Witchfinder General; or This Really is What East Anglia is Like

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Hello and Hallo-welcome to another edition of Witchy Wednesdays, where the brews are bubbling and the spells are casting! You join your reviewers, Andy and Lilly, as they argue about which one should be searched for the Devil’s mark first–joking, Andy’s a gentleman, it’s ladies first!

Today’s film offering: Witchfinder General (also known as The Conqueror Worm)

Lilly: What’s a series of witch films without one that mentions Matthew Hopkins? Self-proclaimed Witchfinder General, he went around England during the civil war, taking his show of ‘Witch or No Witch?’ on the road. A slimy individual, he was responsible for the deaths of 300 women in the span of two years, and that’s…terrifying.

Andy: Yeah, he’s one of the most deeply unpleasant individuals in English history, up there with contemporary puritan bastard Oliver Cromwell. And they’re both from my neck of the woods. Lovely!

Lilly: And then they up and cast Vincent Price as him in the film! As if he needed help being creepy!

Witchfinder General is the tale of a young soldier and his lady love who happen to get tangled up in the mess that is Hopkins’ reign of terror across England. It involves all the tried and true methods of finding witches (save the old ‘compare their weight to a duck’ trick), from pricking to see if moles are the Devil’s mark to the whole drown-and-you-are-innocent, float-and-you-get-back-here-and-hang-you-witch trial and terror.

Andy: As for the movie, we slot it into a sub-genre of ‘pastoral horror’, along with critical darling The Wicker Man, and Hallowfest favourite Blood on Satan’s Claw. Seriously, I think it might be our favourite joint movie. The former brings a wonderful, cultish weirdness and the latter brings forth the kind of feelings in us that are usually in bad love songs, what does this one bring to the table?

Well, for starters it is one of the most relentlessly unpleasant and nasty films we’ve reviewed. Somehow managing to get a commercial release in 1968, it features torture, mostly of women, truly despicable villains, and a sinking sense that even the most optimistic ending after a certain point is always going to be pretty bleak. Anyone who saw Vincent Price in his earlier AIP films is in for a hell of a shock.

Lilly: Not to mention those of us who were introduced to Vincent via The Muppet Show!

We actually managed to watch a Director’s Cut of this film, featuring scenes cut out at the time the film was released in cinemas. It had the incredibly troubling and scary introductory text of:

At the time of its original release the BBFC decided that certain scenes should be trimmed to comply with rules on the depiction of violence. In these more enlightened times we have been able to reinstigate these scenes to recreate the original director’s cut.

It goes on to warn us that the quality of the cut scenes would vary from the kept, and so whenever the film went bad, it went bad. But how insane is that second sentence? ‘In these more enlightened times’? What, in these times where we can take seeing a woman with her face beat in, or her back pricked deeply with a needle? What! How is that enlightened! I think the word you’re looking for, weird opening title card, is ‘desensitized’.

Andy: Yeah, this is definitely one that we’re not exactly going to decry, but aren’t going to recommend, either.

Lilly: I mean. Some films you get through, you know? You make it to the end and feel relief. So, saying ‘go, watch, enjoy!’ seems like it would be almost sarcastic. You aren’t going to enjoy this film, per se. It’s nasty.

Andy: Even Hostel wasn’t this needlessly vindictive.

Lilly: No, seriously, see our reviews of Hostel & Hostel 2–they were messy, but not cruel. Especially due to the fact that they weren’t set in actual historical events. This one, however…Well, let it speak for itself. Go, watch, and….well. Try and sleep at night after?

The Witch; Or This is What We Assume Virginia is Like

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Hello and Hallo-welcome back to another Witchy Wednesday, where we review films featuring witchly behaviour! You join your hosts, Lilly and Andy, who are taking a look at a newish movie set in oldish New England!

Today’s film offering: The Witch

Andy: Is there any religion more terrifying than full-on 17th Century Puritanism? I’m not disparaging anyone’s faith here, but these were people who lived in absolute terror of a wrathful deity and for whom every misfortune was a mark of Divine Disfavour. No bad luck for these people – the universe takes a poop in your stocking, you’ve done Something Wrong. These were the same zealots who cancelled Christmas, and hanged a lot of innocent people in Salem, Massachusetts.

I feel they would not have approved of Hallowfest.

Our plot follows a family with a patriarch who is extreme even by these exacting standards. Fearing that his community is not God-fearing enough, he marches them off into the wilderness to build a homestead away from the corrupting influence of his neighbours – the precise nature of their theological disagreement is not elaborated on (probably for the best) – but his new neighbour may be a far more pernicious influence, especially on his teenage daughter and eldest son.

Here things take a very interesting turn. We are used to seeing the forces of science do battle with the supernatural, and when faith comes to the fore, it is usually an overwhelmingly positive and unquestioned force; the most obvious example is the use of crucifixes against vampires, but the noble priests doing battle for Reagan’s soul in The Exorcist spring to mind. In this though, the faith of the family seems to be, at its very best, a neutral force.

Lilly: And at worst an ineffective effort to ward off something that was already sneaking in there easily, what with the father’s zealotry being so strong the family was booted out of the colony. 

Andy: The trouble is the faith of the family is an incorporeal one – the dangers that affect their immortal souls are of a spiritual nature. The idea that there is a mad witch in the woods aiming to mash their children into a fine paste for … reasons is outside the bounds of their view of the world as ephemeral and transient.

Lilly: Meaning shit gets real, and they don’t know it. Or do they? Or is it? Let’s pray. And when the baseline of the faith set up in this film is too hardcore for the colonists and only shaped in the beliefs of the father, you know it’s not the sort of faith that actually saves you. It’s the kind that gets Dracula laughing at you as he tosses the crucifix to the side, because it only hurts him if you believe.

Andy: There are some very good performances in this, particularly from the two oldest child characters upon whom most of the story depends. In this world of exacting and pure standards, they are wonderfully flawed, and wonderfully human.

Lilly: I have high standards for children in horror films (foolish, I know), however these two met and surpassed my expectations. Harvey Scrimshaw and Anya Taylor-Joy (who is actually twenty, but that’s still a child to me, whatever), kudos to you. They felt more human than any of the other characters, and sorry, that includes the young twins who I just hated from the get go. And hate is a strong word, I know that. I’m not sure if it was meant or not–like was I supposed to dislike them? Did they want that? Mind you, who likes bratty kids? Who, I tell you!

Andy: Anyway, if there is anything this movie absolutely nails, it is atmosphere. There is a sense of omnidirectional dread in its washed out colour palette and doomy score, not to mention the fact it goes to great lengths to disguise in which direction the woods actually are from the house, so they seem like they are everywhere.

Lilly: Absolutely. Even when I wasn’t sure what I was afraid of, I had a sense of ‘oh no’ throughout the film, with certain shots lingering for just the right amount of time to tease something was going to happen, to only then ease off. You are brought to the brink of agonizing tension a few times.

Andy: However, and this is a big caveat, does it actually amount to very much? Well, kinda. It’s strange to think about everything this movie does right, and struggle to see what it does wrong, but still come away with a reaction slightly above ‘meh’. It’s worth watching, and I can definitely see someone else enjoying this more than I did, but for some reason, it doesn’t leap out as one of the best examples from horror from recent years. It lacks … something. Maybe a sense of fun.

Lilly: I can talk myself in circles about this film. I like it because it parallels a teenage girl’s budding sexuality with a real physical threat, making it so her religious family has difficulties pulling apart the two threads. I dislike it because all that tension building seems to fizzle out in the last fifteen minutes, and what should be a dramatic climax just seems dozy. That said, I like that it becomes almost dreamlike. Then there is the family relations that I love, with the animosity between the mother and daughter as the girl grows into a woman and the mother’s jealousy about her husband’s attentions to their daughter shows, as well as her bitterness as she blames Thomasin for the loss of her baby (it was in the trailer, shut up, it’s not spoiling). I loved the confusing feelings Caleb has about his sister, because on one hand, she is his sister, family, on the other, she is a girl, and those are becoming more interesting in his eyes. I like how the monster of the piece prays on these little bits and pieces, those cracks each family member has, and pulls them apart, one by one. I dislike how we see the witch at all (surprise, whatever), because the family tearing itself apart without any proof of a witch outside their superstitions (and no proof for the audience, either) would be terrifying in itself. I like how little bits and pieces of witch folklore are so neatly put in the film without excuse or explanation because you are at a film called The Witch, you should know some shit about witches. And yet I don’t really want to watch it again. But maybe?

So it’s a mixed review from us. Absolutely watch it, absolutely form your own opinion, and absolutely let us know what you think!