Title: Witchfinder General
Year of Release: 1968
Director: Michael Reeves
Length: 86 mins
Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Hilary Dwyer, Robert Russell
Though its historical accuracy has been questioned, this unflinching document of one of Britain’s darkest and most brutal periods, filmed largely on location in the sweeping countryside of East Anglia, is loosely based on the activities of one Matthew Hopkins. He was a lawyer who, during the English Civil War (1642–51) when society degenerated into general lawlessness, took on the role of ‘Witchfinder General,’ and rampaged across country torturing and terrorizing innocent (probably) people he believed to be cohorts of the devil. Historical evidence suggests that he and his associates were responsible for the deaths of up to 300 men and women. They got rich charging local magistrates for the ‘work’ they carried out.
One of his favoured methods of determining whether or not his intended victim was a witch or not was the ‘swimming test’ or ducking stool, whereby he tied people to chairs and threw them into a lake or a river. It was believed that true witches who had renounced their baptism would be rejected by the water and therefore float. If they did, they were promptly executed. Obviously, with their arms and legs bound, it was far more likely they sank to the bottom where they drowned so either way, it would end badly. He would also search for ‘Devil’s Marks’ on the bodies of the accused, which could take the form of a scar, mole, or any other kind of blemish. If no mark could be found, he would make his own with a blade. As you can probably imagine, he was despised and feared in roughly equal measures.
Here, Vincent Price does a great job of portraying the self-appointed witchfinder general. His cruelty knows no bounds and at times, he seems to exude evil at will. He and his assistant Stearne ride into the village of Brandestone and round up a gaggle of suspects, including the local priest (Rupert Davies) who is quickly executed. When her soldier lover Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy, best known for assuming the lead role in Return of the Saint in 1978) comes home from battle, he finds the priest’s niece Sara (Hilary Dwyer) has been raped by one of Hopkins’ entourage, swears revenge, and goes off in search of retribution. In the interests of self-preservation, Hopkins and his assistant then devise a trap to capture Richard and frame him for practicing witchcraft, and the climax sees both he and Sara being tortured in a castle dungeon. In a fittingly gruesome finale, Richard breaks free of his bonds, stomps on Stearne’s face then sets about Hopkins with an axe. Hopkins is only saved from dismemberment when Ogilvy’s soldier mates finally show up to save the day and shoot him dead, but by then it’s too late as dear Sara has been driven insane.
One of the major talking points around the film’s release was the fractious relationship between Price, then a veteran of some 70-plus films (not the 84 he reportedly claimed at the time, though we’ll forgive him this minor indiscretion), and the novice director Michael Reeves who’s first choice for the role (Donald Pleasance) had apparently been stonewalled by the studio. Legend has it that on the last day of filming, Price turned up on set thoroughly pissed, as per the English sense of the word. As a final act of revenge, Reeves instructed Ian Ogilvy to “Really lay into him” with the stage axe used in Price’s violent death scene. The blows you see in the movie were not faked, but Price allegedly got wind of the director’s dastardly plan and wisely padded out his costume with foam to guard himself from injury. As a suitably chilling postscript, less than a year later, a 25-year old Reeves would be dead, the apparent victim of an accidental drug overdose.
Though it pales in comparison to today’s standards, Witchfinder General drew considerable criticism for the scale and ferocity of the violence on show, with Dilys Powell of The Sunday Times famously summing it up as, “17th Century hanging, burning, raping, screaming, and Vincent Price as England’s prize torture overseer. Peculiarly nauseating.” However, helped in part to Reeve’s untimely death, the film went on to achieve cult status with few sparking so much discussion and in 2005 was named the 15th Greatest Horror Film of all Time by industry bible Total Film. In the half a century since it’s release it has become not just an undisputed horror classic but an invaluable, if heavily dramatized, historical account of one of the darkest periods of British history.
Witchfinder General was re-titled The Conqueror Worm for its American release in a shameless attempt to link it with the earlier series of Vincent Price films based on the writings of Edgar Allen Poe. This was despite the film having nothing to do with Poe, and only included brief voiceovers of the poem in question which were added later to justify the name change. Word has it that extra nude scenes were filmed especially for the German release.