Witchfinder General/The Conqueror Worm (1968 Britain 88 mins)
Source: Sharmill Films Prod Co: Tigon Prod: Arnold L. Miller, Louis Heyward Dir: Michael Reeves Scr: Michael Reeves, Tom Baker Phot: Johnny Coquillon Ed: Howard Lanning Art Dir: Jim Morahan Mus: Paul Ferris
Cast: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Dwyer, Robert Russell, Patrick Wymark, Wilfred Brambell
Is the supernatural syllogistic to the “Horror” genre of popular cinema? The essence of this question, of course, pre-dates cinema. From Beowulf onwards, popular narrative has largely given terror a sublime, socially externalised explanation – whatever the “sub”-textual hints of greater cultural and political meaning. No matter how Gothic-dark it behaves, popular drama’s textual “surface” has tended, paradoxically, to reflect a persistently sanguine view of human nature. We need to believe in a stronger, more fantastic agency of terror than vice, or the material banality of real terror and its political or moral origins.
The British commercial Horror cinema of the 1960s and 1970s – the Hammer (and extra-Hammer) Horror cycle – seems mostly valued for its aesthetic “badness”. As schlock, kitsch, naïve art, a cult-ish, pleasurable sorts of badness. The fact that the British Horror cycle might have offered a few genuinely Gothic essays on the moral badness of Man rarely appears in discourses on its value. The cycle is generally time-lined as beginning with Terence Fisher’s evolutionary Dracula (1958) and petering out with the final collapse of the British studio system in the mid-1970s. (The revolutionary shock of The Exorcist‘s  faux Art Horror was probably also a factor; and with Ingmar Bergman a point of comparison, ye olde English Hammer Horror now seemed mannered, more Elizabethan than Gothic.) These times are of course choked within the context of an unavoidable social history; Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee’s escalation of their conflict in Transylvania is on a par with Kennedy and Johnson’s escalations in Vietnam. The times were Gothic – how could popular cinema be that shut in, that much in denial?
The continuity of talent is also a significant factor in this regard. From the late 1950s until nearly the end of the 1960s, Hammer’s films were helmed by British cinema journeymen such as Fisher and Roy Ward Baker, company men who did their Rank apprenticeships in the 1940s. By the late 1960s, generational change was both professionally necessary and culturally on the cards. But although seemingly obvious, it’s too simplistic to draw close comparisons with Roger Corman’s comparable film school across the Atlantic. Certainly, like Corman’s little factory of B-Horror, the British studio system went through a “luminous heat death” by offering rapid promotion to young directors willing to work fast, cheap and nasty, as long as they obeyed the generic house style. Unlike Hollywood, however, British cinema had less to react to. It already had places of comparative independent art cinema freedom in the Free Cinema/kitchen-sink/BFI sectors and movements, or within the institutional art of BBC-TV. Rather, the apprentice British Horror directors of the late 1960s are reminiscent of the young film school-trained Hollywood Horror directors of the late 1990s; uninterested in being independent young Turks, the late 1960s British Horror directors operated more as Neo-Goths revolting in the studio system’s generic styles.
Reporting for Sight and Sound early in 1971, David Pirie surveyed this brief moment when the Horror genre seemed to offer a genuine British cinema apprenticeship system, hinting at, although not overtly stating, a hopeful analogy to Corman’s trade school (1). By this time, Michael Reeves, the writer-director of Witchfinder General, was already dead – but already also, for Pirie, his career had begun to exemplify a paradigm of “infiltration”. Pirie identified four of these then promising Neo-Goths, who “…deliver[ed] the appropriate quota of shock effects to obtain considerable freedom” (2). Most of these directors had just delivered their first low-budget Horror films: Stephen Weeks (I, Monster, 1971); the already busy Hungarian émigré Peter Sasdy (whose films by then included the Hammer franchises Taste the Blood of Dracula  and Hands of the Ripper , as well as entries in an even more traditional franchise – Bronte adaptations like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall  and a BBC-TV version of Wuthering Heights, 1967); Gordon Hessler, who had completed Reeves’ unfinished Poe adaptation The Oblong Box (1969), as well as the movie moral panic du jour Scream and Scream Again (1970); and the Australian Peter Sykes (Venom ).
For the few years between about 1969 and 1974, this generational climatic instability created a violent thunderstorm of “signification” across the remnant British studio system. The apprentice feature directors resisted the traditional morality systems of the genres in which they worked – whilst finding the generic narrative decoration quite attractive as a practical thematic mechanism. All sorts of moral reassignments seemed possible. For example, the cosmology of the Supernatural Thriller surfaced within the banal, realistic evils of authoritarianism and plain domestic bloody-mindedness. This is obviously true of the grotty milieu of the British Gangster films of the period (Villain, 1970, Get Carter, 1971, and even the first half of Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance ); reporting on the moral panic of mod mobsters the Kray Brothers, the facts now seemed potent with the demonology of Hammer Horror. But the codes of Hammer had by now also infected most British studio-based dramatic genres. Family and Historical Melodramas, especially, seemed to gain a tensile hardness: see, for example, such films as Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966); Sidney Hayers’ grotty pair of High Street moral melodramas Revenge (1970) and Assault (1971); the strange, amoral inversions of the Dixon of Dock Green-like The Strange Affair (1968) and All Coppers Are… (1972); the Bette Davis import grotesques The Anniversary (1968) and Scream, Pretty Peggy (1973). The thrill of the Thriller in these titles is generated by repugnant human emotions. All have a freaky, emotionally labile style, drawn from the disassociation of the times, but appropriating into their reality the heightened psychological logic, the thematic obsessions with moral opportunism, brutality and counter-brutality, that we pre-suppose “belongs” only to the Supernatural sub-genre of bottom-of-the-bill British Horror manufacturing. Even beyond the Thriller, this general repugnancy saturated things. Harold Pinter’s work throughout this period, especially The Homecoming (film adaptation in 1973), toys with this domestic extremism. John Braine’s Room at the Top franchise had degenerated from kitchen-sink new-waviness into the almost feudal brutality of the Man at the Top TV adaptations (1971-73). Elsewhere, British Science-Fiction cinema became bitter and twisted; Gothic despair replaced rocket science in Hessler’s Scream and Scream Again, the Michael Moorcock /Jerry Cornelius adaptation of The Final Programme (1973), and even in Gerry Anderson’s bleak live-action series, UFO (1970-71), in which organ-snatching aliens war secretly with a morally relativist elite of earth operatives. Even Hitchcock became a little unhinged. In this context, Frenzy (1972) seems to be less of the oddity Hitchcock studies would sometimes have us believe (or was it that Hitch and British screen culture were finally in some kind of sync?).
In the long run, Pirie wasn’t a particularly prescient talent scout. His Neo-Goths either dropped out (Sykes, Weeks), or coasted into hackwork in 1970s US TV drama series (Sasdy, Hessler). Only director Michael Reeves and his final feature, Witchfinder General, generally lingers as the film maudit of the Neo-Goth cycle – it’s avant-garde gesture, it’s archetype, if you like. It is also, to some degree, its Passion piece; Witchfinder General is Gothic in its historic circumstances as an artwork, the ultimate film of a short career and a tragically brief life. An unexplained suicide, at 24, within a few months of Witchfinder General‘s release, has often been linked to Reeves’ masterpiece’s blighted release history. At first, the film certainly managed to receive the worse sort of popular attention, as well as neglect. When a few of the British tabloid reviewers thought they had flushed out another Peeping Tom (1960), it became the “bunny” in the annual British media hounding of supposed “cinema nasties”. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, its American release was obscured by the weird internal distribution logic of American International, who gave it a Poe-like title, The Conqueror Worm, to capitalise on Vincent Price’s link with Corman’s Poe adaptations (3).
Yesterday’s news should have become today’s trash. However, Reeves’ reputation quickened romantically almost immediately after his death, as Pirie’s primary document suggests. It continues to fuel a fanzine cult to this day. But whether Reeves is cinema’s Keats or its Ian Curtis, there were also more critically respectable eulogisers. He stood slightly to the side of his peers in clearly bringing an auteurist, writer-director intentionality to the Horror crawl-space. His four features have benefited from the critical attention of auteurism to a level only matched, for a dedicated Horror genre filmmaker, by James Whale and Wes Craven. Robin Wood’s 1969 Movie obituary, in particular, was essential to his present reputation (4).
Nevertheless, we can overstate Reeves’ distinction within the studio system. Décor and art direction are kit-built in Witchfinder General and we are in the same light-constricted Suffolk forests and under many of the same low thatch-roofed ceilings that were forever Terence Fisher’s Slavic Europe. However, the first distinction Witchfinder General achieved was that the ersatz has its Britannic reality restored, and its historical milieu refreshed. Reeves’ script, written with Tom Baker, has its sources in the real memoirs of witch-finders Matthew Hopkins (Price) and John Stearne (Robert Russell) published after their, in reality, not-so-violent fall from political grace in 1646. Many of the characters accused of witchcraft in the film are derived from individuals mentioned in these historical accounts. So although neither Hopkins or Stearne were historically the sort of melodramatic “anti” Don Quixote and Sancho Panza sketched in the script, the film has a sense of responsibility to historical facts and logic rare in low-budget studio films. The atmosphere is much closer to that found at the BBC; Peter Watkins’ Culloden (1964) was almost certainly an influence.
Price seems to have sensed his responsibility to history as well. As “fanzine” writers on Horror frequently insist, this is one of Price’s most restrained roles. Robin Wood is right, though, to argue that even if his performance lacks the usual histrionics, Price’s iconographic presence – in a role originally written for Donald Pleasence’s more retentive, Eichmann-esque representation of evil – unbalances the performative relationships found in the film. This is our fault. We will always have Pavlovian expectations of a histrionic Price performance, as though it were its own sub-genre of Horror. In the end his casting (although probably at the financial insistence of American International) is the film’s main artistic mistake, creating a vortex of iconic behavioural expectations and tics around Price/Hopkins which detracts from the film’s intention to achieve a genuine Webster-like moral tragedy.
But in one, cinéphiliac way, this malformation is part of Witchfinder General‘s pleasure and achievement as an example of popular British cinema. As in that arch-case study of Hammer Horror – the increasingly socially resonant cultural and psycho-pathology of Christopher’s Lee’s vampirism through the 1960s – the British Horror cycle blooms as it is fertilised by the allegorical possibilities of the times. In this case Civil War England is equated with the culture wars of the 1960s. Witchfinder General‘s themes are related to the tensions that led to May ’68 and the Manson family, between familial continuities (here represented by the Arcadian home shared by Sara and her guardian) and the individual advantages that are always for the taking in (civil) war-time – the riskiest of all transitional epochs. This tension is at its most thematically potent when it touches the issues of political and personal exploitation that are inevitable at these moments; especially those of gender. War’s immediacy gets Trooper Marshall (Ian Ogilvy, Reeves’ friend and regular male lead of his short-lived stock company) the sexual permission of his beloved Sara early in the film; but also, later, enables her rape by Stearne and sexual blackmail by Hopkins (ambiguities of sexual freedom and abuse only grudgingly acknowledged by the Zeitgeist of the 1960s). When these later events are revealed to Marshall, he cannot suppress a recoil from her caresses – and we come to see even his earlier passion as another act of sexual opportunism. Sara’s final, unsilencibly mad scream is born of nothing extraordinary – just a despair caused by bestial, mortal, venal and male human nature.
In the cultural war-time of the 1960s, language was also exploited and corrupted, often appearing helter-skelter. Witchfinder General finds a context here as well. Price’s witch-finders are allowed to call victims perpetrators and sling them up in the moral vacuum that exists on the ungoverned fringes of this and any civil war (his title implies that he has some marshal commission to do so). Figures who are split off from the wider conflict of the 1642 – aspects again more in keeping with an early Peter Watkins docudrama – filter into the quietism of the film’s forest of symbols. Loitering military bands, forgotten human carcasses decaying in the bracken, and other social consequences of the breakdown in systems of authority – starvation, criminal and fatalistically disinherited social order and behaviour – allow Reeves’ the chance to execute what Wood called “stunning set pieces of mise-en-scene” (5). Instead of Hammer or Corman, this fraught moral geography now seems more consistent with Bresson’s Lancelot du lac (1974), Nelson’s Soldier Blue (1970), and other films of the times where the recreation of military history and it myths seems to have been derived from the unending casual destruction of innocence broadcast nightly from Vietnam. The only supernatural component in Reeves’ film is contained within the frightened social imagination of Civil War England and in the rhetoric of the witch-finders. We are closer to Mi Lai and Jonestown than to Elm Street.
Reeves’ subject is in many ways situated within the pathology of his own audience; the peculiar need and taste for supernatural belief that links the modern taste for Freddy Krueger with the 17th century audience for the public execution of witches. Reeves almost seems to have an unfashionable agreement with the premises of the moral panic surrounding the film’s release. There is no Evil incarnate; only perpetual corruption explains social misery. And amongst the exploiters implicated in this (and Sara’s final cry) may be the Horror filmmakers themselves. Ogilvy’s Marshall begins as an anguished gentleman-officer, forebear to the earlier fine, politely upset warriors of David Lean and Carol Reed (and Dirk Bogarde’s agonised trench-knight in Witchfinder General‘s near contemporary, Joseph Losey’s King and Country, 1964). But by the end he has become the axe-welding avenger of every schlock-Horror quickie. Reeves’ achievement is that this hollow moral resonance is the film’s crucial affect.
- David Pirie, “New Blood”, Sight and Sound, 40.2, Spring 1971, pp. 73–75.
- Pirie, p. 74.
- The key sources for much of the factual information contained in this article are: Danny Perry, “The Conqueror Worm”, Cult Movies, Vermilion, London, 1981, pp. 55–58; and T. M. [Tom Milne], “Witchfinder General”, Monthly Film Bulletin, 35.414, July 1968, p. 100.
- See Robin Wood, “In Memoriam Michael Reeves”, Movie, 17, Winter 1969–70.