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February 3, 2011

Movie of the Day: Witchfinder General

The Film: Witchfinder General (1968)

The Principals: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Dwyer, Robert Russell. Directed by Michael Reeves.

The Premise: Set in 17th-century England, the film follows a famous witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins (Price), who purports to possess the ability to divine witches. Though he takes his job and himself quite seriously, Hopkins is just a power-hungry and corrupt official. Hopkins trolls the countryside with his loutish henchman, John Stearne (Russell), mediating those accused of witchcraft by their townsmen, and finding others to accuse himself, often demanding bribes to declare them innocent. Shit gets sticky when Hopkins arrests a man of the church, Father Lowes (Rupert Davies). Lowes’s niece, Sara (Dwyer) offers sexual favors to Hopkins to free her uncle, but before Hopkins can collect, Stearne rapes her. Now Hopkins is not interested in her sexual favors. All this doesn’t sit too well with Sara’s fiancé, Richard (Ian Ogilvy), so he decides to put an end to Hopkins once and for all.

Is It Good: It is rough around the edges, but it is a good time. This may be the best Hammer movie that Hammer never made. Though American International Pictures slapped Edgar Allen Poe’s name on the film in the US (retitling it The Conqueror Worm) so they could tie it in with their popular Price-Corman Poe series, the story is entirely the creation of Reeves and screenwriter Ronald Bassett. And it is a sadistic romp.

Extremely brutal in its on-screen violence by 1960’s standards (especially in the UK), the film was heavily cut by British censors at the time and was met with fairly universal derision by critics. While the gore is tame by current sensibilities, the sadism remains potent. What can be seen as torture porn, is also integral to the story. The film is about a heartless and cruel man. So Reeves crafted a cruel film. From the film’s opening moment, when a wailing and bloody women is convicted of witchcraft and crucified, you know the film isn’t going to be pulling a lot of punches.

The center piece here is of course Vincent Price. And it is a marvelous return to form for the actor. By this stage in his career Price had become a horror movie poster boy. The Fly. House of Wax. House on Haunted Hill. The Tingler. His Corman Poe adaptations, and many more. He had perfected a certain sort of performance – arch with a hint of melodrama, aided by his silky creepy-charming voice. This version of Price is what made him a genre legend, but it also obscured the fact that he had once been a successful and legitimate dramatic actor, in films like Laura, Leave Her to Heaven, and Dragonwyck. Reeves clashed with Price on the set, as the young director was determined that Price play the role without any of his signature camp, but was apparently not great at communicating with the actor. Nonetheless, Price would later conclude that his performance in the film is one of the best in his career. I would agree. This is Price as a soulless hardass, and a Price you don’t often get to see.

Is It Worth A Look: If you are not into British genre films from this era (especially the period pieces), Witchfinder General is not the film to turn you around. For those who are, it is definitely one to add to the queue. For Price fans it is a must-see.

Random Anecdote: This film just hints at the possibilities that director Michael Reeves had to offer. Only 24-years-old when he made Witchfinder, Reeves sadly died of an alcohol and barbiturate overdose not long after the film’s release.