Sunday, November 27, 2016

Witchfinder General (The Conqueror Worm) - 1968

As much as I would love to call this a masterpiece, there are quite simply too many things that are weird and off about it to declare it more than just a really interestingly flawed film -- one that I enjoyed immensely.

For starters, the music is bizarre. Sometimes it's dark and brooding in the way it should be (considering the subject matter and general tone), but there are scenes wherein the music department chooses to play adventurous tunes that wouldn't be out of place in a Sinbad picture. Otherwise the music is solid and not at all uncommon within the genre. Secondly, and this is far more important, this is a fairly shoddily-edited film. Maybe my DVD isn't in sync with the video and audio, so I'll give it a pass there, but the composition itself is bizarre and pretty cheap at times. Scenes taking place in different locations and several minutes apart are glued together as if there were no pause or change in setting at all, shots thrown in almost on a whim distracting from the scene, and clumsy cuts are used here and there; for example, a man is being chased and clutches his shoulder sharply as if he had just been shot, while the next clip shows his attacker preparing to fire the bullet that had already hit him. These moments aren't enough to keep this from being an effective film, but they do cause distractions from what would have otherwise been a much stronger movie.

I feel it's important to mention that the copy of this movie than I own and am currently reviewing features scenes that weren't released originally in the UK, and while these additional scenes are very clearly visually different from the ones in the cut version, they add to the disturbing and grotesque nature of the torture and witch-burning scenes. In 1968, graphic content in films was fairly hard to come by, and while this is by no means as extreme as what would come out a few years later in The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it was still pretty shocking and quite effective. So while the picture quality does not maintain throughout these scenes, the overall effect from these extra shots is far more positive than it is negative. Unless you're ultra-sensitive, in which case you should probably be smart enough to avoid movies about people being tortured and burnt alive.

Focusing more on the good, Vincent Price gives one of the strongest performances of his career here, never once hamming it up as he often did. His presence is cold, malicious, and sly. This is one of his more interesting characters, and with a career like the one he had, that is saying something. Supposedly the director originally wanted Donald Pleasence for this role, and as good as I'm sure he would have been, this is one instance where I feel studio tampering really did pay off in the end. As much as I felt directors should be given freedom to make the choices they need to to bring their films to life, there are times when their vision just might not be the best way to go about doing things. The rest of the cast are mostly pretty decent, but Price's towering performance simply out ranks them all. Instead of approaching this sinister role with tooth-gnashing glee, he dials it down and is all the more chilling because of it.

The sets, costumes, and visual design of the film aren't without flaws (largely thanks to the low budget), but it never looks or feels cheap enough to become a hindrance. This wasn't a movie that needed a ton of money poured into it to be effective, and its simplicity only really adds to the experience. The brutality of the torture and execution scenes feel all the more real due to the lack of Hollywood dramatization. It's never over-zealous and preachy about the evils of the witch-hunt, and it never needed to be. It's eerie, twisted, and graphic but never in an exploitative way. This film found the right balance in a lot of different ways and came out a success. Definitely worthy of recommendation.
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