TITLE: Witchfinder General aka The Conqueror Worm
YEAR RELEASED: 1968
DIRECTOR: Michael Reeves
CAST: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Dwyer
PLOT: During the English Civil War, Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) takes advantage of the breakdown of society and general lawlessness to terrorise East Anglia by torturing confessions out of suspected witches.
Produced in 1968 by Tigon British, and directed by Michael Reeves, Witchfinder General casts the excellent late Vincent Price in what is arguably his greatest role: that of the notorius Witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins.
Set in 17th century England, when superstitions were rife and citizens could be executed for witchcraft at the mere whim of another, the narrative follows main characters, Sara, her Roundhead soldier betrothed Richard Marshall and Sara’s uncle, a local clergyman John Lowes who disapproves of the way in which people are being tortured in the name of God and justice. The locals conclude from this that he is in league with the devil and so Matthew Hopkins and his sadistic companion John Stearne, played by Robert Russell, are called in to investigate. Russell, too plays a good role, creating a thoroughly dislikable man whom it seems even Hopkins himself finds distasteful.
Hopkins is clearly both an educated and sophisticated man who oozes power and superiority using his charm to acquire everything he wishesfrom those around him, including sexual favours from the young and attractive accused. It is this, however, that is his undoing, as he finds himself attracted to Sara and uses the threat of her Uncle’s torture and death as a means to have his way with her. Stearne discovers Hopkins’s secret and eventually forces imself on Sarsa, delighting in the knowledge, that since he has done this, Hopkins interest in her ceases, allowing him to continue with the torture and eventual execution of her Uncle.
Marshall meanwhile has received a promotion following his saving the life of his commanding officer, and is returning home for a short period of leave. During this time he gets wind of the fact that John Lowes has been executed for witchcraft and on finding his beloved, discovers the treatment that she too has been forced to endure. Risking court martial by abandoning his military post, Marshall vows to track down Hopkins.
Having left the village behind them, and finding themselves being tracked by Richard Marshall, Hopkins and Stearne find themselves set upon by a small group of Roundhead soldiers who attempt to capture them. In the ensuing fight, Price effortlessly displays an unnerving calm and calculating side to Hopkins character as he kills one of the soldiers, and abandons Stearne to his apparently inevitable fate.
Eventually Marshall tracks Hopkins down. Having regrouped with Stearne, who had angrily confronted him, Hopkins goes after Sara once more, to remove all seeds of doubt as to his character, as she had travelled away in the hopes of avoiding contact with him again. Sadly they discover they have each travelled to the same town. Marshall tracks Hopkins down as he moves to dispose of Sara and makes to finish the Witchfinder off himself.
At the time the film was made, the ending was considered to be extremely shocking and indeed there are parts of the film that have only in recent years been restored as they were originally filmed; they were thought too extreme for general viewing. This does make for an interesting watch, as it is clearly evident which parts had previously been edited from the reel.
Witchfinder General contains some fine cinematography with sweeping shots panning wide across the British Countryside.
Witchfinder General is certainly a film that all horror buffs should find time to watch, and will no doubt enjoy thoroughly.
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