aka The Conqueror Worm aka Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General
Directed by Michael Reeves
Written by Tom Baker and Michael Reeves
To start out with, Michael Reeves's 1968 witch horror film, Witchfinder General, is I suppose what I would call ideologically congruent with my own feelings on the concept of the witch horror film: witches are not real, never were real, and those called witches, and subsequently condemned for witchcraft, were murdered under the color of law, with the number of English subjects victimized by the practice, including in what would become the United States, amounting to around six or seven hundred over the years (some of them men, but overwhelmingly women, as I'm sure you know), and while of course it's fun to have fun with spooky witchcraft tales, there will always be some small part of me that can't help but find Hocus Pocus, for instance, a kid's adventure movie about how those witches of New England, specifically, had it coming, to be somewhat in bad taste. But here we have Witchfinder General, a horror film—a "horror film" only by acclamation, really, but let's not get ahead of ourselves—about how witches weren't real, never were real, and so forth, and how the real horror was always the exploitation of religious sanction by a bunch of perfectly human monsters. Yeah, that sounds about right, but you can probably already guess that if I started out a review describing a movie with the silky, seductive phrase "ideologically congruent," then "ideologically congruent" is about all that Witchfinder General is to me. Did you read the sentence before last? That's great, you've got a pretty strong grasp of everything Witchfinder General will ever show you, more-or-less obviating any need to actually watch it.
Of course, I would not tell you not to watch it, for we must acknowledge that what we're dealing with here is one of the ur-classics of British horror, a genre that blossomed late in that country, such as don't really seem to do a ton for me as a class. (I'm not deeply impressed by Hammer's first spate of Universal Horror remakes, for example, and while I like 1960's barely-even-proto proto-slasher Peeping Tom well enough, I find what it's trying to say with its metacinematic villain a little boring and obvious. Generously, I can nod in Witchfinder General's direction for opening the way for the similarly-anticlerical 1971 film The Devils, probably Britain's first horror masterpiece, though as it's sort of not "properly" horror either, I guess let's simply content ourselves with agreeing that The Wicker Man, way out in 1974, also rather jaundiced about religion, is at least fairly great.)
So this requires us to take a tangent immediately, to answer the question of what the hell this thing that amounts to a historical drama about man's inhumanity to man is even doing here, in this on-and-off retrospective that is, at least nominally, about American horror cinema in the Gothic vein. I could just tell the honest truth and admit that I merely wanted to do Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for AIP because they're awesome, and things got out of hand; and there is the matter of The Vincent Price Gothic Horrors, the 1982 PBS series which aired a dozen Vincent Price vehicles, including Witchfinder General, thereby establishing a canon of sorts.* Together these point to exactly the stupid explanation you'd expect: Witchfinder General is, entirely theoretically, one more continuation of AIP's Poe "franchise," which as we've seen several times already certainly didn't require a basis, or even an inspiration, in any actual Edgar Allan Poe to still get AIP Poe branding. And so it happened that when AIP took on Witchfinder General, ponying up half its budget in collaboration with its actual production company, Britain's Tigon, they slapped their Poe on it in the form of a gnarlier poster and a stateside title exhumed from Poe's poetry, The Conqueror Worm, which is stomach-churningly arbitrary in how little it even attempts to be related to the movie which it appeared in front of. (And which I wish they'd used for The Comedy of Terrors.) Far more importantly for the picture itself, however, they imposed upon Reeves a star not of his choosing, their illustrious Poe veteran, Vincent Price himself. (Thus for the third time, following The Haunted Palace and War-Gods of the Deep aka City Under the Sea, Price was tasked with reciting Poe over an unrelated film's opening credits to justify its Poevian title. This isn't in the British cut that I screened.) Reeves hated this, and hated Price, as he'd wanted Donald Pleasance for the title role—and for the duration of the shoot, Price hated him right back, clocking the twenty-five year old as hardly anything but a smug little brat—but once the film was finished, Price affably conceded that Reeves had made a film of substance after all, and had in fact directed him well. I don't agree with Price about this, on either count, but I will always admire Price's class.
The film itself, then, is based on the 1966 novel by Ronald Bassett, a historical fiction about the self-proclaimed "witchfinder generall" of England, Matthew Hopkins (Price). The emphasis is on the fiction, so that if we consider it a literary adaptation foremost it's not completely eye-rolling that Price, despite his 57 years on Earth just now starting to catch up on him in a serious way, is playing a character described as "any age between thirty and forty-five," inasmuch as Matthew Hopkins could not, actually, have been any age between thirty and forty-five because Matthew Hopkins only ever operated as a witch hunter between the ages of 25 and 28, at which point he wrote his 1647 treatise, The Discovery of Witches, and died of pleural tuberculosis rather than the somewhat more cinematic method depicted here, or the ironic folk legend the novel deploys. Given the movie's cynical view of history and society, maybe it's a slight surprise that it conjures up any punishment for Hopkins's sins at all.
So, to those sins: in 1645, Hopkins and his partner, John Stearne (Robert Russell), travel a countryside riven by the ongoing civil war between Parliament and Charles I, with a Parliamentary sanction to find witches, kill witches, and invoice municipalities for their services. (The film elides the female support staff that tested women's bodies for the presence of devil's teats—look, I didn't make this shit up, but maybe it's a little telling that even the English Puritans seemed to at least have some vague inkling that "witchfinding" wasn't very far off from "woman-hating serial killing"; the film likewise, albeit for efficiency's sake rather than to re-emphasize Hopkins's and Stearne's evil, expands Hopkins role as an interrogator into the role of judge.) Arriving in Suffolk, Hopkins and Stearne investigate allegations against the priest John Lowes (Rupert Davies); luckily for Lowes, if only temporarily, his niece Sara (Hilary Dwyer) is willing to put herself between Hopkins and his target, acceding to the former's sexual coercion to keep her uncle from the various tests—"pricking," "running," and the invariably fatal "swimming"—that Hopkins would otherwise mete out. This accommodation lasts until Stearne figures out what's happening, gets jealous, and simply forcibly rapes Sara out in a field, infuriating Hopkins, who considers the deal void and takes out his anger by drowning Lowes along with a few other Suffolk "witches." Presently, Sara's betrothed, Parliamentarian Army cornet Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), whom we met briefly a little while ago, returns from duty, and finds his lover's life a shambles; he marries her by the authority of God in her uncle's empty church, and vows to avenge her dishonor, barely skirting a hanging for desertion in his enraged quest to find the witchfinders, and put an end to their scourge.
This isn't even "horror" on the basis that the characters in it think witches exist; neither Hopkins nor Stearne appear to themselves believe in the reality of witchcraft. So if it is "horror," it's on the pretty flimsy basis that some notional people, outside the scope of film's story, think that witches exist, and also upon the basis of numerous acts of torture and violence. "Not being horror" is, obviously, fine—lots of great movies aren't horror—and there is, I suppose, some place in this world for such a brand of grimly-unpleasant swashbuckler. (Reeves described it as an "English Western," though since we do already have a name for "an early modern period piece where a heroic avenger kills corrupt enemies of the people," there's no need for us to call it that; the only significant way it's an "English Western" is an emphasis on a horseback riding and an English landscape that is a little too clammy for anybody besides Reeves to arrive at a comparison to, say, Anthony Mann all on their own.) But if there is a place for that kind of thing, I don't know what to do with this example of it; as it is, at least, a pretty quintessential example of late 60s ennui and exhaustion with the status quo, such as were kicking off the New Hollywood back in America, I guess it's fair to admit I rarely know what to do with any of them and their featureless nihilism.
"Featureless" is the key there. It really struggles, I think, to be about anything except its last ninety seconds, where it plants its flag as an anti-revenge movie by way of dual howls of anguish, unsoothed by the insufficient catharsis of violence; it is "about" the witch trials of England in the form of its Matthew Hopkins, whom I suppose it fancies it "studies," though we've already more-or-less gotten to the bottom of his character by the end of the first half hour with nothing left to wring out of either him or, I'm afraid, Price's performance. It somehow can't manage to be a movie about religious extremism, because this Hopkins is not, in fact, a religious extremist, just a ratty little self-important opportunist done up with Priceian vainglory—which is, in truth, probably accurate to the historical figure—nor do we ever meet any religious extremists. This Hopkins is fairly bland even in his sadism, not just in terms of the usual Vincent Price theatricality, which wouldn't have been appropriate, but to the point that the brutal means are just in service to entirely quotidian ends. It's altogether venal, and basic, and, for good or ill, Price got tamped down incredibly hard by Reeves's browbeating: Reeves's painfully obvious goal was a movie about the banality of evil, and, not to get too cute, but "banality" is banal, and, naturally, it's a tedious point to make over and over, even if Price is occasionally allowed to complicate it with winces at the horrors at his command, or leaven it with a bit of customary Price haughtiness.
As for the heroic side of the equation, Richard is torn between his duty to Sara and his obligations toward Cromwell's (Patrick Wymark's) army, and the movie does not do anything interesting with this—it has to contrive, pretty hard, for Richard's second absence to even look like it has the function of putting Sara in danger again—and despite leaning very heavily on the prospect of desertion, nothing ever comes of that, while all along the stuff with the English Civil War barely even feels like set-dressing, and more like something happening entirely parallel to the actual story. This is one of the curiouser misses of the film, that isn't actually very good at suggesting the spillover of violence beyond the ambit of the rebellion against the king, or even the Puritan underpinnings of the Parliamentary revolt; maybe I missed a reference to "papists" somewhere, but I'm fairly certain this movie "about religion" set in 1645 never refers to any specific denomination outside of the Anglican Church or any specific movement within it. I assume Lowes is a Laudian Anglican, but mostly because he somewhat looks like Archbishop William Laud. Perhaps you noticed that Cromwell is in the movie; I really couldn't tell you why. There's the abiding suspicion that the movie distracts itself with its English Civil War (a war that, in this low-budget telling, is fought principally with ambushes on small mobile units and with snipers) mostly just to gesture, rather inarticulately, at the contemporary war being fought in Vietnam, and that is a touch sigh-inducing in its "art comments upon events!" datedness.
It does, at least, have control over its tone, and Reeves could be proud of that (though, unfortunately, he didn't really have the opportunity, either overdosing or committing suicide shortly after the film's release**), even if that tone doesn't vary and stales rather quickly. The movie begins with a symbolically-loaded shot of the sun with its lens flare taking the shape of a cross, and this is good: at least ironic, and suggesting religion is a delusion to some greater or lesser degree, even before you recognize that this "cross" also seems to have fallen on its side. The violence that ensues, and which whipped up the moral scolds back in 1968, undoubtedly managed that reaction on the basis of its absence of flamboyant luridness, and the shots subsequent to Witchfinder General's cross-shaped opening statement probably wind up the best move the film ever makes, with a "witch" flogged to a local gallows to be hanged. The film essentially stands in mute witness to a crime against humanity; the rest of the movie exists just to hammer that idea home, including with a witch burning that's awfully well-staged and unsettling to watch, but is, you know, essentially just the same thing again. And while on a technical level those last ninety seconds are not "effective gore"—it is one of the fakier-looking things even in an 60s AIP "horror" flick—they're effective at getting across the psychology of a hero who can now find meaning only in cruelty even if very little else in Ogilvy's overly-straightforward performance beforehand has grappled with this. Witchfinder General is also generally praised for John Coquillon's photography and its location shooting, and Coquillon does a creditable job of rendering an unromantic and naturalistic England, almost atavistic in its complexion, but likewise chilly and cruel, despite the Battle of Naseby placing it in the summertime. Still, whether this means it feels more like a realist portrait of England's bloody history brought to life, or Vincent Price and some other guys in low-budget horror movie costumes running around some forests and standing in front of some weathered old buildings, may ultimately just be more of a function of how valuable you think the movie is otherwise, and I tend to side with the American critics who, unlike their incensed and outraged British brethren, simply found it hectoring and dull.
*A deeply, deeply flawed one, and at least in the case of the Jules Verne adventure, Master of the World, I think we have to retain some sense of independent judgment of what counts as either "Gothic" or "horror."
**Which clearly has a lot to do with Witchfinder General's outsized reputation, to the extent even its advocates will admit it.