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Film / Witchfinder General

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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.
  • Ax-Crazy: Richard is quite literally driven to this by the end.
  • Big Bad: Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Hopkins is dead, and his reign of terror in England is presumably over, but Marshall and Sara are severely traumatised and possibly permanently insane as a result of their terrible experiences.
  • Burn the Witch!: Several extremely graphic and gruesome witch-burning scenes.
  • Campbell Country: One of the Trope Codifiers of English rural horror.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: When Elizabeth Clarke is being burned, a man called Paul (presumably her lover) is seen being restrained. Paul later shows up to try and take revenge on Hopkins as he's framing Richard and Sara. Although he's shot before he can do anything directly, he's able to tell Richard's comrades where they've gone.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Initially averted - the film touches on the divisions within the Church of England, and the fact that Reverend Lowes is targeted partly because the Puritans consider his High Church practices too close to Catholicism; but in the final scene we see Puritan soldiers making the sign of the cross, a very un-Puritan thing to do.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Lots and lots, as you'd expect from the concept.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Sara flees Brandestown to take up residence in Lavenham, in the hopes that she'll be safe from Hopkins. It just so happens that's the town Hopkins decides to go to after nearly being captured by Richard.
  • Crapsack World: England is portrayed as a country gripped in civil war, where the general chaos has led to the people becoming superstitious. Many con men have cropped up in this time of trouble, torturing and killing with impunity under the guise of finding witches.
  • Eye Scream: Stearne's ultimate fate, which pales in comparison to what happens to Hopkins immediately after.
  • 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.
  • Forced to Watch: It's no coincidence that Richard has to watch Sara be tortured first.
  • Graceful Ladies Like Purple: Sara in the last act of the film is wearing a violet dress, which only serves to highlight her virtue and valor.
  • Heroic BSoD: Richard gets a short thousand-yard stare when he realizes Sara is telling him that Hopkins defiled her.
  • Heroic Seductress: Sara wisely realises that Hopkins wants to sleep with her, and uses the opportunity to get him to spare Father Lowes in exchange.
  • Historical Domain Character: In addition to a highly fictionalized Hopkins, we have a cameo by Oliver Cromwell. (Stearne and Lowes were also real people.)
  • 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.
  • Imperiled in Pregnancy: One of Hopkins's victims begs to spared because she is "with child" (although it's not known if she was or was lying in the hopes of pity). Either way she's ducked with the other two. She drowns, and Hopkins declares that she was innocent after all.
  • Madness Mantra: When Richard is denied his final revenge on Hopkins.
  • 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. As he only has one bullet, he realizes too late that he can't put Marshall out of his misery, leaving Marshall to go finally and fully insane.
  • Only a Flesh Wound: Stearne seems to forget that he was shot in the shoulder by the time the third act rolls around.
  • 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".
  • Re-Cut: 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, in a religion-gone-bad sense.
  • 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.
  • Same Language Dub: Robert Russell was dubbed by Bernard Kay.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum: Initially downplayed but later made even worse. Hopkins declares Sara's uncle 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 uncle tortured and killed.
  • Self-Surgery: Stearne is shot in the shoulder while fighting some soldiers who's intended to confiscate his mare. Left alone and bleeding, he sets about extracting the bullet himself with his knife, and his screams are heard as the camera pans up to the overhanging trees.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: The implication that Sara is offering herself to Hopkins is shown with Toplessness from the Back, before cutting away.
  • Shameful Strip: Downplayed but one of the methods of torture has Stearne drilling into the victim's back. Naturally the clothing has to be ripped for that to happen.
  • The Sociopath:
    • Matthew Hopkins, who pretends to be a Puritan hunting witches, but is really just torturing random women to death for money.
    • John Stearne. While Hopkins at least tries to pass for someone who genuinely wants to rid the world of evil, Stearne is an Obviously Evil sadist who makes no attempt whatsoever to hide that he's only working with Hopkins so he can hurt people.
  • 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 characters of Hopkins and Stearne and some of their torture techniques, all of the film is fictitious.
  • Witch Hunt: What Hopkins claims is his mission.