Movie Discussion: Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968)

  • Monthly Theme: Witchcraft & Black MagicWITCHFINDER-GENERAL
  • The Film: Witchfinder General
  • Country of origin: U.K.
  • Alternate title: The Conqueror Worm (U.S. title)
  • Date of U.K. release: May 1968
  • Date of U.S. release: August 14, 1968
  • Studio: Tigon British Film Productions & American International Productions (AIP)
  • Distributer: American International Productions (AIP)
  • Domestic Gross: $1.5 million
  • Budget: $175,000
  • Director: Michael Reeves
  • Producers: Samuel Z. Arkoff, Louis M. Heyward, et al.
  • Screenwriters: Tom Baker & Michael Reeves
  • Adaptation? Yes, of the 1966 novel Witchfinder General by Ronald Bassett.
  • Cinematographer: John Coquillon
  • Make-Up/FX: Roger Dicken, et al.
  • Music: Paul Ferris
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? No.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Horror legend Vincent Price (House on Haunted Hill, Theatre of Blood, etc.).
  • Other notables?: No.
  • Awards?: n/a
  • Tagline: “There’s lots of screaming when there’s this much at stake!”
  • The Lowdown: Witchfinder General was the third and final film made by Michael Reeves before his tragic death-by-overdose. He was only 25 when he died, and at the time he was considered to be one of the most promising and exciting young genre directors in the U.K. Now considered his masterpiece, and one of the best films of the mid-century British horror boom alongside the most beloved Hammer classics, Witchfinder General was a difficult picture to make. The script went through a long and agonizing revision process, as British film censors objected to the scenes of torture and violence planned by the filmmaker. When A.I.P. got involved in financing they forced their most bankable contract star – Vincent Price – on Reeves, requiring him to fire Donald Pleasance, for whom the role of Matthew Hopkins had been written. Reeves hated Price’s guts, refusing to meet the actor at the airport when he arrived and then, upon first meeting him on set, famously said to him, “I didn’t want you, and I still don’t want you, but I’m stuck with you!” He forced Price to fire a gun over a his horse’s head so it reared and threw him off and basically harassed  him throughout the entire shoot. However, Price always said that he considered his performance in Witchfinder General to be his finest. The film is an entirely fiction account of the real-life “witch-hunter” Matthew Hopkins, who used the chaos and social disruptions of the English Civil War as a backdrop against which to harass and execute country villagers and then charge the villages for his “services.” U.K. critics were disgusted with the film’s violence upon release and heavily censored the finished film, but it was released uncut in the U.S. (where it was given the title The Conquerer Worm in order to superficially connect the film to A.I.P.’s popular series of Roger Corman-directed Poe adaptations). It did very well on the American drive-in/grindhouse circuit.

If you haven’t seen Witchfinder General our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: Let’s make like Anderson Cooper and get our thoughts out about Witchfinder General.

Kristine: I will open with a provocative statement. I know Witchfinder General is highly regarded, and I think it is a decent film. But I have to say, I think it is overrated. Convince me otherwise.

Sean: I knew you wouldn’t like it.

Kristine: How did you know? And I didn’t dislike it.

Sean: I just did.

Kristine: But how? Before we watched it, or after you re-watched it knowing I was watching it, too? You think I am only scared of gruesome sex fiends.

Sean: Well, you will pretend to be offended by this… but older horror movies, especially British stuff from the 1960s (Hammer/Amicus/etc.), have a deliberate pacing that’s very different from the pacing of contemporary movies.

Add some marshmallow and you’ve got s’mores.

Kristine: You think I have no attention span.

Sean: Mock offense, right on schedule.

Kristine: Can it. But I actually didn’t think it was dull.

Sean: Well can you articulate what you didn’t like? Or what you were underwhelmed by?

Kristine: I don’t know if I can. At the beginning I was nervous, because the hero, Richard, seemed like a real dink and I wasn’t feeling all the “army chaps” stuff. But he improved as the film progressed, though he was no match for Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, who I found quite wonderful and devilish. I loved his swirly capes of evil.

Sean: Well, Price is the best thing about the movie. He regarded this as his finest performance and the director hated his guts.

Kristine: I read that. Is that because Reeves was forced to cast him, or because he considered Price to be a shitty actor, or both?

Sean: Both? But mostly the former, I think. Well, shall I say things? And you can respond to them?

Kristine: Go for it.

Sean: Well, first of all, I realized that we’ve watched exactly three movies from the 1960s, including this one. Do you remember the other two?

Kristine: Let me think…

Sean: No cheating.

My rod is bigger than your rod.

Kristine: I’m not cheating. I can think of a bunch from the ‘70s… House?

Sean: No, that was made in 1977.

Kristine: Dang. Okay, tell me.

Sean: Well, it’s funny because it turns out the three movies represent three very different kinds of horror. One represents the European arthouse scene: Hour of the Wolf.

Kristine: Oh right, of course. I liked Hour of the Wolf.

Sean: The other represents American B-movie grindhouse cinema: Night of the Living Dead.

Kristine: Right. I also liked Night of the Living Dead.

Sean: And then this one represents a “classier” U.K. B-movie type.

Kristine: Well, Witchfinder General seems like the most commercial of the three.

Sean: Yes, I think that’s right. It is the most commercial, for sure.

Kristine: Though it was grittier than I expected.

Sean: Well I was going to say, don’t you think it was just wildly cynical? That ending?

Kristine: Agreed, it was.

Sean: A movie that ends with its hero and heroine driven mad? The movie also has so much distrust of/cynicism about political bodies. It has a very dim view of human nature.

Kristine: I liked all the political stuff and the stuff about mob mentality. I can think of one thing that drove me nuts about this movie: the non-stop soundtrack of hysterical female shrieking. That wore very thin.

Sean: Really? I had not noticed that. But that is very much a trope of ‘60s British B-movies.

Kristine: Oh my God Sean, it was nonstop. I think it was all the same lady like, in a sound booth, being prodded with pointed sticks. They had the shrieking in nearly every scene.

Sean: Can we talk about the gender politics of the movie for a second? I actually think in some ways it is kind of subversive….

Unaired Geico caveman commercial.

Kristine: Well, I was surprised at how the movie treated Sara’s sexuality. It makes a pretty big point of showing us that she is sexual and enjoys sex. And, even though she is obviously coerced into it, she gets down to business pretty quickly with Hopkins.

Sean: Yes and the movie sort of doesn’t judge her for trading on her body to try to save her uncle, and also doesn’t portray her as “unclean” after the rape. Richard is just as into her as he ever was, and never seems angry at her or disgusted with her, which I mean, obviously that’s how he should behave, but I still thought it was kind of progressive for the movie to actually have him behave that way.

Kristine: I agree that the film doesn’t portray Richard as being disgusted with her. In fact, he marries her knowing she has been raped and doesn’t consider her “defiled” or any stupid sexist bullshit like that. I found all that interesting and refreshing.

Sean: In fact, Hopkins is the one who wants nothing to do with her after the rape, and since he’s the villain of the piece, it seems like the movie finds that perspective to be despicable. It is part of his villainy that he’s a sexist asshole, whereas Richard, our hero, isn’t caught up in any of that gender bullshit and just loves Sara regardless.

Kristine: Absolutely. Can we take a moment to discuss… Stearne?

Sean: He was just an ugh.

Kristine: He was more than an ugh.

Sean: He was a Neanderthal.

Kristine: He was a pig man.

Sean: Yes. Beyond that I’m not sure what to say about him.

Kristine: I liked the scenes between him and Hopkins. I liked how disgusted Hopkins was with him and how the class differences between them played out.

Sean: Yes. Of course a British horror movie would be all hung up on class status.

The winner of last season’s Shear Genius.

Kristine: I feel like that class tension was a big part of the reason that Hopkins wouldn’t touch Sara’s goods once they’d been defiled by Stearne. It may even be less about her “purity” and more about Hopkins’ contempt for Stearne as a lower class cretin. I mean, obviously Sara is treated like an object in this whole configuration, but I did think it was more about the contempt between the educated man and the working class brute. I thought all that characterization was good… also how Stearne was threatened by the possibility of new henchman – he’s so insecure about his class standing, and he knows that with his allegiance to Hopkins comes access to political power, and also the agency to act out his own brutal nature without traditional “consequences.” I mean, that’s one of the more fascinating ideas in the movie, that men like Stearne couldn’t really “get away with” being rapacious murdering cretins without the umbrella of Hopkins’ class standing and social privilege. So the existence of Hopkins allows for the existence of Stearne. It’s a whole political ecosystem.

Sean: Do you think the movie finds one of them to be more “evil” than the other? Or are they just different shades of gross?

Kristine: They are Fifty Shades of Gross. But I do think that exact question is something the movie leaves the audience to ponder. Remember how Hopkins makes a point of saying, “You enjoy this” (meaning the torture of the suspects) to Stearne and he seems almost contemptuous of Stearne’s “base” pleasure in inflicting pain? Whereas Hopkins is just in it for the power and the money. He’s an operator. Stearne’s a thug. And I’m not sure what to say about this, but it did strike me as interesting that this movie came out at the tail end of the 1960s. Remember early on in the movie it is established that the social climate (in the world of the film) is precarious because there are “strange ideas spreading across the land” or something to that affect. I thought that was kind of fascinating, just as a mirror of or parallel to the social change of the 1960s – I mean 1968, that’s the height of swingin’ London. The mods, all that. In some ways Witchfinder General takes place in a landscape that could be read as an allegory for 1960s England – destabilized, chaotic, “strange ideas” afoot, an environment in which human wickedness can flourish, like bacteria in a Petri dish.

Sean: Right. And I think Hopkins at one point says something like “Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do.” The movie’s basic premise seems to be that human behavior is wildly unpredictable and all based on whim and greed and the pursuit of pleasure and power. Everyone in the film is overcome, no one in in control. In the ending, Richard is overcome by homicidal rage, Sara is overcome by hysteria and terror. There is no “reason,” as Hopkins’ quote affirms – it’s all just “strange motives.” Who knows why people do what they do? I think you’re right that there’s some kind of connection to the 1960s in that idea, even if its just a basic “WTF” reaction to how strange and unfamiliar the “new” world of the late 1960s must have been. But I really feel like Michael Reeves was disgusted by violence, and that the movie is sort of “about” that, about how violence unmakes people, reduces and debases them. Stearne is such a monster because he “enjoys” inflicting pain. Hopkins is a monster because he is cold and calculating, and feels no empathy. He moves people around like pieces on a chess board, and he stages these phantasmagoric spectacles of violence – the witch burnings, the hangings. And of course, Richard is debased by his own violent nature in the end, when he is hacking away at Hopkins. I think Reeves intends us to see that as a downer ending, that Richard has lost, and become undone. In some ways, Hopkins “wins” because he drives all the civility and control and reason from Richard.

Director to screenwriter: We need another rape scene. Would you mind?

Kristine: I liked that ending, when Richard’s comrades see him reduced to a savage, hacking Hopkins apart with an ax and they are horrified with him. Not with Hopkins.

Sean: I mean, when Richard won’t confess as they torture Sara and he just keeps saying “I’m going to kill you!” All of his regard for Sara’s safety and well-being is erased by his own bloodlust.

Kristine: Richard’s big transformation through out the narrative is one of the most interesting things about the movie. Remember at the beginning when Richard kills the enemy and he says it was just a lucky shot? Like, despite being a soldier, he is not used to killing. He seems shocked, at the beginning of the film, by his own ability to commit an act of violence. Smash-cut to that ending scene of him going all Jason Voorhees on Hopkins.

Sean: Yes. That is his arc.

Kristine: I think the fact that he was the one who initially directed Hopkins to Sara and thus, in some way, feels culpable for her rape, all adds insult to injury, which was why he had to destroy Hopkins himself and in the most gruesome way possible.

Sean: Yes, that touch where Richard is the one who gives Hopkins and Stearne directions to the village at the beginning of the movie is one of the little touches that elevates this movie, for me.

Kristine: Agreed. Richard is all, “You’ll find them right down the lane! Cheerio!”

Sean: I’ll cite another instance where the director’s talent is on display: At the beginning when that patrol is out in the woods and the camera stays behind with the one guy left with the horses while all of his comrades go out looking for the enemy. By making that choice to stick with that one soldier’s point-of-view, it builds the tension and turns that sequence into something really special. I loved that bit.

Kristine: I agree. The scariness of the forest was great, too. I think I’ve watched too many horror movies now, because I was thinking that a werewolf was going to jump out at him even though I knew this wasn’t a werewolf movie. This was the last film of “Witchcraft & Black Magic Month” and yet it was about the persecution of people who were not witches. Explain yourself.

And the village rejoiced at the brand new “ornamental crones” for their charming footbridge.

Sean: I wanted us to watch this because I think it’s an interesting take on the whole “cult” thing and also a nice subversion of the genre. The “dark magic” here is political persecution, ignorance, groupthink, corruption and just base human ugliness.

Kristine: Agreed on all points. So, with our earlier question of who is more evil – Hopkins or Stearne – can I just ask: is Mademoiselle more evil than the “mother” and “father” in Martyrs who dole out the actual torture?

Sean: Well, I thought it was really weird to watch this after just watching Martyrs. I mean, is this movie “torture porn”?

Kristine: I don’t think so at all. I mean, the torture is graphic and extended, but I didn’t find it “artful” which in my limited understanding is a requirement of “torture porn.” I mean, it is done in a fairly perfunctory fashion. It is not scary to watch, just gross. What was much more scary was the faces of the crowds when the “witches” (their friends and neighbors) were being tested and burnt/hung.

Sean: The British censors at the time were like, scandalized, and the critics were like “this is pornography for sadists.” Isn’t it weird how what’s “transgressive” changes with the times?

Kristine: That is interesting. Well, all the stabbing needles into people’s backs looking for “Satan’s stain” or whatever was gross and weird, but I would never think it was provocative for anyone. I remember seeing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish version) in the theatre and being upset during the rape scene, thinking that someone in that theatre was being turned on by it. I don’t see that happening with Witchfinder General, but what do I know? I also think the choice to make the first and most extensive torture victim be the old kindly man, not the hot mamacita, takes away from the claim that it uses violence to be seductive.

Sean: My “favorite” sequence is the whole situation at the bridge with the priest and other accused witches. This movie is very The Crucible.

Kristine: I thought the scene where they burn the accused witch while her husband watched was bananas. All those weird Deliverance-looking children watching in knowing silence. The movie never tells us what exact grievances the townsfolk had with the accused. Do you think it is kept vague to keep it universal? Just that hard times make people turn against one another?

Sean: Um, I mean the townspeople think they’re witches right? It’s wild, paranoid superstition and also the gross, base desire to scapegoat someone and destroy them as catharsis for your own shitty circumstances.

Kristine: Right. But usually in these witch hunt movies, you get to hear about how Farmer Cornhole’s crops failed… or Goody Dunlop’s cows miscarried or whatever.

Sean: I mean, this is why it’s so significant that there’s not a hint of the supernatural in the movie. The hunt for “witchcraft” is all a pretense/pretext for political/social unrest and for committing acts of violence against others.

A dark day in Sturbridge Village.

Kristine: In terms of all that, the movie is still totally relevant. I mean, any of that jazz could (and does) easily go down today.

Sean: Yes. It is a universal truth. So what did you think of how the movie looked, that old Cinemascope/Technicolor feel that it had? Do you agree that it really makes the movie seem like an artifact and not something with verisimilitude?

Kristine: I do agree that the “look” of the movie certainly affected my ability to relate to it, especially at the beginning. It was less of a factor as the film went on.

Sean: How did it affect it?

Kristine: As you put it, it seemed like an artifact, and thus less scary. Then you realize how grim it actually is. But, contrasted with something like Night of the Living Dead

Sean: Yes…?

Kristine: There is a big difference in how each film is set up. I mean Witchfinder General opens with ye olden time soldiers in bright red rompers riding across the scene in vibrant Technicolor, whereas Night of the Living Dead is gritty and haunting right from the get-go. So, Witchfinder General sneaks up on you more.

Sean: Red rompers.

Kristine: Right? So, there is a strong dichotomy between men wanting to protect ladies (like Sara and Richard and the burned, accused witch and her husband who tries to kill Hopkins) and men using/victimizing ladies, right?

Sean: Yeah, women are just pawns in this narrative. So, are you like “No more British classics for me, guv’nuh!”?

Kristine: I am kind of like that, yes. I still don’t understand why this movie is considered one of The Best Horrors Movies of All Time

Sean: I don’t know if its considered the best of all time, just one of the best of this “genre” of 1960s British horror. It’s an “unsung classic.” An “underappreciated gem.”

Kristine: Was the rest of it all real shite?

Sean: No, lots of it is great. Some of the Hammer stuff is topnotch. Really weird and twisted with wonderful effects/makeup. Campy, scenery-chewing performances.

Kristine: Are they… “capital”?

Sean: They are.

Kristine: I can see Vincent Price fitting in with all that. Though his performance in this was restrained but still awesome.

Gay.

Sean: Remember him from the 1958 version of The Fly? Plying young Philippe with wine?

Kristine: I loved that movie.

Sean: That was odd because that was a rare “good-guy” role. He is usually a villain, but you’re right that his performance in this one is restrained (thanks to Michael Reeves busting his ass the entire shoot). His other villain roles are over-the-top camp.

Kristine: Tying ladies to railroad tracks? Twirling moustaches?

Sean: More like “fingering sores.”

Kristine: I have a big sore you can finger. It’s more of a… wound.

Sean: Did you love Vincent’s hair in this?

Kristine: You mean his Prince Valiant bob?

Sean: Yup.

Kristine: I love a man who can pull off a blunt-cut bob. You should give it a whirl. Okay, my last prejudice against this film is that I have a hard time with medieval-times style. It’s all so… fucking lame.

Sean: I want to take you to the Renaissance Faire.

Kristine: You really think Witchfinder General is on par with Martyrs in terms of effectiveness?

Sean: Well, they’re apples and oranges but… I think Witchfinder General is as good a distillation of its time/place as Martyrs is, yes.

Kristine: Do you think there is a witches coven or Satanic cult in my new neighborhood?

Sean: Yes.

Kristine: Is there one in yours? Is there one is everyone’s?

Sean: I want to start one if there’s not.

Ratings Roundup

The Girls Rating: This is a horror movie classic because… why, exactly? AND A worthy film but won’t keep me up at night.

The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece!

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