I've always known this film by it's American title, The Conqueror Worm, and always knew it was something special. Sure, I'd grown up with a deep love of Roger Corman's Poe adaptations, but even thought The Conqueror Worm is often considered part of that canon – it's an American International co-production, it starts Vincent Price, and it's title is that of a Poe poem and features voiceover narration of parts at the beginning and end, the story between these narrated bits is not in any way shape of form anything at all related to Edgar Allen Poe.
Midnight Movies has just released the originally titled film, Withfinder General, and this version, the original, features the original score, and not the opening and closing narration that I remembered. Much of the film though is still the same.
Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) is in love with Sarah (Hillary Dwyer), the niece of the local priest Father Lowes (Rupert Davies). Richard is a cavalryman in the Parliamentary Army in pursuit of Royalist forces in Eastanglia…
Wait, what did I just type?
Thankfully for those of us not holding a detailed knowledge of 16th century British history Witchfinder General opens with a quick description of the political backdrop in which this film is set. The British were in the midst of a massive civil war with King Charles (and remnants of his army) being chased around the English countryside by the forces of Oliver Cromwell. The country is split too with towns and villages torn between their loyalty to the monarchy or towards parliament (not the band fronted by George Clinton).
Into this political instability rides Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) an attorney empowered by parliament with exterminating witchcraft from the British countryside, and his sadistic assistant John Stearne (Robert Russel) who is in the racket for the money and the women.
A strife torn country is just the place where supreme assholes like Matthew Hopkins thrive. Don't like your neighbor because he's a royalist? Denounce him as a witch and let the state burn him alive for you. It's an even better gig for Hopkins, especially when the accused witches are young and pretty women. And Hopkins doesn't really care whether anyone really is a witch or not, and the insane tests of witchcraft he uses to make that determination don't give the accused a shred of a chance for redemption. And you know, anytime someone operates among the people with this much brutality, he's bound to make enemies…
Hopkins carries out his duties with the Priest, but Sarah manages to save herself by allowing the lawyer to have his way with her. Sarah thinks she's getting mercy for her uncle in exchange for her flesh. She's wrong. Later, when Hopkins is off at the next village, John Stearne rapes Sarah.
When Richard is near town gathering horses for his cavalry regiment he learns that Hopkins has killed the priest he rides off to find Sarah. She confesses that she gave herself to the lawyer in exchange for mercy for her uncle.
Richard is undeterred by her remorse, marries her anyway, and sends her off to Lavisham to wait for him. He also vows to kill Matthew Hopkins.
Such the events of the film are truly set in motion. Hopkins unknowingly closes in on Sarah while Richard tries to find Hopkins.
Witchfinder General is a brutal movie, even today in the age of Saw and Hostel, there's enough cinematic unpleasantness to make even the long time horror viewer cringe. Director Michael Reeves, working from a tight script by Tom Baker via a novel by Ronald Bassett doesn't spare the viewer. Confessed witches are burned alive, drowned, stabbed, and beaten without so much as a cutaway. Sure, there are reaction shots aplenty, but they don't happen before gobs of red-red-red blood is splashed all over the sets.
Ian Ogilvy really outdoes himself here too, his character is the standard brave hero off to rescue a damsel, but, unlike the typical fare of this type, he is slowly driven insane by both his lust for revenge and the sight of poor Sarah being tortured. And by the end you really have connected with him and his performance, which makes the end sequence all the more disturbing.
Michael Reeves wanted Donald Pleasance to place Hopkins but AI insisted on Price. And, not surprisingly, Vincent Price plays Hopkins beautifully. Audience expecting the full on Poe character over the topness he was known for were treated to a severely cold and understated performance. In fact, Matthew Hopkins may be the best role he has ever played.
And all the other characters are great to watch. Hillary Dwyer, in her first role, carries off a smart yet terrified heroine perfectly.
The cinematography was wonderful and made excellent use of widescreen.
It's great that this film has finally made it here in its original version. Midnight Movies has done well by it too, including an audio commentary with Ian Ogilvy and producer Philip Waddilove. It also contains a holdover from the R2 release, "Witchfinder General: Michael Reeves' Horror Classic" a short documentary about this film and Reeves' other work.
The film is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen with narry a scratch, blip, jump, or pop to break the mood. The sound is original mono and offers subs in French, Spanish, and English (*why English? I have no idea at all).
*For the hearing impaired, ya jackass!! - ed