Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm) DVD Review
Written by Steve Pattee
DVD released by MGM
You enjoy torture, don't you Stearne. – Hopkins
Directed by Michael Reeves
Written by Michael Reeves and Tom Baker based on Ronald Bassett's novel
1968, Region 1, 87 minutes, Rated G
DVD released September 25th, 2007
Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins
Ian Ogilvy as Richard Marshall
Rupert Davies as John Lowes
Wilfred Brambell as Master Loach
Robert Russell as John Stearne
Hilary Heath as Sarah Lowes
On a three day leave from the military, Richard (Ian Ogilvy) takes the opportunity to head to the home of his one true love, Sarah (Hilary Heath). To his pleasant surprise, Sarah's uncle, Father Lowes (Rupert Davies), grants Richard permission to marry her, but only if he takes her away from the town. Things are getting a little hairy. After a lust-filled night of pre-marital sex with his bride-to-be, Richard heads back to his regiment, promising to return soon.
On his way from the village he runs into to two strangers, Matthew and John (Vincent Price and Robert Russell, respectively). After brief pleasantries, Richard tells them they're just miles from their destination — the town he's just left and the town where his fiancé and her uncle reside.
They bid each other farewell, and go on their merry way — Richard to the battlefield, Matthew and John to the village magistrate. Seems old Matthew is a witch hunter, and he's been summoned by the feebleminded townsfolk to "investigate" a claim that Father Lowes is a devil worshipper.
When Richard finds out his future uncle-inlaw was hung for witchery, he's pretty steamed. And when Sarah informs him that she slept with Matthew in an effort to save her uncle, he's really pissed.
He's going to make Matthew pay, come hell or high water.
You know you are in for fun times from the beginning when a movie opens to an accused witch being forced up a hill for a hanging. When she collapses before she reaches the gallows, the people throw water on her to get her moving, being the good Protestants that they are. And it's only an added bonus that the man behind the hanging is none other than Vincent Price.
It really is no shocker that Vincent Price is a rock star. Even on a bad day, the man delivers. And Witchfinder General is no exception, nor is it a bad day. It's a beautiful, sunny, sociopathic day.
Price plays Matthew Hopkins, the "Witchfinder General" himself, and he plays this one cold. Price always has a presence, no matter what the movie is, but there's something truly mean about him in this role…a quiet anger that is constantly below the surface. And it's perfect for the character Matthew, a man who claims to be doing God's work, but you can tell he quite enjoys watching his partner, John, extract confessions from suspected witches by beating the shit out of them.
Robert Russell's John perfectly complements Price's Matthew. Where Matthew hides his true feelings, there is no brain/mouth filter on John. He very much enjoys being Matthew's right-hand man, and he makes no bones about it. Russell was so damn good, I have to wonder if he enjoyed the role as much as John enjoyed his.
What's equally impressive is Ian Ogilvy's performance as Richard. A relative newcomer at the time (this was one of Ogilvy's first movies), he was starring in a movie that would be Price's 75th, and he managed to hold his own, with little effort. While much of the film has Price and Ogilvy doing their own thing (Price's character burning the heathens, Ogilvy's trying to catch him), the scenes with both are fantastic. And the best thing about Richard is he doesn't talk a lot of smack, he just gets it done.
If anything hurts General, it would be that some scenes run just too long. A perfect example of this is a scene where Richard is chasing John on horseback. For three minutes. Sure, three minutes doesn't sound like a long time, but it is when you are watching a couple of guys on horses galloping through the woods.
While the movie has little gore (or, rather, no gore by today's standards), General did well with what it had. A relatively low-budget movie ($30,000), it made up for the lack of grue with some well executed scenes. There's something uncomfortable about watching a man getting a needle shoved in his back as a test to see if he's one of Satan's minions. And when the blood is more of a smear than a splatter, and it still makes you squirm, you have to give director Michael Reeves props for pulling it off so well.
Sure, Witchfinder General trudges along a little too slowly in parts, but fortunately they are encompassed by some excellent scenes and rock solid performances making it worth the wait to get through them.
Video and Audio:
I was a little concerned about General's anamorphic 1.85:1 presentation when the movie first started. The opening scenes are soft and a little muddy. But once the opening credits roll, the picture gets noticeably sharper. There are still instances of softness and some too-dark scenes, but it's an overall impressive picture considering its age and its budget.
The mono soundtrack is more than adequate. General is dialogue driven, and the voices are always crisp and clear.
English, French and Spanish subtitles are available.
- Witchfinder General: Michael Reeves' Horror Classic
- Audio Commentary with Co-producer Philip Waddilove and Actor Ian Ogilvy
"Witchfinder General: Michael Reeves' Horror Classic" is a too short featurette about the too short career of Michael Reeves. Running about 26 minutes, "Classic" could easily go 45 more, as the information in the featurette is pretty interesting. There are some tidbits on the relationship between Reeves and Price — Reeves was bitter that his first choice for the role of Morgan, Halloween's Donald Pleasence was shot down for Price, and he let Price know he wasn't pleased with the decision.
The commentary with Philip Waddilove and Ian Ogilvy is a must listen. Fantastically moderated by film historian Steve Haberman, there are tons of tidbits, both technical and otherwise, to be heard. I enjoyed the commentary almost as much as I enjoyed the movie, and I can't recommend it highly enough.
Witchfinder General has Vincent Price in a really great role, so that alone should make it worth a rental. But coupled with Russell's creepily uncomfortable John and Ogilvy's asskicking Richard, it's a sure fire good time.
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