Although this bears little resemblance to any Poe poem, Michael Reeves’ 1968 film Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm) is a riveting piece of art that truly stands the test of time. Screen legend Vincent Price stars as the Witchfinder General himself, Matthew Hopkins, a corrupt lawyer who has taken to the practice of witchhunting, in order to fill his wallet and fulfill his sexual appetite.
The film is set during the English Civil War, and the impression of Oliver Cromwell is everwhere. The towns and villages are on the brink of anarchy and everyone lives in a state of paranoia. Hopkins uses this fear to his advantage, in order to seize and manipulate, and in a frightening twist, it’s not unlike many of the acts of deception and deceit we see it today’s day and age.
Longtime Reeves collaborator Ian Ogilvy costars as Cromwellian soldier Richard Marshall, who becomes fond of one of the local village women, Sara, and with her priest uncle’s permission, becomes engage to her. Trouble ensues when he returns to the front and Hopkins and his band of thugs and delightfully despicable accomplice (played by Robert Russell in a timeless performance) arrive in town. Hopkins is quick to persecute and execute Sara’s uncle, gaining sexual favours from Sara as a means of prolonging her uncle’s inevitable demise. Richard returns much too late, and embarks on a quest to stop Hopkins once and for all. From what I understand, there was considerable tension between him and the young director when they made the film, as Reeves thought Price was overacting and wanted him to be more “serious” for his role. The passion of both artists fuels this film, as Price showcases an excellent performance as the charismatic antagonist Hopkins.
Whether it’s historically inaccurate or not is irrelevant; Witchfinder General is a form of entertainment and not a historical document, so I wouldn’t recommend watching the film with ideas of historical consistencies and accuracies in mind. The actual Hopkins was a young man, and whether his “witchhunting” was spurred by overzealous beliefs, money and sex, or a bit of everything, is debatable.
That being said, Witchfinder General is one of Price’s greatest works. I haven’t had the pleasure of viewing Reeves’ other works, but if they’re anything like Witchfinder General, I’m sure we could expect a few more classics from him, if he had made it past twenty-six. The film was criticized in its time for its graphic displays of violence and torture. In fact, the torture scenes are pretty gruesome, most notably when needles are inserted into the accused’s back, and when the accused are lured over the side of the bridge and dunked in water to see “if they bear the mark of Satan.”
However, Witchfinder General isn’t a blood and guts horror movie. It relies on its psychological prowess and, as mentioned earlier, its themes of deception and paranoia, in order to construct itself to the horror classic that it is. Although I haven’t seen any of Michael Reeves’ other films, The Sorcerers and The Long Ships do appear to be of some interest. On a final note, there is an ’80s doom metal band called Witchfinder General that is worth checking out, which you’ll probably find by accident, if you look for copies of the film online.