Saturday, October 21, 2017
Witchfinder General (1968)
Who's In It: Vincent Price (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the Gene Kelly Three Musketeers), Ian Ogilvy (Return of the Saint TV show), Robert Russell (Doctor Who: "Terror of the Zygons), and Hilary Dwyer (The Oblong Box, Cry of the Banshee)
What It's About: A young soldier (Ogilvy) seeks revenge against the witchfinders (Price and Russell) who murdered his friend (Rupert Davies) and raped his fiancée (Dwyer).
How It Is: It's Price in a completely despicable role, so automatically there's a hurdle. But on top of that, the amount of abuse piled on top of Sara (Dwyer) is so much that I found myself wondering what the point is. If I give it the benefit of the doubt and decide that the movie isn't just using torture for entertainment, I decide that Witchfinder General is the equivalent of War is Hell pictures where the whole point is to reveal the horror of its historical situation in a manner direct and unflinching enough that it shocks viewers out of complacency. That's a noble goal, but it doesn't make me like those movies.
Everyone is very good in their roles and Ogilvy is particularly good as the handsome and noble Richard. I love his response when he finds out what's happened to Sara. His reaction is complicated, but it's a complicated situation and I would have equally believed any of several possible attitudes he might have taken. That he picks the most compassionate and admirable one makes me like him even more.
Not to sideline Sara and how she processes these events. I'm just saving the best for last, because Dwyer is the MVP of the film. She doesn't have much - if any - agency in the story, but that's exactly the film's point about the experience of 17th century women in Britain. Richard may get to take action, but the movie is not a revenge fantasy. It's a horror movie, because it keeps coming back to Sara's point of view. Dwyer is relatable and lovable and what happens to her all through the movie is heartbreaking and terrifying. That makes Witchfinder General a really tough movie to watch, but it's completely effective in what it's trying to do.
Sidenote: It's amusing to me that Witchfinder General was renamed The Conqueror Worm when it was released in the US, purely to cash in on the success of the Price/Poe/Corman films from earlier in the decade. Roger Corman wasn't involved in Witchfinder General and Poe's poem "The Conqueror Worm" has no bearing on the movie (although it is related to The Tomb of Ligeia, since Poe had republished it in the source story for that movie as the creation of the Ligeia character).
Rating: 3 out of 5 Hilary Dwyers.