Monday, February 8, 2010

Witchfinder General (1968)

Title: Witchfinder General (1968) a.k.a. The Conqueror Worm

Director: Michael Reeves

Stars: Vincent Price

Review:

Michael Reeves, the director of Witchfinder General was a director that started making films at a very young age. He directed four films in his life time before he died of a drug overdose a couple of months after Witchfinder General was completed. Reeves was a very driven person and could think of nothing else that he wanted to do except direct films. His repertoire included Castle of the Living Dead (1964) with Christopher Lee, Revenge of the Blood Beast (1966) with Barbara Steele, The Sorcerers (1967) with Boris Karloff and finally, Witchfinder General (1968) with Vincent Price. But it was Witchfinder General that got him noticed because of the violence portrayed in the picture, which was considered excessive at the time. The film was coproduced by Tigon Pictures and American International Pictures. Upon its release on the U.S. the title was changed to The Conqueror Worm, in order to capitalize on the success of Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle of films. They did this even though the film has nothing to do with Poe.


Witchfinder General takes place in the 17 century, right smack in the middle of the English Civil War. During this time, there was chaos in the land and the time was ripe for devious characters to take advantage of people. The church would send out its inquisitors to hunt down, torture and eventually kill any unbelievers, sorcerers, witches or anyone who followed any other religion other then Christianity. We follow a lawyer called Mathew Hopkins who appointed himself grand inquisitor. He would go around towns slaughtering people in the name of Jesus. Interesting part is that nor the Church nor Parliament ever appointed him as anything; he simply went around doing this on his own. It is hinted on this picture that he did it out of personal pleasure (the guy enjoyed killing what can I say?) and not because he had any interests in ridding the world of paganism. But on one of these murdering sprees he rapes a soldiers girlfriend (and kills her father!) so soon after the soldier goes on a hunt for the witchfinder himself, to avenge the death of his fiancé.


This film is considered by some to be one of the greatest horror movies ever made. It appeared in Total Film magazines best horror films ever made list. It was 15th on that list! Many critics agree (though many don’t as well) that this is a great horror film. With all the polarization going on with this film, I was eagerly awaiting the moment in which I would finally get to watch it. I will admit that the film does have a great look to it, it does have some beautiful shots of the English country side, it has Vincent Price in it, and it does have some violence in it, but I wouldn’t go and say that this is one of the best horror films ever. I personally found it to be a bit slow.


There are a couple of things that make this one noteworthy though. Number one, the films themes. There are a lot of films that deal with the abuse and death brought upon by the church, but the theme is always shocking to me no matter how many times its been depicted on film. I personally always find these historical events to be so nausea inducing. To try and force people into believing in something like Christianity (which at times preaches brotherly love and compassion) by using horrible methods of torture. What’s really great about this movie is that it points a finger at these events, and maybe this is why some people consider this film to be an important one. But to me that’s really not enough. Just because a film shines a light on a dark chapter of humanity does not make it a good film. In order to do that, the film has to be well written, acted and shot.


Another thing that makes this one noteworthy is that Vincent Price, who normally tends to over act in his films and hams things up on repeated films, is actually very evil on this movie. Michael Reeves didn’t want Vincent Price for this role; he really wanted Donald Pleasance for it. I think the reason for this was because Reeves wanted his witchfinder character to be menacing and not funny like Price often portrayed his characters. When you watch a Vincent Price film; you kind of get the vibe that he is having fun with the whole thing. You can see him trying to be funny with his performance. He would say his lines as if he was reading poetry in a theater play or something. Michael Reeves didn’t want that on this film. Reeves wanted to shoot a film with a somber evil tone to it. Not the campy type of film that AIP was producing at the time. So, Reeves molded Price’s performance on Witchfinder General to his liking. He would stop Price if he was doing his funny routine and would actually tell Price “don’t do that!” Supposedly, they never really got along during the shoot of this film, but in some strange way, this on set tension between director and actor helped produce Vincent Price’s most serious performance. So if you are looking for Vincent Prices hammy acting, you won’t find it here. It’s not only toned down, I would say Price’s hammy acting is non existent on Witchfinder General.


The film got a lot of heat upon its initial release because of its graphic violence. Back in 1968, people apparently didn’t have much resistance towards violence, because they really burnt this one at the stake for its depictions of torture and murder. You might watch this movie today and will probably think that the film needs more graphic violence and gore, but back in the 60s the violence quotient of this film was considered high. Personally, I didn’t think this movie was that violent. The methods of torture portrayed in the film are not the worst they could have chosen to show. There is one scene in which a character gets chopped to death with an axe, apparently this is supposed to be the most amazingly violent moment of the film, but to me it was such a disappointment, it wasn’t very well executed if you ask me, and you can tell the person isn’t really getting chopped up with the axe! The actor seems to be slightly tapping Price with the axe. The film has a rape sequence, but not graphic at all. So this movie isn’t really all that when it comes to violence as reviews and write ups of this movie might make you believe. Maybe at the time of its release it was considered shocking and graphic by people, but it cannot be qualified as such today. Not after the avalanche of torture porn films (like SAW) that we have been submitted to during the last decade.


And finally, my big issue with this movie is the pacing. It’s so dang SLOOOOOW! It drags and drags and drags! We go from one guy riding on a horse through the country something happens, then they get on the horse again and ride through the country side. Then, more shots of dudes riding horses! The thing with the horses bored me to tears. I also think that the violence sequences could have been handled more effectively, with a bit more intensity to them. Though I will say that the last sequence, where they are torturing a girl was effective. For its UK release, the censor boards actually got the screaming on this film edited down because it was so extensive!


Michael Reeves was set to direct The Oblong Box for American International, but that never happened due to Reeves death at the tender age of 25. Great things were expected from him as a film director, but we will never find out, since in my opinion he was half way through his growth as a filmmaker, he never really got a chance to fully mature into full blown cinematic genius. At least he left this film (considered his masterpiece by many) and influenced countless others that came after like Mark of the Devil (1970), and even Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971). And it even helped usher in a new cycle of Poe films like The Oblong Box (1969) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1971). Also, Cry of the Banshee (1970) which was another American International Pictures production was essentially a rehash of this films storyline, with Vincent Price playing the witchfinder once again, pitting him against a coven of witches.


Finally, this film might interest some people as a historical film, as a form of exposing dark events in history, but as a horror movie or even as a film, I didn’t find it all that entertaining. It might have beautiful cinematography and a stern and more menacing then ever Price, but it was too slow paced and had way too many scenes of people riding horses from here to there.

Rating: 2 out of 5

10 comments:

Mr. Fiendish said...

I sooooo disagree with you on this. I loved the film's slow pace, I loved the young couple and their love story, and I love the villains. Michael Reeves did a great job, finally making Vincent Price a scary villain instead of a campy one which he normally is. I loved the locations, the costumes and the sets as well, and the music score is beautiful. It's a great film that I have seen a couple of times and have never gotten tired of it. One of my all-time favorites, actually.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I know Ill probably be alone in my not being blown away by this one, I didn't exactly hate it, but it wasn't my favorite Vincent Price film.

Michael Reeves, I admired him for doing these films while so young, I would have loved to see something else from him. I want to see more of his films

This is one of those movies where I enjoyed the making of featurettes more then the film itself, it really went in depth into the making this film. Too bad he was hooked on drugs cause he suffered from Insomnia.

I did enjoy Vincent Price as the menacing evil villain, it was actually kind of weird to see, since he is hamming it up most of the time.

James said...

I found this to be a truly grueling viewing experience the first time I watched it. I just thought it was plain nasty. On viewing it again I was convinced of its 'classic' status. I think had Michael Reeves not died his career would have been a very interesting one to follow. And of course, Vincent Price (who for me can do no wrong anyway!) provides one of the finest performances of his career. A truly menacing villain.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I don't understand why some people find this one to be so hard to watch? Its practically bloodless, theres lots of screaming though. And horse back riding.

Carl (ILHM) said...

Franco I am with you on this one, I rated this as average as possible, and didnt find it to be nearly as shocking or disturbing as it has often been rated. It may be a film that we have to sit through a second time to figure out, but as of right now I stand unimpressed.

Neil Fulwood said...

A considered and honest review, Francisco. I think a lot of people bequeath 'Witchfinder General' the status of modern classic purely because Michael Reeves died so young. Yes, the film showcases a hell of a directorial talent - just getting a straight, non-campy performance out of Vincent Price is proof enough of that! - but the pacing is a little too lethargic, the scenes with Patrick Wymark as Cromwell don't really go anywhere and the horribly laboured bit of comedy with Wilfrid Brambell (of 'Steptoe and Son' fame) as the crotchey old guy at the inn is completely misplaced and deflates some of sombre atmosphere that Reeves wanted.

Having said that, Reeves landscape in a similar way to Powell & Pressburger in 'A Canterbury Tale' or Tarkovsky in many of his films. There's definitely a sense of history, almost a sense of the mystic, in some of the location shots. But, like you say, unless you have a serious liking for horses, there are way too many riding scenes. In fact I don't think even your average John Ford western has so many horse riding scenes in it!

The violence was quite something for its time ('Witchfinder General' came out a year before Peckinpah made 'The Wild Bunch'), more for its intensity than how graphic it was. Ian Ogilivy (another actor Reeves managed to get a good performance out of against the odds) really goes for it in the last sequence - you can well believe that he's become mentally unstable as he takes his revenge on Hopkins. Also the fury in his eyes after one of his fellow soldiers, sickened by what's happened, puts Hopkins out of his misery with a pistol shot and Ogilvy rounds on him screaming "You took him from me!" There's no moral imperative behind Ogilvy's revenge anymore at this moment, it's pure bloodlust - I think that's what upset audiences of the day. (I have to agree, though, that this last sequence is rushed and some of the effects work and editing is just sloppy.)

'Witchfinder General' definitely has a place in the history of British cinema and Reeves is one of those frustrating "what if" stories. Had he lived, I think 'Witchfinder General' would be held as the film in which he found his style as a director, rather than retrospectively declared a horror classic.

The Film Connoisseur said...

@Carl: I agree with you, maybe giving this one a second watch will help see what others see in it, but first impressions werent all that great, and first impressions count for a lot.

@Neil: Agree, the movie calls attention upon itself because Reeves showed promise with this one, but it wasnt his full blown classic. It was kind of like that first film that a new director makes where everyone goes, wait, this guy has some talent. And then he goes onto make his masterpiece.

That scene that you speak of, the one with Ogilvy going all nuts on his revenge, it was an intense sequence, I liked the fury in the performance, but, I didnt like the fact that I could tell it was a prop ax and that the actual event didnt come off as convincing. As it is, it looks as if Ogilvy is hitting Vincent Price with a prop axe, not a real one, and that Vincent Price was painted with fake blood.

But this onslaught of violence, the turning up of the violence I think is what shocked people back in those days (before Peckinpah turned up the violence even more with the Wild Bunch) and I think that this is why this film has its place in British Cinema history.

A noticeable film for that, but not necesarilly an entertaining one, in my opinion anyway.

Shaun Anderson said...

You offer some interesting comments about changing attitudes to screen violence. But what makes Witchfinder General such a pervasive and gruelling experience is an atmosphere of unrelenting doom. It doesnt really have anything to do with the 'physical' act of violence and to say so is to do the film a superficial injustice. I cant remember if you mentioned the sound design in this film in your review or not, but this is a crucial element of Reeves' strategy - from the opening sounds of a gallows being constructed, followed by the harsh and piercing screams of a woman destined for death, the sense of violence (rather than the physical act) is omnipotent. You mention the historical angle which is good, but what about the structure of the film - which is very much like an American western - interesting review though.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Hey Shaun, that opening sequence where they were about to hang a woman for witchcraft was an interesting one, and it made me feel as if the rest of the film was going to be like that.

It actually reminded me of the opening sequence for various Hammer films, which is the style that this film was trying to emulate, I think. It was like a very lifeless Hammer film, without any of the atmosphere.

I do agree, there are certain intense moments in the film. But it didnt hold on to that intensity all through out. The violence itself was laughable at times. The axe scene for example, which is supposed to be something climactic and shocking...didnt live up to my expectations of the moment. It was laughable every step of the way.

I wont take away the fact that the actor was giving it his all during that "you took him away from me, i wanted to kill him" scene...but the violence itself didnt come off as believable. Ever. For me anyways.

Shaun Anderson said...

You're absolutely right about the links with Hammer, the same fate befell "The Wicker Man". But the essential difference between Reeves' vision of human nature and Hammer's is vast. It is in this relationship to notions of evil that "Witchfinder" was such an important break. The Hammer universe was Manichean, with right and wrong, good and evil very clearly demarcated. The forces of good always prevailed. Reeves offers a much more uncertain world in which shades of greay prevail. Hammer was also very conservative, the ending of "Witchfinder" is a victory of evil, as the young soldier is finally indistinguishable from Hopkins.

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