Though bearing no supernatural elements whatsoever, WITCHFINDER GENERAL could not possibly be more of a horror story, dealing as it does with the blackest of evil in human form.
Released in the United States as THE CONQUEROR WORM — in an ill-advised attempt to link it to AIP's wave of Poe adaptations — the film employs a fictionalized take on Matthew Hopkins, a real-life 17th century apparently-self-proclaimed "Witch-Finder General," to tell its tale of how ignorance, fear, and superstition can allow the unscrupulous and manipulative to abuse and degrade the general populace for their own sordid ends. Hopkins's bullshit title allows him to ride about the English countryside, going from village to village as a dreaded scourge of "witches," and carrying out an opportunistic reign of sheer terror as he and his foul assistant extort, torture, and rape innocents with abandon, afforded carte blanche by the witchcraft-fearing public, with their efforts inevitably culminating in the hanging or burning at the stake of anyone unfortunate enough to fall under their sadistic radar.
The one and only Vincent Price as the unspeakably evil Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed "Witchfinder General."
The plot is simplicity itself, as we're presented with what happens when Hopkins (Vincent Price) and the vile John Stearne (Robert Russell) roll into town, this time merrily torturing an accused priest whose nubile niece (Hilary Dwyer) offers Hopkins her body in exchange for her uncle's safe release. You can probably guess how that worked out, with the poor girl getting raped by Stearne (on top of whatever flesh-crawling shit she had to get up to with Hopkins) and it's really on when the soldier to whom she's betrothed (Ian Ogilvy) finds out about her violation. Filled with justifiably righteous rage, the soldier rides off to kill the witchfinder and his henchman, but he does not take into account just how much power Hopkins wields, and he and his lover soon find themselves labeled as witches and bound for a fun trip to Hopkins's torture chamber...
Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins: His greatest performance?
Often confused for a Hammer film, this Tigon production was very strong meat in its day — too strong for some critics and members of the moviegoing public — and still holds the power to drag its audience into a mad world of relentless and all-too-human terror. Along with its generally hopeless setting, the film's greatest strength is Vincent Price's performance as Matthew Hopkins, a monster immeasurably worse than any of the non-existent witches he fans the flames of dread for, and in my opinion his cold, utterly soulless witchfinder is the most compelling performance in a career filled with memorable characters. (Oh, what I would have given to see Price star as Doctor Strange back in the day...)
It's hard to say, but if released today, WITCHFINDER GENERAL would likely land an MPAA rating of "R" for its overall tone and content — which is nowhere near as gory as one might expect (I admit to being somewhat disappointed by that, especially after hearing about the film being "reprehensible" for decades), but bear in mind that both PSYCHO (1960) and ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) were retroactively rated "R" for recent DVD releases — though the most horrifying thing about the narrative is just how believable the self-serving cruelty of Hopkins (and men like him) is. This is required viewing, especially when one takes into account that it was the unintentional launching point for the whole sub-genre of crassly exploitative witchfinder/torture flicks that briefly flourished over the next few years after WITCHFINDER GENERAL's release, and it's head-and-shoulders above such infamous, artless trash as MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970, released in the U.S. in 1972). The only false-accusation-for-witchcraft movie that equals — and, if you ask me, bests — WITCHFINDER GENERAL in this department is Ken Russell's delirious THE DEVILS (1971), but we'll be getting to that one soon enough...
Poster for the American theatrical release.