Witchfinder General/The Conqueror Worm

WITCHFINDER GENERAL, a historical horror stunner from England in 1968, was shown in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm. The title tweak was done to link star Vincent Price with the cult-generating Edgar Allan Poe adaptations Price had done for producer-director Roger Corman. Those macabre-minded movies with their grand guignol trappings tended towards camp: unless you’re a psychopath there’s nothing remotely funny in this bleakly convincing period piece. Whatever moniker it shivers under, as directed by Michael Reeves this is a gripping, unsettling and impressively crafted siege of perverted justice, religious insanity and societal fracture. Relentless, brutal, ultimately despairing, yet also allowing passages of beauty, particularly in the lush scoring from Paul Ferris. The acting is first-rate.

Torn by religion-inspired Civil War, England in 1645 was fertile ground for all manner of divinely excused excess. Among those taking advantage of the strife is self-appointed witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins (Price at his most diabolical), who prowls the countryside with his cruel right-hand man John Stearne, using tips from suspicion-soaked citizens to select, torture and kill innocent neighbors accused of consorting with The Devil. Among those targeted is comely lass ‘Sara Lowes’ (Hilary Dwyer), whose husband-to-be ‘Richard Marshall’ (Ian Ogilvy) is a cavalry officer serving Oliver Cromwell’s army of ‘Roundheads’. Justice is in the hands of whoever can use it.

Considering the bare bones budget (just £83,000), it’s surprisingly well arranged, the 24-year-old director co-writing the script with Tom Baker, based off the novel by Ronald Bassett. As to pure historical fidelity, expected dramatic license is taken: the real Hopkins was in his 20s when doing “God’s work” in 1644-46 (Price was 56) and he retired, dying of t.b. rather than a furiously wielded axe. The production was fraught with bitter discord between Reeves and Price, and received a good deal of negative blowback over content: the rap on the movie made it out to be exploitative (it isn’t), but it was quite rough for the time (similar word-of-mouth fed on the year’s vivid actioner Dark Of The Sun); even with the cascade of cinema carnage that’s followed it still carries a jolt.

John Coquillion’s cinematography is a plus (he later did remarkable work for Sam Peckinpah on Straw Dogs and Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid); the stirring score composed by Paul Ferris gives  the intimately-scaled drama an epic sweep. In her debut, 21-year-old Hilary Dwyer has an appealing naturalness, her fetching sweetness in stark contrast to the gloating depravity conveyed by Robert Russell as John Stearne, Hopkin’s sadistic “witch-pricker”. Handsome and charismatic Ian Ogilvy makes a dashing hero, especially arresting astride a horse at full gallop across the green English countryside: he should have been a bigger star. Though he was at venomous odds with the arrogant young director, some mix of fractious elements stirred Price to deliver one of his best-ever performances, this time without a hint of playfulness. As was the real scourge of the 1640s, his Matthew Hopkins is a classic villain.

In the States it scoured memories to rank 73rd in ’68, grossing $4,300,000 and grossing out a goodly number of those who saw it.

With Rupert Davies, Patrick Wymark (as Cromwell), Bernard Kay. Goldfinger fans note that  Margaret Nolan—aka ‘Dink’—does a bit part as a barmaid. “Man-talk!”  86 minutes.

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