‘Witchfinder General’


You never know what might turn up in “To Save and Project,” MOMA’s annual festival of recently preserved films, but it’s always satisfying to find an obscure, late-’60s genre flick produced by a now defunct studio that has been redeemed from the red-on-red color deterioration endemic to the period’s celluloid artifacts. The 1968 British horror movie Witchfinder General (also known as The Conqueror Worm) has long been a cult item—in part because its talented 25-year-old director, Michael Reeves, died of a drug overdose before the film’s release, but mainly because it is an extraordinarily bleak story of political evil. Set in pastoral East Anglia during the mid-17th-century civil war between Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads and King Charles’s Cavaliers, it stars Vincent Price as the pious opportunist Matthew Hopkins, a historical figure who profited from the chaos by discovering Catholic witches among the peasantry—and enabling their neighbors to put them to death. Reeves shot on location and the movie has a robust autumnal quality perfectly matched by Price’s overripe performance. Witchfinder General bears the mark of its period—there’s an overabundance of zooms and an easy reliance on the brutality of brightly hued gore—but it remains contemporary, and even frightening, in its evocation of cynical Puritanism and mass deception.