Witchfinder General (1968)

Rating: C+

Dir: Michael Reeves
Star: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Heath, Robert Russell
a.k.a. The Conqueror Worm

Dare I suggest this might be… over-rated? I mean, it’s decent enough, to be sure, and certainly not as Ken Russell claimed, “one of the worst movies I have ever seen.” But nor would I rank it as among the twenty greatest horror films of all time. Oh, hang on: that was Total Film, so never mind. They ranked it just behind The Blair Witch Project. I need say little more. I think it’s the story which is problematic. Reading about the production, it appears the makers had to change the script due to demands from the censors, and basically had to rewrite it after the lead role was given to Price, at the insistence of American partners AIP, rather than original choice Donald Pleasence.

The end product starts by focusing on Roundhead soldier Richard Marshall (Ogilvy) and his girlfriend, Sara (Heath), the daughter of a country pastor, during the English Civil War in 1645. At the time, the forces of law and order were on thin ice, and some people took opportunity. Among them were Matthew Hopkins (Price), a “witch finder”, who roamed East Anglia in response to accusations of witchcraft by the local population, extracting confessions, executing victims and collecting payment. When Hopkins’s path crosses that of Sara and her family, it makes Marshall vow to kill both Hopkins and his even more sadistic sidekick, John Stearne (Russell).

It just feels all over the place, with Marshall vanishing from the plot for a long while, then the roles are reversed with Hopkins out of the picture. Do they ever see each other until the end of the film? This kind of separation can work in some scenarios, yet doesn’t serve any real purpose here, and when they do meet, it’s not exactly the restaurant scene from Heat. The film persists in wandering away what should be its core: the enmity between Marshall and Hopkins. For instance, there’s a lengthy sub-thread where Hopkins and Stearne meet a Roundhead patrol and have to escape from them. It’s curiously like filler, especially since the dissension between the pair which initially appears to be brewing, never amounts to anything.

I can’t deny there are positives, in particular the brutally nihilistic ending, which can hardly be called happy for anyone involved. It doesn’t pull its punches in terms of the torture and brutality used by Hopkins, and gives full rein to cynicism about his motives, which are both financial and carnal. It’s interest to contrast this depiction to Gustav Weil in Twins of Evil, who genuinely believes he is doing the Lord’s work in hunting witches. There’s just so much riding across country here. I feel this and all the other slack dilute the film’s more powerful moments considerably. But like Excalibur, this is probably another film ruined by Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I must confess to muttering things like, “She turned me into a newt! I got better…” under my breath at several moments during proceedings.