Colin Timothy Gagnon (sacredspud) wrote,
Colin Timothy Gagnon

31 Days of Halloween: The Witchfinder General

If I had known what I was getting into, I probably would not have chosen The Witchfinder General. This is not the sort of regret that I expressed over A Serbian Film. The Witchfinder General was a poor choice for entirely different reasons. I was tricked into it.

I was tricked into it by the fact that it stars Vincent Price, and the fact that it was released as The Conqueror Worm when it premiered in the United States. As you may or may not be aware, The Conqueror Worm is a poem by Edgar Allan Poe (you can read it here). The poem is a metaphor for the futility of human existence, but I liked it when I was in elementary school because it describes the human race being swallowed by a giant worm. The Witchfinder General is a British film from 1968, nearly a decade after Roger Corman's Poe adaptations so I knew it wasn't related to those, but between the alternate title and the presence of Vincent Price (who appears in most of Corman's Poe films), I figured it would at least be similar; at the very least, there would be a giant, man-devouring worm.

There is not a worm.

There is no deliberate parallel to any Poe story.

There's not even a suggestion of the supernatural.

The Witchfinder General is a semi-(well, not really)-historical depiction of the events of the life of Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), the self-appointed Witchfinder-General who traipsed around England between 1644 and 1646, harassing, torturing, and killing hundreds of innocent women, all in the name of the Church of England, which really wasn't all that crazy about his activities. And actually, that might be a good story. I'd probably watch a 4-part BBC miniseries about the rise and fall of Matthew Hopkins, his various clashes with authority. This is not that story.

This is the story of how Hopkins and his assistant, John Stearne spend their days riding around Merry Old England, torturing confessions out of suspected witches and poking them with long needles under the assumption that a bloodless wound indicates a pact with the Devil. When they're off duty, Stearne spends his time drinking and wenching, and Hopkins extorts sexual favors from not-entirely-willing young women. Stearne does his share of extorting, too.

In the town of Brandeston, Suffolk, Hopkins and Stearne round up a number of suspects, among them John Lowes, the local priest. Lowes niece, pleads on behalf of her innocent uncle, by which I mean that she takes her clothes off for Hopkins. Stearn has his way with her too, and their activities soon come to the notice of Sara's fiance, a young soldier named Marshall. Marshall vows his revenge. Then he takes it. That's the whole plot.

The Witchfinder General is not a good movie. I cannot recommend it. Its initial release was ignored by the critics, but it performed well at the box office and has since been held up by film historians as an important landmark of British cinema. What do they see that I don't? It's possible that I'd enjoy it on a second viewing, now that my expectations have been appropriately adjusted, but I don't really want to. It has a substantial cult following, mostly I think because the violence--fairly tame by today's standards--was considered sadistic and extreme in 1968. The film had to be substantially cut for its initial theatrical release, and four minutes of previously-missing material have been restored to DVD releases. The inserted footage is of substantially poorer quality, and it's easy to see what was cut; the offending footage is of roughness, and cruel looks, not gore. Certain cuts (not the one I've seen) have extra nudity which was shot specifically for the German market. I don't care. I found the story boringly bleak, and the execution ploddingly straightforward. There are no real surprises, no interesting special effects, no giant worm... Did I mention that there's no giant worm?

One respect in which this is a noteworthy film, I suppose, is that it was a notoriously rough production. The original screenplay was deemed unfilmably violent, and it had to be rewritten twice. Next, the director, Michael Reeves, was hoping to cast Donald Pleasence as Hopkins, but Pleasence was dropped in favor of Price when American International Pictures was brought onboard, necessitating another rewrite. Reeves was not pleased with Price and clashed with him on-set and off. Price would eventually concede, upon seeing the finished product, that Reeves goaded him into a more menacing performance, but the behind-the-scenes animosity was still real. I am not pleased with the finished product; Price may have seen it as his best Serious performance, but I'd rather watch him chew the scenery. Reeves would die of a drug overdose a year later, depriving the Britain of either one of its most promising young directors, or a talentless and dangerous hack, depending on who you talk to.

Look, you know which side I fall on. I was promised a Conqueror Worm, and I'm pissed because I didn't get one. If you really want to watch a movie about witchcraft in rural England, watch Blood on Satan's Claw, which is also lousy, but at least it delivers on the promise of its title.

Click here to watch the trailer.
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