Title: Witchfinder General (1968) a.k.a. The Conqueror Worm
Director: Michael Reeves
Stars: Vincent Price
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