Film / Witchfinder General
The most famous film by British 1960s horror studio Tigon British Film Productions
(even though everyone assumes that it must have been by Hammer
). Witchfinder General
, known in the USA as "The Conqueror Worm", starred horror icon Vincent Price
as the notorious seventeenth-century fanatic Matthew Hopkins, the eponymous
self-styled Witchfinder General
. Initially condemned by critics for its graphic violence, but a modest commercial success, the film has become a celebrated Cult Classic
of British rural horror.
This film contains the following tropes:
- Age Lift: Hopkins, who was in his late twenties at the oldest at the time of his death, was played by Vincent Price, who was fifty-six years of age when the film was made.
- Artistic License – History: You can read about it here at The Other Wiki. Though its worth noting that the novel it adapted its story from also uses some Artistic License.
- Big Bad: Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General.
- Burn the Witch!: Several extremely graphic and gruesome witch-burning scenes.
- Campbell Country: One of the Trope Codifiers of English rural horror.
- Cold-Blooded Torture: Lots and lots, as you'd expect from the concept.
- Downer Ending: Hopkins is dead, but Marshall and Sara are severely traumatised and possibly permanently insane as a result of their terrible experiences.
- Fake Ultimate Hero: Hopkins is an uncomedic, darker example of this trope.
- Fictionalized Death Account: Matthew Hopkins probably died of consumption, although one account has him ironically tried and executed for witchcraft by an unnamed individual. The film ends with him being axed by a fictional Roundhead, before another Roundhead puts him out of his misery by shooting him.
- The Film of the Book: It is based upon the 1966 novel of the same name by author Ronald Bassett.
- Historical-Domain Character: In addition to a highly fictionalized Hopkins, we have a cameo by Oliver Cromwell.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Hopkins is turned into a far more cruel, monstrous individual in this film than what surviving historical documents would attest to.
- Humans Are the Real Monsters: The film has no actual supernatural content, and demonstrates that human fanaticism, corruption and cruelty can create worse horrors than any magical monster.
- Market-Based Title: Known as The Conqueror Worm in the USA to turn it into a Dolled-Up Installment of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, many of which had featured Price.
- Mercy Kill: One of the soldiers does this to Hopkins, who is still alive after being savagely hacked with an axe by Marshall.
- The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: A very disturbing example, as the soldier's Mercy Kill on the injured Hopkins sends Marshall into a psychotic rage at having his full vengeance "stolen".
- Recut: A particularly complex range of alternate versions. Many versions, especially the UK one, were heavily cut to censor the graphic violence and torture scenes. Unconnectedly, the film's producers added additional scenes, in particular to certain European releases, featuring sex and nudity between Hopkins's henchmen and bar girls, which the director, Michael Reeves, was very unhappy with. Reeves's early death meant that he wasn't around in the home video age to advise on an official "director's cut". There are a number of quite different versions circulating that have been released for home video, screened in cinemas, or broadcast, some of which contain both the violence and the sex, some of which contain only one of them, and some of which have neither.
- Religious Horror: One of the central tropes of the film.
- Revenge Before Reason: Richard is told by his subordinates that he should speak to the magistrates and his superiors about Hopkins, but Richard feels that he must kill Hopkins on his own. He also compromises his duty as a soldier to conduct his personal vendetta.
- Scarpia Ultimatum: Initially downplayed but later made even worse. Hopkins declares Sara's father to be a witch and starts torturing him, until she, and not Hopkins, comes up with the idea of offering him sex to let her father go. He agrees, but when his depraved minion Stearne rapes her, he treats her as betraying him and has her father tortured and killed.
- Straw Hypocrite: Hopkins is portrayed as a Manipulative Bastard who claims to be a strongly principled Puritan, but is simply using it as a ruse to get the town's people's trust as a stepping stone from going through their hearts to get to their wallets.
- Torture Porn: The film was considered to be this when first released, and is still disturbing today. The director Michael Reeves disagreed strongly when critics brought this up, and he especially resented when the playwright Alan Bennett said that he felt the film's violence should have been offset with comic relief:
Michael Reeves: "Surely the most immoral thing in any form of entertainment is the conditioning of the audience to accept and enjoy violence ... Violence is horrible, degrading and sordid. Insofar as one is going to show it on the screen at all, it should be presented as such – and the more people it shocks into sickened recognition of these facts the better."
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Apart from the character of Hopkins and some of his torture techniques, all of the film is fictitious.
- Witch Hunt: What Hopkins claims is his mission.