Jesse Bullington on Witchfinder General (1968)
Jesse Bullington is one of my best friends, though we’ve only met in person a paltry once. Not only does he sport some fine facial hair, but he’s also the author of The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and The Enterprise of Death, as well as a handful of truly excellent short stories. (We’ve even shared a table of contents a time or two.) Like all the contributor’s to this Vincent Price Halloween, he’s a big fan of good old Uncle Vincent, and especially of the film he’s discussing here, Witchfinder General:
We love Vincent Price. This is not up for discussion. We relish his wanton disregard for restraint, his commitment to entertaining the audience no matter how bland the screenplay, how pedestrian the plot. We cheer as he sinks his teeth into the scenery, as he stalks and schemes and rages, as he kills, as kill he must. Even in mostly humorless films, such as The Last Man on Earth, Price’s flair for the theatrical bleeds through, and the result is an actor who always seems to be having so much fun that we can’t help but be caught up in his charisma, even when’s he wailing for a dead wife or cackling as he tortures an innocent victim. I very much doubt I would be the person I am today without Uncle Vince to tutor me in the delicate art of camp, of mixing horror and humor to fine result, and just thinking about his wracked facial expressions brings a smile to my face.
Yet it’s not The Abominable Dr. Phibes, Theatre of Blood, nor any of the others that stands out as favorite child in a much-loved brood, important though those films were for Young Moi. No, Price was capable of a restraint not often displayed in his horror fare, from his Kentucky gentleman in the noir Laura to his bittersweet final role as the inventor in Edward Scissorhands, and it’s one of these toned-down performances that I count as my very favorite: his portrayal of the infamous 17th century witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins in the English filmWitchfinder General, retitled The Conqueror Worm in the states to cash in on Price’s Poe cachet. As a child, I put in a battered betamax tape fully expecting to root for Uncle Vince as he went about his dastardly way, only to be profoundly disturbed, not just by the overall film, but by Price’s genuinely sinister performance.
Of course, I absolutely loved the experience, but in remarkably different fashion than anything else of his I’d ever seen. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that perhaps part of the cruel gleam in Price’s eye might have resulted from his hatred for the director, Michael Reeves, who had no love for Price, either, but that’s neither here nor there–the point is, Price creeped me right the hell out, and single-handedly inspired what has become a lifelong passion for witch-hunters and well-done historical horror. Much of the witch-hunter sub-genre is awful, such as Christopher Lee’s The Bloody Judge, some of it comes close to greatness only to fumble the stake at some point, such as Blood on Satan’s Claw (which had it’s originally-planned, pitch-black ending completely changed to placate censors), and some of it is every bit as good as Witchfinder General, such as Ken Russel’s The Devils, which features Oliver Reed at his best. One or two witchsniffer flicks may even be better in a lot of ways, such as the recent, quietly brilliant Black Death … but for me, always and forever, Witchfinder General stands firm as the quintessential witch-hunter pic. Few films, before or since, have left me as imprinted with horror as the ending of the US release of the film, which has Price delivering the final lines of the Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm” to chilling effect. Much as I delight in cheering on Uncle Vince, in sharing in his malicious victories and deserved defeats alike, I’ll always love him best for the role where he made me hate him, and with good reason–he scared the bejesus out of me.