchfinder General on my own, but I had a decent time watching it. I enjoyed the historical aspect of it and learned a few new things. Though tame by today's standards, the movie still has a lot of violence and torture, particularly towards women. While there are no graphic or extended scenes of rape, they do exist and are at best uncomfortable. There is a good amount of action, though the time in between does become slow and meandering. Vincent Price is great at Matthew Hopkins, giving the character a cold and calculating feel. The movie does have a creeping sense of terror and uneasiness that is hard to shake, especially with the dark ending. Witchfinder General may not be at the top of any horror list, but it's a sneaky movie that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
For your listening pleasure, here is the heavy metal band Witchfinder General with their song "Death Penalty". Special thanks to Justin for the request. If you'd like to request a movie for review, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.