Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves / United Kingdom, 1968):
(The Conqueror Worm)

"A fitting end for the foul ungodliness of humankind," certainly a fitting schwanengesang for the Büchner of Hammer horror. A world divided in wartime is the stage, the camera tilts down from sunlight flickering through trees to find the gallows on the hilltop, England circa 1645. Skirmishes in the woods, superstitious accusations and punishments, unburied corpses: All grist to the mill of puritanical butcher Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), black-caped atop a white horse and elongated like an El Greco inquisitor. "Extermination" is the business, hanging and drowning and burning are "the prescribed methods," silver and sex are the rewards. The barbarity reaches the outcast priest (Rupert Davies) and his devoted niece (Hilary Heath), the lass' beau is a Cromwellian trooper (Ian Ogilvy) who leaves the battlefield for the carnage at home. (The couple take their impromptu marital vows before the slowly ascending camera, but the consuming emotion is not love: "It is in thy sight that I hereby swear I shall not rest from the pursuit of the murderers.") Michael Reeves and high-noon darkness, a legitimately beastly vision. Bergman is the clear model in these views of pervasive brutality amid pale green expanses (there's something of the hysterical historical chiaroscuro of Mann's Reign of Terror, also), though the mounting despair surveyed with zoom lenses makes it unequivocally a '68 portrait. Torsos stabbed for demonic marks and women violated in treacherous pacts, "the Lord's work, a noble thing," the absolute unmooring of the romantic mind. Watkins' Culloden, Franco's The Bloody Judge, Rossellini's Blaise Pascal and, in the distance, Wheatley's A Field in England. The vengeful axe blow is delivered at last, yet for Reeves all that's left is blood on the dungeon staircase and the echoes of screams. Cinematography by John Coquillon. With Robert Russell, Nicky Henson, and Patrick Wymark.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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