by Andrew Tracy
As with so many cinematic experiences in my misspent youth, Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General (aka Conqueror Worm) was well-prepared for by copious before-the-fact study (thank you, Danny Peary); the film itself eventually functioned as confirmation of what had been read beforehand—thus no dark and unexpected encounter with primal fears here, I’m afraid. Yet that quality of remove almost seems appropriate for the quite astonishingly jaundiced eye which Reeves casts upon his horrors. Witchfinder General exists apart from the genre imperatives of shock, suspense, disgust, or prurience; rather, its ferocity and sometimes unbearable intensity is in the service of a vision of the world so willfully and unrepentantly corrupt that not even despair can penetrate.
Fictionalizing the real-life career of governmentally sanctioned “witch-hunters” Matthew Hopkins (a surprisingly restrained, slyly intelligent Vincent Price) and his brutal assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) as they ply their bloody trade across the Roundhead-controlled territory of East Anglia during England’s Civil War in the mid-17th century, Witchfinder General consistently turns its scorching gaze from these icons of obvious evil to the society that allows them to perpetrate their profitable acts of torture and murder. Though they are the agents of an authoritarian state—embodied in the gluttonous Cromwell (Repulsion’s Patrick Wymark, sporting a wart-riddled face), who chortles over his armies’ victories and accounts them “a triumph for true godliness” with a knowingly hypocritical wink—Hopkins and Stearne are aided and abetted in their depredations by the very people who are under their boot heel: the local townspeople whose prejudice, ignorance, or sheer motiveless malice leads them to accuse their neighbors of relations with the Devil.
Nor are Hopkins and Stearne immune to that same overriding law of force: already pursued by the vengeance-seeking soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) after raping his fiancée (Hilary Dwyer) and burning her guardian as a sorcerer, Hopkins and Stearne find themselves set upon in the forest by Marshall’s Roundhead comrades, who are out “borrowing” horses to aid the parliamentary cause. What makes this scene remarkable is that Reeves does not have the audience delight in our villains’ reversal of fortune, but casts the same coldly furious eye upon this licensed brigandage as upon the horrors perpetrated by the witch hunters. The benighted inhabitants of this world—including our righteously aggrieved “heroes”—are bound together by a common malignancy of which Hopkins and Stearne are only the most flagrant examples. The bloody whirlwind they ride will claim them in their turn—which it does, with a thoroughly unwelcome vengeance, in the film’s sickening denouement in the bowels of a castle.
What validates this unrelentingly bleak vision is Reeves’s almost paradoxical eye for beauty. Witchfinder General’s world is too inherently ugly to require further uglying up: instead, Reeves fills his widescreen frame with gorgeous stretches of English country landscape, electrified by the rush of galloping horses. Rather than easily contrasting pastoral beauty and human brutality, Reeves fuses the one with the other: in the film’s opening shots, a flock of sheep reclines peacefully while a gallows is erected on a grassy hilltop. Similarly, the force and intensity of Reeves’s filmmaking leavens excitement with cold dread and numbed revulsion. The very reasons for which we watch this fare—the violence, the grue, the extremity of the images before us—are here delivered with such merciless skill that they break through the distancing wall of “enjoyment” and turn our gaze back. As ever more “witches” are tortured and burned in town squares and screams of pain and fear fill the soundtrack, Reeves cuts to the placid spectators of these atrocity exhibitions: none of them celebratory, a few perhaps vaguely disdainful or disapproving of the goings-on, but keeping their better instincts (if any be left) concealed behind a mask of distanced curiosity. No wonder that the last words of the film are “God help us”—and little surprise that that plea is immediately swallowed by the unending shrieks which even the rolling of the end credits cannot silence.