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Witchfinder General is a small classic of English horror that only recently saw re-release in its intended form. Originally distributed as The Conqueror Worm, to capitalize on the Edgar Allan Poe vehicles of its star Vincent Price, Michael Reeves’ film has previously been seen with incongruous narration and extraneous nudity added and its original score excised. A 2007 DVD restoration righted these wrongs, and it can now be experienced in all its chilling glory.
In 17th century England, chaos descends as civil war rages between King Charles I’s Parliamentarians and Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads. “Witchfinder” Matthew Hopkins (Price) roams the countryside extracting “confessions” from accused witches and collecting a fee for each hanging and drowning, abetted by the sadistic torturer and rapist John Stearne (Robert Russell). A young coronet in Cromwell’s insurgent army (Ian Ogilvy) and his fiance (Hilary Dwyer) become entangled with the murderous Hopkins.
Shot on a minuscule budget, Reeves’ austere, unsettling film benefits from the pictorial beauty of cinematographer John Coquillon’s painterly compositions, which fill the verdant British fields with sunlit dread. Price gives what may be his finest, most understated performance, imbuing Hopkins with ice-cold menace; second heavy Russell is an unforgettable study in loutish brutality.
Though considered exceptionally violent in its day, Witchfinder General derives its force from within. In its universe of disorder, no one remains untouched or unchanged by evil, spawned by the lawlessness of war. Sporting one of the most downbeat endings in film history, it’s a rigorous tale of psychological terror. Sadly, Reeves would not live to craft another film of this caliber: He died of a barbiturate overdose shortly after the feature’s release at the age of 25.