Friday, March 21, 2014

Witchfinder General (1968)

... aka: Conqueror Worm, The
... aka: Edgar Allan Poe's Conqueror Worm
... aka: Grand Inquisitor, The
... aka: Matthew Hopkins: Conqueror Worm
... aka: Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General

Directed by:
Michael Reeves

Between 1644 and 1647, Matthew Hopkins, the son of a Puritan clergyman, and his associate John Stearne traveled around rural Eastern England branding (mostly) women witches and overseeing the torture (pin-pricking, sleep deprivation, starvation, drowning) and executions (usually by hanging) of hundreds. Hopkins' title of "Witchfinder General" was a self-appointed one not sanctioned by Parliament, though they were aware on his freelance activities at the time. During their three year reign of terror, the men claimed around 300 victims, which accounted for roughly 60 percent of all executions for witchcraft in the UK over a nearly three-century-long time span. This was an endeavor fueled primarily by money, power and sadistic self-satisfaction more than anything else, as Hopkins and Stearne would enter a village and be paid a hefty sum to do their "investigations" before moving on to a new area. It is said they were paid £23 per village - which is about £6000 nowadays, or nearly 10,000 U.S. dollars (!), plus traveling expenses, for their "services." Hopkins detailed his own witch-hunting techniques in his book "The Discovery of Witches" in 1947, which was later used as a text in Colonial America to commit even more atrocities, including an initial string of witch executions from 1648 until 1663 and then again in the notorious Salem Witch Trials lasting from 1692 to 1693, for a combined death toll of around 100 people. These real-life historical horrors would go to form the basis for numerous books and films over the years and remains a story worth repeating as a cautionary tale against religious extremism. When a society becomes too superstitious for their own good, there's bound to be corrupt individuals out there ready to exploit the situation for their own personal gain.

Witchfinder is based on a 1966 novel by Ronald Bassett; adapted for the screen by Tom Baker and the director, and is a rather loose and largely fictionalized portrayal of the events (a more detailed and accurate account can be found in Malcolm Gaskill's book "Witchfinders: A Seventh Century English Tragedy"). Reeves himself wanted Donald Pleasence for the title role, but co-financiers AIP (and uncredited executive producer Samuel Z. Arkoff) insisted upon Vincent Price. This was something that didn't sit too well with the ill-fated director (who passed away in 1969 of a drug overdose at age 25) and caused much tension on the set, but history has proven the casting choice to be an apt one. Price's embodiment of Hopkins is now considered one of the finest performances in the actor's long and distinguished career, as well as one of the best attributes of the film in general. Price was actually much older than the real-life Hopkins, who was somewhere between 25 and 28 years old when he died, but never mind that. This is him at his restrained, serious best with nary an edge of camp to his portrayal of the cold-blooded and thoroughly loathsome witch-hunter.

It's 1645 and England is in the midst of a bloody Civil War, dividing the country into two halves: the Royalist Party of King Charles and Cromwell's Parliamentary Party. Because of this, law and order has been delegated to province and overseen by small local governments; much to the pleasure and profit of Hopkins and his brutish cohort Stearne (a dubbed Robert Russell). The two have just received a report of witchcraft and evil doings in the small village of Brandeston and are on their way there. Meanwhile, trooper Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), a soldier for Cromwell's army, has fallen in love with Sara Lowes (Hilary Dwyer) and hopes to marry her. Sara's guardian is her uncle John (Rupert Davies), a priest living in Brandeston who took her in as a young girl. When Richard arrives to ask for a marriage blessing, John senses trouble on the horizon and asks Richard to marry Sara as soon as possible, noting that "a lack of order encourages strange ideas." And he's absolutely right. Rumor has spread around town that John himself is a warlock; an "evil man," an idolater and a pagan who makes unholy signs and wears the devil's garments. And it's he who has been reported to the witch-hunters.

While Richard is away, Hopkins and Stearne arrive in Brandeston, apprehend John and put him through the paces to try to get him to confess to being a warlock. He's slapped around, has his back pricked and is chained up in a rat-infested dungeon cell. Numerous other village women will soon join him; all subject to frequent "interrogations" (beatings) by Stearne. Well, when he isn't in a local pub getting drunk and messing around with prostitutes. As a last ditch effort to spare John's life, Sara starts sleeping with Hopkins hoping he'll spare him. When Stearne finds out what the two have been up to he rapes her, and it all gets back to Matthew. John and two other women are taken to a bridge and lowered into a castle moat for the swimming test (float and live = witch / sink and die = innocent) and then carried off to a hanging tree. By the time Richard returns to Brandeston, John is dead, Sara is traumatized and has been defiled and Hopkins and Stearne have moved on to another village for more of the same. Richard, risking court-marshal and death at the gallows for desertion, saddles up his horse and heads out for revenge.

Often classed in the top tier of British horror, it's a reputation the movie mostly deserves. This was the highest-budgeted film ever for Tigon British Film Productions, but every dollar of the (still-low) budget is visible up on the screen. The production values, actors, costumes, art direction, shooting locations and score are all very good, things move along at a quick pace and, while Reeves' direction is more workmanlike than inventive, photographer John Coquillon makes the most of the tranquil British countryside and wispy skies. The film does however slip up a bit toward the end. The first hour is measured and moody and the film possesses a sort of understated luridness that's quite intoxicating, but that's all pretty much tossed out the window as the film rushes through the heroes predictable revenge during the final 20 minutes. The last few scenes are especially clumsy and are hampered by poor scene transitions and editing. Though I don't personally hold it against the film, some viewers will also have issues with the lack of historical accuracy. While some aspects are true to the facts, others aren't at all. In real life, Hopkins was never punished for his bad deeds and died at home of tuberculosis shortly after "retiring" in 1647. Likewise for Stearne, who authored "A Confirmation and Discovery of Witches" in 1648 and passed away in 1660.

Witches and their familiars courtesy of Matthew Hopkins.

John Stearne's lone contribution to the literary world.

About three minutes worth of "excessive violence and sadism" were removed by the BBFC prior to screening, which were primarily shots of pricking, drowning, witch burning and a climactic axing. In the U.S., the film played almost completely intact under the title The Conqueror Worm. This version added a narrated prologue and epilogue of Price reciting a Poe poem so that the film could pass as one of AIP's Poe films. Additional nude scenes of the tavern wenches were shot (without Reeves' assistance) for the theatrical release in Germany. The film was a financial success around the globe, which not only led to a renewed interest in Poe films but also numerous other 'witch torture' movies. Amongst the latter (most of which increased the levels of violence, sadism and sex to top what Witchfinder did) were the notorious West German productions Mark of the Devil (1970) and its sequel Mark of the Devil II (1973), Jess Franco's NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST (1970; aka The Bloody Judge) and Ken Russell's acclaimed The Devils (1971). AIP even tried to tap the same well a second time with CRY OF THE BANSHEE (1970), which featured Price as another witch hunter (Dwyer was also in it).

Playing small roles are Patrick Wymark (who appeared in Tigon's Blood on Satan's Claw a few years later), Wilfred Brambell, Nicky Henson (Psychomania), Godfrey James (The Oblong Box) and Hira Talfrey (Curse of the Werewolf). Because of copyright problems, Paul Ferris' orchestral score was replaced with a synthesizer score by Kendall Schmidt for the initial U.S. home video releases. The 2007 release through MGM's Midnite Movies line remedied that and many of the other problems by presenting the original cut in restored form and with the original soundtrack intact (though minus the nude tavern scenes and Price's narration from the Conqueror Worm cut; both previously seen on the HBO VHS release). Odeon Entertainment released the definitive Blu-ray in 2011, which contains all of the above either in the film itself or as an extra feature.

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