6 October 2009 | ackstasis
"They swim... the mark of Satan is upon them"
England, the 1600s. The country is torn apart by civil war, and bloodshed has become commonplace. Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) rides from village to village, torturing accused witches until they confess. In a medieval era of warring armies and naive peasants, Hopkins makes a lucrative living from others' misery. His judicial system is particularly gruesome: the accused are dropped in the river – if they drown, they are innocent; if they float, then they are witches and must be hanged. At first, it is difficult to accept that such barbarism could exist in human society, but even more frightening is the realisation that civilisation hasn't really progressed all that much since then: consider the African-American lynchings in the American South, which continued well into the 1960s. Michael Reeves' 'Witchfinder General (1968)' is a horror film of the highest order, stripped of titillating thrills and left to wallow in the vulgarity of human nature. For U.S. release, the film was retitled "The Conqueror Worm" to capitalise on Price's fruitful association with Roger Corman's Poe adaptations.
'Witchfinder General (1968)' was gleefully advertised as "The Year's Most Violent Film!," and that doesn't seem far off the mark. However, despite depicting in gruelling detail the torture and execution of innocent victims, the film isn't exploitative – Reeves does not revel in bloodshed, as does the sadistic thug John Stearne (Robert Russell), but damningly condemns it. On its original release, many critics were disgusted with the film's content, much as they had been years earlier by Michael Powell's lurid psycho-thriller 'Peeping Tom (1960).' Fortunately, the film does boast the ever-reliable presence of horror maestro Vincent Price, who manages to keep the film feeling respectable. Proving his versatility as an actor, Price's performance is surprisingly understated; perhaps he felt that the subject matter was already macabre enough, without the need for his own unique vocal flourishes. Indeed, far from being frightening, Matthew Hopkins comes across as little more than a methodical businessman, his moral quandaries not necessarily absent, but merely set aside to make room for his wages.
Perhaps the critics' rejection of 'Witchfinder General' has something to do with the accusatory manner in which Reeves frames the violence, capturing the executions, not from a moral high-horse, but as one of the curious spectators who circles around to gawk at the morbid spectacle of murder. Reeves focuses on the faces of the on-lookers, which boast an uncomfortable mingling of sadness and fascination. Matthew Hopkins is an opportunist making a living, but these are the people who allow, and even facilitate, the brutal torture of their neighbours. In this way, 'Witchfinder General' describes a crucial facet of human behaviour, how war and conflict can erode the morals of society. Hopkins' career as a witch-hunter thrived during the English Civil War (1641-1651), which saw the Parliamentarians and Royalists grapple for ruling power, and left citizens with tattered notions of moral rectitude. It's telling that, above all the scenes of bloodied violence, the film's most harrowing moment, for me, was when a villager witnesses a woman being raped, and simply turns his back.