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1845: In an England torn by civil war, where gouvernmental jurisdiction is
scarce, the money grabbing unscrupulous self-appointed witchhunter Matthew
Hopkins (Vincent Price) roams the countryside, especially the East that is
already controlled by Cromwell's (Patrick Wymark) army.
& so it happens
that he & his partner & torture-master John Stearne (Robert Russell)
come to the small village of Brandiston, where the priest John Lowes (Rupert
Davies) is accused of witchcraft by some villagers who think him to be a
Royalist. Soon Hopkins & Stearne start torturing the man to get a
confession from him, but when Hopkins lays eyes on his niece Sarah (Hilary
Dwyer), he decides he has to have the woman at any cost ... & when she
offers him her body in order to keep her uncle from further torture he happily
For a time, everything seems to go well, as Hopkins, as long as he
makes nightly visits to Sarah, won't allow Stearne or anyone to lay hands on
the priest. But then, when Hopkins is out, Stearne decides to have a little fun
with Sarah on his own & rapes her. When Hopkins learns about this, he feels
Sarah is spoilt for him, & executes the priest & several other witches
publicly before moving on.
A short time later, Richard (Ian Ogilvy), a
soldier in Cromwell's army & fiancé of Sarah, learns about this though
& decides on the spot to take revenge, even if this means deserting, which
almost costs him both his career & even his life when his superior learns
of it. Only the fact that he once saved this superior's life now saves his own.
when Richard gets an order to capture the English Kingm before he can escape to
France, he sees another chance to do a little witchhunter-hunting on the side,
& soon he can track down Hopkins to another small village - unfortunately
the same small village Richard has moved Sarah to to save her from the
mischievous villagers of Brandiston. & what's even more unfortunate is that
Hopkins has learned about Richard tracking him, & has decided to turn the
tables on him, accusing both him & the girl of witchcraft. & he would
be successful too, as he & Stearne succeed in arrestuing the couple &
bringing them down to their torture dungeon, but they havenT' taken into
account Richard's 2 fellow soldiers, who will stop at nothing to save Richard,
by now a captain ...
In the end though, they can do nothing more but to
shoot Hopkins dead as an act of mercy when Richard frantically mutilates him
with an axe, & all the while, Sarah is screaming, having gone mad from all
Witchfinder General is today rightly considered
as one of the milestones of the horror-genre, a no-nonsense macabre
parable about human atrocities in times of instability & war, that would
deliver its serious message in an entertaining context though, unembarassingly
mixing history- & horror-elements (& even boldly adding a little bit of
Western flavour), all complemented by an atmospheric direction & overall
great performances - especially by Vincent Price, who had a rare opportunity
that he could be equally great as a restrained actor as he was as the almost
comedic ham - who as a consequence at this point in his career played almost
exclusively in horror-comedies.
For American distribution, the film was
retitled The Conquerer Worm by its American co-producer AIP,
which was responsible for part of the budget & for the casting of Vincent
Price, who then was an AIP contract player. The Conquerer Worm
is the title of an Edgar Allan Poe poem that had virtually nothing to do with Witchfinder
General, but the title was tagged on anyhow as AIP wanted to sell the movie
in the States as part of their even by then vaning Edgar
Allan Poe-cycle - an effort that is no longer understandable from
today's point of view, given the cult status of the movie today, but made some
sense back then.
Witchfinder General was quite a success in its time,
too, & spawned many, invariably inferior but sometimes fairly interesting,
imitations & rip-offs, most notably the infamous Hexen bis auf's Blut
gequält/Mark of the Devil, Jess Franco's Der Hexentöter von
Blackmoor/The Bloody Judge, & even Ken Russell's The Devils.