Witchfinder General


Year 1968

Vincent Price as  Matthew Hopkins
Ian Ogilvy   as Richard Marshall
Rupert Davies as John Lowes
Hilary Dwyer as Sara Lowes   
Robert Russell as John Stearne   
 
Director/Screenwriter   - Michael Reeves
Screenwriter - Louis M. Heyward   

 

Years ago, before cable, on a Saturday afternoon, the standard movie viewing for local channels was something by Hammer Films or American International Pictures (AIP). Not that this was a bad thing. In fact, some of my fondest memories of cheesy movies come from watching "Chiller Theater" or "Creature Feature".

Certain names are associated with movies of this type. Names like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Vincent Price. You could always count on Vincent Price to ham it up for some AIP movie based on something by Edgar Allan Poe.

On one of these bygone Saturdays, a movie named The Conqueror Worm came on. I knew nothing about this movie except that when it played in theaters, the ad showed a giant skull covered in worms. What did this mean? Based solely upon the title and the art, I expected a to see a giant Reptilicus style monster attempt to devour the world and be thwarted by an overdose of radiation or Denny's pseudo-butter. ("It ate one poly-saturated fat victim too many!")

The movie opens with Vincent Price reading part of a poem by Poe. The poem is, "The Conqueror Worm". Is the movie based on a Poe poe-m? Nope. How about a Poe story? Nuh-uh. What about events that happened when Poe was alive? Wrong again. What does the movie have to do with a Poe or even a worm for that matter? Not much.

Still, it's Saturday afternoon and maybe there's a giant worm around somewhere. I settle down to watch. There's the English countryside and some guy dressed like a soldier of the 1700s riding up to a house. It's a nice house. It looks like a place someone lives in. I expected to see the soldier ring the doorbell. No, wait. It's the 1700s and there are no electric doorbells. They must have taped it over for the scene.

The soldier, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) is admitted and there's some talk. Mumble, mumble, "papacy", mumble, mumble, "hand in marriage", mumble, mumble, "my niece".

Enter Sara Lowes (Hilary Dwyer). Maybe she's hot by 1700s standards. But to me, she's been spending so much time around the horses that she's starting to look like one. And where's Vincent Price?

Eventually, and not a moment too soon, Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) shows up. Oh, boy! Now we're going to see some serious scenery chewing! You see a Vincent Price movie to see ol' Vinnie ham up every scene. Let the entertainment begin!

What's happening? What's wrong with Vincent Price? He's doing something odd. He's...acting! He can do that? Since when?

The movie has gone from camp to intense in nothing flat. Wow! They're showing the torture on television? Well, maybe not all of it, but boy is this gruesome and a cut above a standard gore fest. Nice, memorable in a good way.

So why do I keep talking about The Conqueror Worm? Isn't this supposed to be the page for Witchfinder General? Well, The Conqueror Worm was the US release title of an edited version of the British film Witchfinder General. Today, you can't get the DVD for The Conqueror Worm, but you can get the DVD for Witchfinder General.

So, what about Witchfinder General? It's better than The Conqueror Worm. Probably because the title lets you know what to expect. No giant worms or skulls. Lots of sadists running around the country from the top down.

This movie is about a real person, Matthew Hopkins, and some of his acts of atrocity while ferreting out witches. The film is a touch chaotic, not sure if it wants to be a period piece or a horror story. It tries to be both with mixed results. The timeline in the movie is historically accurate. Matthew Hopkins and his buddy John Stearne (Robert Russell) roamed the English countryside circa 1645 and, for a fee, tried and killed people accused of practising witchcraft. But, they couldn't have done this without the approval, or at least the blind eye, of members of British Parliament and of course, Oliver Cromwell. At this time, Oliver Cromwell was the Lieutenant-General of the New Model Army.

A few words on Oliver Cromwell. He was a religious fanatic. A real nut-job in matters of faith. You know the type. Not just "My way or the highway" but more "My way or the painful death way". Under a guise of humility, he directly or indirectly murdered and tortured thousands. Not a pleasant type, but it's easy to see how a Witchfinder could grow powerful under this sort of military and future political leader. For a sympathetic take on Cromwell, check out Cromwell starring Richard Harris. The ever arrogant Harris is perfect in the role of the zealot.

This movie is taken from a book of the same name that is a biography of Matthew Hopkins. The plot of the movie, Hopkins picks on the wrong woman to have sex with and later accuse of witchcraft, is made up. But Hopkins going from town to town administering "witch" tests is not. Not considered torture according to British law, the methods employed by Hopkins make detainee treatment at Gitmo look like a bad night's sleep.

Some of the scenes are quite graphic and much use is made of the hollow-handled short rapier. The movie is more torture horror than supernatural suspense, but it works well within its confines. The scariest part of the movie while watching it is that much of what is depicted actually happened.

Not enough screen time is given to the Hopkins character. Thanks to Vincent Price's portrayal, Hopkins is intriguing enough to want to know more about. Did he really believe he was doing good? Was he a charlatan? Did he think people were soulless objects? Did he really have a voracious sexual appetite?

Unlike The Conqueror Worm, there is some nudity in Witchfinder General. We get to see why Hilary Dwyer nicely filled the role of Sara. There's one scene I remember from some movie, I thought it was The Conqueror Worm, where a woman's breast gets the hollow-handled prop treatment at an inn. It was shown on television. If it was a scene from The Conqueror Worm, then it was cut from Witchfinder General.

The ending is unnerving, which is alright with me, because it reflects what might have really happened. The fate of Hopkins in the movie does not match his biography. The real Hopkins kept on going and eventually died comfortably.

After the movie is over, it's still scary. Zealots who preach intollerance (Nancy Pelosi anyone?) are still part of our society. What allowed Cromwell to gain power might be myriad - corrupt government, lack of education of those he lorded over, preying on fears using buzzwords - but parallels can be found today. The threat of witchhunters is as likely today as it was over three hundred years ago. Different name, same mission - get and maintain power.


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