31 Days of Fright: Lemora

Lemora? Or really effective Assassin's Creed cosplay? You decide!

Lemora? Or really effective Assassin’s Creed cosplay? You decide!

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! My most recent movie was Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, directed by Richard Blackburn (co-writer and associate producer of Eating Raoul), and requested by friend and donor David Summers. David is, without exaggeration, the friend of mine (excluding actual film programmers) who has the most extensive knowledge of horror movies – possibly just movies, in general. So when he recommended several horror movies for this project, I listened eagerly. (I’ll be watching another of his recommendations later this month.) I picked up mid-seventies horror curiosity Lemora from Bay Street Video.

What happens:

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, set in the Depression-era South, opens with a bang. A pinstriped gangster, who we later learn is the infamous Alvin Lee (William Whitton) bursts into the bedroom where his wife is mid-affair with another man. With his shotgun, he shoots the man in the neck, then shoots his wife without hesitation. In his getaway, he accidentally runs over a woman on the street. Elsewhere, an angelic young blonde girl sings hymns in a church choir. Once she has finished, the Reverend (Richard Blackburn), dressed more or less like Colonel Sanders, announces to the entirely female congregation that he will talk about good and evil. Specifically, he wants to talk about how the young singer, thirteen-year-old Lila Lee (Cheryl Smith), was recently outed in the newspapers as the daughter of notorious gangster Alvin Lee. Lee, we learn, was removed from her unsafe home and became the ward of the Reverend himself. The Reverend, quoting the Bible, reminds the congregation that the daughter should not pay for the sins of the father.

Alvin Lee, meanwhile, drives on through the night, slowly becoming either worried or very tired (difficult to tell from Whitton’s acting style). When he pulls off at an exit, a pale woman in a dark cloak awaits him outside the door of an forgotten-looking building. Lee shoots at her with his pistol but it has no effect. Lee is apprehended by two pale men who look like undertakers. From Lee’s back pocket, they purloin that newspaper clipping outing Lila Lee as his daughter. Shortly thereafter, Lila receives a letter from someone named “Lemora,” who claims Lila’s father is very ill – on his deathbed – and wants to see his daughter before she dies. Lee packs a bag and sneaks out of the house to make the long journey to her father.

Lila, about to recite Corinthians 13, I can only assume.

Lila, about to recite Corinthians 13, I can only assume.

Lila spots a young couple pull up to a house in their car. While the woman runs inside, Lila asks the male driver for a ride. The man, clearly up to something nefarious, leers at her, but ultimately refuses to drive her. While he goes inside to check on his companion, Lila hops into the car’s backseat and hides. The couple drives away, oblivious to the thirteen-year-old in their backseat. The woman recognized the girl her boyfriend was speaking with as the goody-two-shoes daughter of the Reverend. The driver makes a few super-gross comments about the Reverend and Lila: “I’d have a hard time keeping my mind on my Bible.” But the driver’s insinuations aren’t without merit. In flashback, we see a scene were Lila hugs the Reverend, and he throws her off him as if he’s been electrocuted.

The couple drives to a seedier part of town and begin to make out, which gives Lila her opportunity to slip out the back. Lila is horrified by the very adult world on display in this neighbourhood. A sex worker smiles at her in the small red light district. Outside a bar, a man openly beats his partner, stopping only to catcall Lila. Lila finds the bus station, where even the ticket agent acts lasciviously, offering her chocolate and making double-entendres about “hard centres.” He does, however, direct her to the bus to Astaroth, where her father is supposedly convalescing.

Lila enters the bus and is greeted by a sleazy Dennis Franz type – the bus driver (Hy Pyke) – who acts menacingly and takes all her remaining money. The rickety bus drives up and down steep slopes while the driver makes disparaging remarks about Astaroth, an area that he’s not too fond of. The land is full of rotting salt marshes and is nearly devoid of residents. The people who do live there, he says, give him the creeps (which is saying something coming from an ultra-creep like him). They all have “that Astaroth look.” The driver, done throughly terrifying Lila, tells her to get some sleep. She starts to drift off but is awakened by seemingly rabid people who run up to the bus and begin to bang on its sides as it drives past. Unfortunately, the bus stalls not far from where that incident occurs, and the driver says he’ll have to take the brake off and let the bus coast down the hill the rest of the way to town.

Obviously, once he exits the bus the rabid ghouls – who look somewhere between The Time Machine‘s Morlocks and the albino mutants from The Omega Man – swarm the driver. Overwhelmed, he commands Lila to pull the brake. She does, and in her first driving test, fails miserably, running right into a tree. The ghouls lay siege to the stopped bus, and it looks like Lila will be their next victim. But then a figure that I can only describe as an Amish Cat-Man arrives and stabs several of the ghouls. In a voice-over, Lemora (we heard her voice earlier with the letter) instructs the Cat-Man to “burn those things after you carry her to the stone house.”

Lila awakens in the stone house – the Cat-Man did his job – a seeming prisoner. An old, witch-like woman enters with a red lantern and plate of food and asks, “Mary Jo?” Lila is not, clearly, Mary Jo, and after the temporary confusion, the old woman marvels at Lila’s beauty and regales her with a song: “Skin and Bones.” She ends the song with a terrifying “Boo!” then scurries away. At night, Lila is tormented by cackling children that come to her barred window in the stone house. She remains prisoner for quite some time.

DJ Solange will be your captor, spinning all your favourite creepy nursery rhymes.

DJ Solange will be your captor, spinning all your favourite creepy nursery rhymes.

Back in the not-nightmare town, the Reverend discovers Lemora’s letter. He hops into his car and sets off to find his young ward on his own. A news report informs us that there have been no sightings of Alvin Lee since his daring escape last week. Back in the stone house, Lila bangs on her door, demeaning to be freed. The next time the old lady arrives to drop off some food, Lila gives her the slip, running out the open door. She finds a nearby house and slips under the crawlspace. Through the floorboards, she hears a man – her father? – and a woman, Lemora, talking about a transformation. Lila crawls out from under the house and Lemora (Lesley Gilb), a pale, statuesque, strong-jawed woman who looks like a cross between Morticia Addams and Magica De Spell, introduces herself.

Lemora insists that Lila was being detained not to keep her in, but to keep other dangerous people out. But Lemora has now prepared a room in the main house for Lila, so she can move inside. “Was that my father?” Lila asks about the other voice. Lemora says it was, but she can’t see him until he has recovered from his illness. Lemora has laid out new clothes for Lila – a mauve dress – and a plate of strawberries. From her guest bedroom, Lila watches as two cloaked men drag a reluctant boy into the stone house, in which they lock him. Lemora enters Lila’s room to view her new dress, and Lila notices that she doesn’t cast an image in the mirror. (Hint!) Lila drops the hand mirror in shock. “The mirror is broken,” Lemora explains. “But you can see how lovely you look in my eyes.” (I’ll have to remember that line.)

Lemora introduces Lila to her adopted children – the cackling, pale, clawed kids who are dressed like the Lost Boys from Peter Pan – and they all sit down for a formal dinner. Lemora plies Lila with sort-of-wine, even though Lila is reluctant to partake: she says drinking is un-Christian. After dinner, Lemora commands the girl to sing. Lila starts her favourite hymn, but begins to feel woozy. Lemora turns on the phonograph and dances with Lila – even though her church isn’t super-keen on that, either – as the laughing children dance around in a ring. Lemora spins Lila until she loses equilibrium and collapses into a corner.

Glass shatters in the next room over and Lemora instructs the children to “find him.” Lila’s father, Alvin, has escaped, but Lemora tells Lila not to worry, as the children will capture him. She informs Lila that the old woman, Solange (Maxine Ballantyne), used to own the property where she lives. Lemora then instructs Lila to bathe, under the supervision of Lemora herself, obvi “Just relax and let me take over,” she says, which is usually not something you want to hear when taking a bath. Lemora talks an inordinate amount about the adolescent Lila’s figure, suggesting all the boys must love her, while she sprinkles herbs into the bath water. Lila, for her part, waxes philosophical about her criminal father, saying she still loves him, even if he’s a bad man. Lemora, seeing the crucifix around Lila’s neck, attempts to remove it, but Lila is done bathing before she gets the chance. As Lila towels off, Lemora tries to start a tickle fight with her, thoroughly creeping the audience out.

Lila is well through the looking glass here, people.

Lila is well through the looking glass here, people.

Heading back to her room, Lila runs into her father, who has transformed into a wolf-like beast. He attacks Lila, tearing at her back. Lila escapes into the kitchen, where Solange is busy cutting raw meat into regularly sized chunks. The wolf-father tears at Solange’s throat and advances on Lila, but then Lemora comes to the rescue. She sets him on fire with her torch, and the lupine Alvin Lee leaps out the window and runs into the woods. Lemora takes Lila from the kitchen, leaving Solange to twitch and moan on the floor. Lila asks what’s happened to her father, and Lemora says that sometimes when people come to stay in Astaroth, they become beast-like. When that happens, they must be destroyed. “You’ll kill my father?” Lila asks, horrified. “I have to,” Lemora insists. They embrace, which is when Lemora notices the bloody cut on the girl’s back. Lemora is entranced. She starts to suck on the wound and when Lila notices, Lemora explains: “It’s like a snakebite! I had to!”

Lemora carries Lila to bed and brushes her hair. She begins to tell her a bedtime story about a little girl who didn’t want to accept what she was, so she ran away from home. Eventually, she found her way to this very house. (Sounds familiar.) Lila asks about Mary Jo, and clearly strikes a nerve. Lemora yanks on Lila’s hair mid-brushing and demands to know who told her about Mary Jo. Mary Jo, she explains, was “just a weakling who couldn’t stand love.” Lemora then shows Lila a new dress she’d like her to wear – so many costume changes! – when they have a ceremony to make the two of them blood sisters. Lila asks if the ceremony will happen in a church, and Lemora assures it will. “Baptist?” Lila asks. “Oh no, much more ancient than that,” she replies.

The Reverend, meanwhile, continues his cross-country search of Lila. He’s since picked up a nice straw hat, but his radio is still reporting on the missing Alvin Lee – that guy is big news. In the morning, Lila hears the cloaked men retrieving the screaming boy from the stone house again. She starts to look through the drawers of the dressers in her room and finds Mary Jo’s diary. Within, Mary Jo describes life with Lemora, and it shows all the signs of an abusive relationship. Lila creeps downstairs, and all along the hallways, portraits of children seem to speak to her, whispering that she should run away. Lila sneaks out the front door, and hears Lemora talking to the boy from the stone house. She creeps up to her window and peers in on the scene. Lemora pets the boy, seated on her lap, then bites into his neck. Lemora is a vampire! Lila screams.

Lila runs from the house in her nightgown, down into a ravine, but it sounds like Lemora is in hot pursuit. It’s not Lemora, however, but one of the ghoul-men – possibly her father – with a sharpened stick. He chases Lila up into a tree. As he climbs after her, he’s grabbed and knocked down by another ghoul-man – the bus driver from earlier. While they scuffle, Lila leaves the tree and runs on. She finds a truck, surrounded by the black-cloaked vampires. These vampires are the more cat-like ones, dressed in capes and Purtian-style hats. She sneaks into the back of the truck unseen. Lemora arrives and instructs the vampires to find Lila, but then their group is attacked by a group of the more beast-like ghoul-men. The vampires and ghouls are at war, it would seem. The truck drives away during the attack and Lila, spotting a child’s coffin the truck’s rear, sees an ideal hiding spot.

The Reverend, days unshaven, continues his search and finds a town littered with vampire bodies. (Seems like he’s on the right track!) Lila’s truck arrives at its destination, and the pale-faced vampires lift the coffin out of the back. Lila leaps out of the coffin and flees into the seeming ghost town they’ve come to. The vampires carry torches – which I thought would be kind of dangerous for vampires – and comb the town for Lila. She evades them handily for quite some time, but eventually paints herself into a corner by locking herself in the upper bedroom of an abandoned house. Someone tries the doorknob, and Lila goes out the window, walking along the precarious ledge. The ledge crumbles under her feet and she falls two storeys to the ground.

A vampire in church? Well, I thought I'd seen everything!

A vampire in church? Well, I thought I’d seen everything!

When Lila comes to, she hears Lemora’s voice in the darkness. Lemora insists that she wants to help her, to give her something: eternal life. Lemora then presents her with a false choice: either join her and the vampires or become one of the beastly ghouls in the woods. Lila backs away through a red curtain and finds herself in her church once again – the very same scene that opened the movie. But over top this scene, she sees the cloaked vampires, who shout at her, mock her, say that she’s been trying to seduce the Reverend. They say she is a seducer of men, wanting only to devour them. As they taunt Lila, she sees a slow-motion battle between the vampires and ghoul-men in progress in an old church. As they slowly battle, Lila’s life (or the events of the film) flash before her eyes.

When things finally stop, Lila finds herself in the old church, surrounded by the long-desiccated skeletons of the battling vampires and beast-men. Everyone is dead. Well, everyone except her monster dad, who leaps up from behind a pew and attacks his daughter. Lila desperately grabs a stake from one of the vampire’s bodies and pierces her father through the heart. Distraught over her father’s death, Lila is surprised by the entrance of Lemora, in a design-heavy new black robe, who announces that she is un-killable, and can never be stopped. She beckons Lila to come into her arms and free herself of all guilt. In Lemora’s cold embrace, Lila doesn’t notice as the vampire queen slips off her crucifix and drops it to the floor. Lemora then bares her fangs and sinks her teeth into the young girl.

The Reverend, meanwhile, has made his way to the church of the film’s climax. He calls out for Lila, stepping carefully around the corpses in the street. The Reverend falls asleep (somehow), and when he awakens, Lila is leaning over him, wearing a new vampiric cloak. She begins to gently kiss his face, and the Reverend protests – “Don’t, Lila” – before giving into his horrific lust and kissing his ward deeply. Lila then bares her brand-new fangs and the Reverend screams. The film ends where it began, with Lila back in the church choir, sining about the Rock of Ages. But was it all a dream? Or has the vampire Lila reintegrated into society?

Fangs for the hospitality, Lemora.

Fangs for the hospitality, Lemora.

Takeaway points:

  • Lemora is subtitled A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, though this is not really a children’s movie. I would suggest that the subtitle alludes to the fairy-tale-like structure of the movie. Like a fairy tale, the movie has a strange, dream-like quality to it (and, at times, a dream-like logic). Additionally, it features many of the tropes of the traditional fairy tale: a missing father, a fairy godmother (though an evil one), an old witch, a quest, an imprisoned girl. There are even a few specific references to children’s stories, namely in the Lost-Boys-like adopted children of Lemora and Lila’s Alice in Wonderland dress.
  • And like many fairy tales, the film seems to be a sort of warning or commentary on adolescent female sexuality. Lemora is a difficult film to interpret. Is it a coming-of-age story that insinuates young girls are secretly lustful creatures who want only to seduce men, or is it a critique of how early and inexorably society transforms girls into sex objects? Take into consideration that literally every adult – save Solange – who meets the thirteen-year-old Lila acts sexually inappropriate with her. The ticket agent leers at her, the violent drunk leers at her, the driver she secretly hitchhikes with leers at her, and – most obviously – Lemora lusts after her youthful body, whether for entirely vampire-like reasons or not. Even her guardian, the Reverend, can barely contain his lust for his pre-teen ward. And, indeed, at the end, he does not. Yet the vampires explicitly blame Lila for the way she’s treated sexually – that she wants it to happen – as does Lemora and, ultimately, the Reverend. Does that align the film with them? Or is the film showing these adults who act as if helpless against the beauty and burgeoning sexuality of Lila (who is, remember, thirteen) to demonstrate how society so readily preys on the young to satisfy its depraved desires? That Lemora treats this frankly icky issue at all makes it very timely, especially given current discussions on rock stars and their treatment of teen young groupies that have arisen in the wake of David Bowie’s death.
  • Most hypnotic and appealing about Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural is how alien the filmmaking feels. The director, Richard Blackburn is one-time feature director who made the film largely with friends as cast and crew, and as a result, Lemora doesn’t feel like most films. It doesn’t follow the same beats or three-act structure like the majority of movies. Films like this are rare – Lemora reminded me of similarly alien films like George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead or Alex Cox’s Repo Man – in which you really have no idea where the movie is going next, or even how far along in the story you are. It’s like watching a movie made by someone who understands filmic language, but has never seen a film before: weirdly compelling.
  • Lemora’s town is called Astaroth, which is traditionally the name given to the Duke of Hell, one of the three main demons down there. Which seems like a weird thing to name your town, even in the South.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Neither. Lemora has a very appealing dream-like quality to it, so that it seems like the stuff of an actual nightmare, but there are few scenes of real terror or suspense. But it’s also – despite some ham-fisted acting – far from terrible.

Lemora wears her best for the blood sister ceremony.

Lemora wears her best for the blood sister ceremony.

Best outfit: Lemora‘s blood-sister ceremony outfit is really fashion-forward. The robe features some very striking and intricate design work and is highlighted by red accents and trim.

Best line: “My spirit is the strongest ever. No matter by which name I am called, I am recognized as the most powerful in the hearts of all.” – Lemora, with all the confidence of a Shia Leboeuf motivational video

Best kill: So few people are killed in Lemora, it’s hard to choose a favourite death. For the most part, characters are transformed against their will – either into vampires or to beastly ghouls. But not killed. I would say Lila’s murder of her gangster-wolfman father is the best of the actual deaths.

Unexpected cameo: The hypocritical Reverend is portrayed by the film’s own director, Richard Blackburn. Cheryl Smith – Lila – later became known as “Rainbeaux” and briefly played the drums for The Runaways.

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: To put an old-timey bus in neutral, you have to exit the bus. Also, in a small Depression-era southern town, a thirteen-year-old choir singer is basically a town celebrity.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Astaroth Night Bus

Next up: Witchfinder General (1968).

31 Days of Fright: Witchfinder General

Find witches, get money. That's Matthew Hopkins's motto.

Find witches, get money. That’s Matthew Hopkins’s motto.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Last night’s film was Witchfinder General (also known, for mysterious reasons, as The Conqueror Worm), directed by Michael Reeves (The Sorcerers, She Beast). Witchfinder General was not a donor suggestion, but yet another use of a free movie space in an attempt to represent the proud (?) tradition of British horror film and make sure horror legend Vincent Price wasn’t left out of January’s proceedings. I picked up this film – one Vincent Price considered his best work – from Queen Video.

What happens:

Are you ready for a depraved British movie about witch hunts? I hope so, because that’s what’s in store with 1968′s shocking (and disheartening) Witchfinder General! The film opens as a man constructs temporary gallows on a windswept lee. In town, a mob has apprehended an old woman and they drag her screaming into the field as the local priest recites scripture. They carry the woman to the gallows and she promptly passes out, but the priest instructs the mob to revive her by splashing her with a pail of water – I suppose so she can be conscious at the time of her death. With a nod of the priest’s head, the woman is hanged.

A voice-over notes that the year is 1645, the place: England. The English Civil War is raging on, with King Charles I’s Royalists battling Cromwell’s Roundheads. And in the midst of such governmental chaos, a figure like Matthew Hopkins, a lawyer, has become largely free to run amok over East Anglia (an area mostly controlled by Cromwell’s army). Hopkins (Vincent Price) preys on local superstitions in the region to hunt out witches for the magistrates of various municipalities. But before we meet Matthew Hopkins, we first encounter a troop of Parliamentarian soldiers, ambushed by a few Royalist snipers. A few Royalists remain in East Anglia, hiding and scrounging for food. One sniper kills a Roundhead, and the remaining soldiers go in search of the hidden enemy troops. They leave our hero, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) to watch over the horses.

Marshall is left with the horses and dead soldier’s body for quite some time. He hears screams and gunfire, but his fellow troops eventually return safely. However, one of the Royalists was merely wounded, and he crawls over to the Roundheads, aiming his pistol at their Captain. Marshall fires his gun over his commanding officer’s shoulder, killing the wounded enemy soldier and saving the life of Captain Gordon (Michael Beint), not to be confused with Captain Gorton of fish stick fame. The troops move onward, eager to get to their two days’ leave. Fellow soldiers like Swallow (Nicky Henson) joke with Marshall about his girlfriend, Sara Lowes, as they ride home.

Richard Marshall, quickest draw in East Anglia.

Richard Marshall, quickest draw in East Anglia.

Richard Marshall returns to his village of Brandeston and is greeted by John Lowes (Rupert Davies), Sara’s uncle. Lowes is suspiciously eager for Richard and Sara to wed, and he tries to find out if Richard would take Sara away from their village when they do marry. He is frightened to have his niece stay in Brandeston. Young Sarah (Hilary Dwyer) arrives, and Uncle John leaves the couple to reconnect. Richard informs Sara that her uncle has agreed to their marriage and they kiss. Maybe a little too passionately: “The army has taught you rough manners,” Sara comments. Richard is curious as to why her uncle is so afraid. Some of the Brandeston locals have apparently threatened the family for being papists. Over that night’s dinner, Uncle John again reiterates that their wedding should happen soon. Before leaving the couple, he reminds Sara to lock the doors carefully. Sara and Richard then retire for some hot-and-heavy pre-marital bliss.

Cut to Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), riding alongside his assistant, John Stearne (Robert Russell), on their way to Brandeston to investigate accusations made against a local priest. Stearne comments that witchfinding is quite the profitable profession – they receive silver for every hanging – but Hopkins is adamant they are merely doing God’s work. A clear divide is established between Hopkins and Stearne immediately – the meticulous Hopkins is insulted when Stearne uses his first name: “Don’t call me Matthew. I’m not one of your drinking cronies, wenching in the tavern.” While Stearne seems to take pleasure in being paid for his natural inclinations toward torture, Hopkins sees himself as part of a higher mission.

On Marshall’s way out of town, he runs into some villagers on the road, waiting for “Matthew Hopkins, a lawyer.” He meets the finely attired lawyer and his brutish-looking assistant further down the road, thinking not much of it. (I mean, who cares if a lawyer visits your hometown?) However, Hopkins is no regular lawyer – he’s a witchfinder! And the villagers bring him to the priest they suspect of witchcraft: John Lowes, Sara’s uncle! Stearne, with the help of a local mob, begins the witch analysis by stripping Lowes of his shirt and stabbing him in the back with his knife. If the Devil has marked him, he will not bleed, nor feel pain. While all the stabbing is going on, a sympathetic villager summons Sara. Noting that “Satan has hidden his mark well,” Stearne then moves to exhausting the priest, having two volunteers run him around the table.

Sara runs to the church, but Matthew Hopkins intercepts her. He asks if she’s the priest’s niece; if so, she may also be tainted by the Devil. Sara pretends to be a “foundling,” a servant of John Lowes whom he raised, but not a blood relation. Realizing there may only be one way to save her uncle’s life, she offers Hopkins a grim deal: if he releases John Lowes now, Sara will tell him about his innocence in private this evening. (Though in this sentence, “tell him about his innocence” should be read as “offer herself sexually.”) Hopkins returns to Stearne and instructs him to end the interrogation and bring the priest to jail. The interrogation can continue in the morning.

John Stearne is a man who appreciates the value of a hard day's work.

John Stearne is a man who appreciates the value of a hard day’s work.

Stearne heads to the tavern, where he immediately sets to work getting drunk and pouring drinks on unsuspecting women. Hopkins, meanwhile, visits Sara. “Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do,” he tells her as he begins to take off her clothing. He says that the priest is an idolator and must be killed. Sara begs that Lowes just remain imprisoned for life and presents her body to the witchfinder as a bargaining chip. The next morning, Hopkins kicks awake Stearne, passed out on the barroom floor, and tells him John Lowes will be left in his prison cell. Stearne, subhuman that he is, eagerly asks, “When do we interrogate the women?” That night, Stearne, suspicious of Hopkins’s changed mind, follows him to Sara’s house and uses a conveniently placed ladder to spy on them through the upper window. Suddenly, he realizes why his boss has become so lenient.

The next morning, Stearne is busy slapping an accused witch bloody in a neighbouring jail cell to John Lowes. Hearing the woman’s cries, Lowes vainly pleads for them to stop. Hopkins arrives to check on Stearne’s work – “I trust you were using the prescribed methods” – and tells his assistant that he must travel to the next village over. Stearne implies that Hopkins has become frequently absent recently, but despite this insubordinance, Hopkins leaves the sociopathic Stearne in charge in Brandeston. (Obviously, this is not going to work out well for Sara.) Nearly the minute Hopkins leaves, Stearne accosts Sara while she tends geese in the field, and – I think we can assume, though it happens (mercifully) off-screen – rapes her while a local witchfinder lackey, Salter, watches.

When Hopkins returns to Brandeston, Salter informs him of Stearne’s actions. As a result, Hopkins finds his assistant in the tavern and tells him he’s changed his mind about the priest: they should kill him. Stearne beats the priest in his jail cell until he and the assembled witnesses pretend they hear him confess communion with the Devil. And, in a repeat of the intro, a mob led by Hopkins and Stearne drags John Lowes and two women through the town. Sara, viewing the scene from her bedroom, weeps for her uncle. The mob brings the accused witches to the town moat. The suspected witches will be tied and dumped into said moat. If they sink in the water, their confessions are false. At least they died good Christians. If they swim or float, that proves they’re witches and they must be hanged. They dump the three into the water while Hopkins makes a face of moderate concern.

The moat is about as deep as the shallow end of a community pool. One woman drowns. “She was innocent,” Hopkins says. (Which is kind of his way of saying “my bad.”) The other two swim and must be hanged. “God forgive you, Matthew Hopkins,” the accused priest yells. Hopkins and Stearne hang the two now-proven witches and collect their fee from the magistrate. Meanwhile, Richard Marshall has been tasked with collecting more horses for Cromwell’s army. The horsemaster he encounters, learning he’s from Brandeston, notes that town has been the site of some commotion: they just killed two women and a priest. Marshall, realizing the priest must be his future uncle-in-law, rides his horse at full speed back to the village. When he arrives, he finds a distraught Sara, clad all in black. They collapse on the church floor in an embrace, right in front of a wall graffittied with the word “WITCH.”

In East Anglia, they never really got the hang of a fishing derby.

In East Anglia, they never really got the hang of a fishing derby.

Sara alludes to her sexual assault at the hand of Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne. Richard Marshall takes her by the hand and they kneel before the church altar. Richard then marries Sara and himself (I’m not sure if he’s authorized to do that), and swears to God that he will hunt down John Lowes’s murderers. He leaves his new bride in tears, and speeds off on his trusty steed, thirsty for revenge. A shepherd who looks like Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings informs him of the direction he saw Hopkins travelling. Marshall stops in at a nearby town’s tavern where Stearne is busy doing his favourite thing: harassing women. Marshall asks the bartender where he can find Matthew Hopkins, and Stearne, overhearing the conversation, tells him that Hopkins has gone to Cambridge, but that he can help him out if he’s got an accusation. After all, Stearne does all the witch “pricking.”

Marshall promptly smashes Stearne across the face with his flagon of ale, announces himself as Sara Lowes’s husband, and a bar-clearing brawl ensues. Our soldier hero has Stearne on the ropes until the bartender sucker-punches him with a cudgel, giving Stearne the opportunity to escape. The bartender then attempts to bring Marshall to the magistrate to arrest him, but Marshall slugs the tavern owner in the gut and hops back onto his horse. An epic horse chase follows, but Stearne establishes a gap between them, so when he runs into Hopkins, they’re able to secret themselves in the forest while the young soldier races past. Stearne informs Hopkins that the soldier chasing him is Sara Lowes’s husband and advises they split up and lay low. Hopkins, however, is not afraid. “Remember our powers. He could be a witch.” With the tacit endorsement of municipal governments to kill anyone under grounds of witchcraft, Hopkins continues about his dark business as usual.

The soldier Marshall returns to his troop, and is reprimanded by Captain Gordon for deserting the army without official leave. However, Marshall won’t be court-martialled because (a) Cromwell’s army needs all the soldiers they can muster for an upcoming offensive, and (b) he previously saved the Captain’s life. Marshall’s army friend, Swallow, expresses his condolences for what happened in Brandeston, but doesn’t know how Marshall will be able to bring Hopkins to justice. He asks what evidence Marshall has that what Hopkins did was illegal. “I have Sara’s word,” he replies. Swallow doubts that will be enough for a magistrate. “There’ll be no magistrate involved,” Marshall menacingly reveals.

Swallow and a few other troops are sent to round up more horses – you can never have enough horses – and they find Hopkins and Stearne, both of whom have pretty sweet rides. They commandeer Stearne’s horse, dragging him off his mount. Hopkins uses the opportunity to flee on his white horse. Swallow pursues him but Hopkins shoots his horse dead and escapes. Stearne, captured by Cromwell’s soldiers, is about to be press-ganged into serving their side in the English Civil War. Unwilling to leave his old job of torturing for a less lucrative and less torture-filled profession, Stearne stabs one of the two soldiers escorting him and runs away. The other soldier shoots the witchfinding assistant in the shoulder and runs after him. Stearne hides in some tall grass and gets the jump on the remaining soldier, stabbing him in the back and dumping his body in a pond.

Hopkins, who can't even take an afternoon stroll without finding a witch or two.

Hopkins, who can’t even take an afternoon stroll without finding a witch or two.

The wounded John Stearne finds shelter under a tree and uses his knife to remove the shot from his shoulder. (It seems painful.) He blacks out – which he himself would see as a mark of the Devil – and wakes with renewed hatred for his old partner, Matthew Hopkins. Speaking of whom, Hopkins is living in luxury in Lavenhan, where the town’s magistrate, Webb (Peter Haigh) has set him up with some cushy digs while he roots out the witches in their village. The magistrate says there are a bunch of accused witches – all women – and Hopkins instructs him to retrieve the young ones first. (Gross.) Hopkins has thought up a new way to punish witches, which he notes is “a fitting end for all that is foul in womankind.”

Back at the Roundhead camp, they’re entertaining a celebrity: Oliver Cromwell himself (Patrick Wymark) is guest at an outdoor meal (picnic, really) with his commanding officers. They’ve invited one of Captain Gordon’s best soldiers, Richard Marshall, to join them. Cromwell, upon the captain’s commendation, is promoting Marshall to captain. And as captain, he has a special mission for him: he’s to take three men and return to East Anglia, where they are to find King Charles I, currently hiding in the region. Marshall selects his friend Swallow to join his ragtag gang, and Swallow immediately realizes the vengeful Marshall will try to turn this mission into an opportunity to hunt down Hopkins and Stearne. He advises his friend against this course of action, but Marshall is confident he can kill two birds – finding Hopkins and the King – with one East Anglian stone.

The Roundhead soldiers find a fisherman who tells them a man tried to hire a boat to cross the channel to France. They fear this may have been the King, in disguise, and imagine he may have since travelled to Lavenhan. (This will also give Marshall the opportunity to visit his wife Sara, who now lives in that very same village.) The fisherman says that Lavenhan is in the midst of some excitement now, what with all the witch-burning going on. Lavenhan is two days away; Marhsall and his soldiers race to reach the town in time to catch Hopkins.

In Lavenhan, the whole community has come out for the witch-killing. The accused are imprisoned in a sty, where locals poke them with sharpened sticks. Hopkins calls for the first witch, Elizabeth Clark (Maggie Kimberly) to be retrieved. Her husband, Paul (Morris Jar), is held back screaming by other villagers. Lavenhan toughs bind the bloody-faced Elizabeth to a scaffolding, then raise it up above a raging bonfire. Slowly the lower her into the flames as she screams in agony. Who should show up in Lavenhan, though, but John Stearne, who is none too excited to see his old business partner. He confronts Hopkins after the first witch is burned and threatens him. Hopkins keeps his cool, telling Stearne he gave them both the opportunity to escape. He suggests Stearne be sensible: he’s saved his share of the money; they can be partners once again. He also informs Stearne that people have taken to calling him the Witchfinder General, and there’s even talk of giving him parliament-appointed powers.

After burning through the witches, Hopkins was said to "slam in the back of his Dragula."

After burning through the witches, Hopkins was said to “slam in the back of his Dragula.”

In the middle of their Sorkin-esque walk-and-talk, they spot Sara in Lavenhan. She hides upon seeing the duo, but they quickly devise a scheme. If Sara is in Lavenhan, the soldier who’s after them must be close by. They can accuse the both of them of witchcraft and end both their lives. Richard Marshall and his fellow soldiers arrive in Lavenhan soon after, and Marshall goes to visit his bride. As they romantically reconnect, Stearne – learning of the soldiers’ arrival in town – warns Matthew Hopkins. Hopkins, realizing Marshall and Sara are alone, without the other soldiers in sight, sends Stearne and the magistrate Webb to apprehend the two of them, with the help of some other local men. Webb accuses the two of witchcraft, saying he saw them speaking with their familiars – a black cat and stoat (!). Hopkins, with the accused brought before him, asks if Marshall has anything to say in his defence. “I’m going to kill you, Hopkins,” he announces.

While this arrest is going down, Elizabeth’s widower arrives with a knife and attempts to kill Hopkins. Hopkins shoots him without hesitation, and Sara and Richard are dragged to the town’s castle. But when you shoot a man, Hopkins, you ought to make sure he’s dead. Elizabeth’s widower just barely survives, and he tells the remaining Roundhead soldiers that their compatriot and Sara were probably taken to the castle for torturing. And torture is exactly what happens. Stearne hangs Sara and Richard by their arms against a dungeon wall and kicks things off by stabbing Sara repeatedly in the back while her husband watches helplessly. Hopkins and Stearne figure that by torturing Sara, they can force Richard to confess to witchcraft. Stearne moves Sara to a table, and Hopkins presents a crucifix-shaped branding iron. If she cries out or faints, he says, that’s just a sign of the Devil intervening.

Swallow and another solider arrive at the castle, but the bureaucratic sentries won’t let them enter without an order from the magistrate. (Magistrate Webb, by the way, is down in the castle dungeon with a front-row seat to the TortureFest.) The soldiers battle their way inside and rush down to the dungeon. Webb guards the door to the dungeon itself and stabs Swallow with a knife. However, the two soldiers overcome him handily. In the chaos, Richard manages, from where he’s hanging on the wall, to kick Stearne in the face, then free himself. With Stearne prone on the floor, he stomps hard on his eye socket and Stearne screams blue murder.

Richard then grabs an axe and starts hacking Hopkins to death. Swallow and the other soldier enter the dungeon and see the horrific bloodbath. Swallow aims his blunderbuss at Hopkins, still being chopped apart by Richard, and shoots him dead. Richard Marshall, now more animal than man, screams at his friend: “You took him from me!” Swallow crosses himself and asks for God’s mercy on all of them. Sara, still tied to the table, screams manically, and her terrified voice carries through the castle.

Sara, in much, much better days.

Sara, in much, much better days.

Takeaway points:

  • One cannot discuss a movie like Witchfinder General without discussing the idea of a witch hunt in general, and the many connotations that phrase now has. The film depicts the traditional witch hunt, and is quite explicit in how men of authority (a lawyer, sanctioned by local governments) used the idea of witchcraft to take advantage of, then crush women, primarily. Aside from Sara’s uncle, no men are killed in this film for being witches. Hopkins is very clear that women are more frequently tempted by the Devil. The very idea of a witch hunt is that of an advantaged class accusing, then killing the disadvantaged, often using them as a scapegoat for any societal ills. And during the Red Scare, the term “witch hunt” was used to describe the American government’s persecution of suspected communists. (Given the power dynamic, the use of the term is not really inappropriate.) But it is extremely disheartening to see how “witch hunt” is used frequently these days in terms of social media. Often, commenters will describe public shaming of bad behaviour on social media as a “witch hunt,” which I think takes the concept too far out of context to be accurate. After all, usually the figures being shamed are of some authority – brands, celebrities – so the power dynamic is entirely flipped. To use a historical term that describes the governmental persecution of (predominantly) women, for instance, to describe media persecution of Bill Cosby, seems inappropriate, at best.
  • Witchfinder General is guilty of the unfortunate use of rape or sexual assault as plot device to propel the male protagonist forward. Sara’s repeated assaults serve only to crystallize a mission for Richard Marshall. Marshall had no real thoughts towards witchfinders in general (pun intended) until his wife is molested by both the witchfinder and his assistant. Just as in Death Wish, the sexual violence does not develop the female character as much as it does the male. While not unexpected – this was made in 1968, and the practice is still very commonplace in film and television – the use of sexual violence does provide a nice scene of Richard Marshall demonstrating how men can actually help by believing women. When his friend Swallow asks how he can prove that Hopkins did anything illegal, he simply responds, “I have Sara’s word.” This is basically the hashtag #BelieveWomen in 17th-Century form.
  • Though some critics have praised the historical accuracy of Witchfinder General – namely in its depiction of life in 1645 – there are some real divergences form the real story. Namely that Matthew Hopkins died in his twenties, so it is a bit odd to have the then-56-year-old Vincent Price portraying him. But part of what is so chilling is that Hopkins was a real person, and in under two years, he allegedly condemned 300 people (mostly women) to death. Given that the death count for all English witch trials is estimated to be fewer than 500, Hopkins was a very effective witchfinder.
  • When Witchfinder General was first released in the United States, it was given the confusing title, The Conqueror Worm. Confusing as there is no worm – conquering or otherwise – featured or even mentioned in the film. The film was given the new title to try to connect it with Roger Corman’s Vincent Price films (most of which were Edgar Allan Poe adaptations). In the American version of the film, there is a voiceover with a reference to the Poe poem, “The Conqueror Worm.”
  • Witchfinder General was the final film of the young director Michael Reeves. Reeves, an up-and-coming horror director, died of an accidental barbiturate overdose just months after the film’s release, at the age of twenty-five.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Witchfinder General is terrifying in its unflinching look at witch hunts and at how cheap human life was during this period in England. The film is harsh – so much so that is was accused of “gratuitous sadism” by the British papers at the time. As Films and Filming said upon its release, “Witchfinder General is emphatically not a horror film; it is, however, a very horrifying one.” The film makes you more afraid of the human race than it does of ghosts or monsters under the bed.

Just because it's hard work finding witches doesn't mean Matthew Hopkins needs to dress like a day labourer.

Just because it’s hard work finding witches doesn’t mean Matthew Hopkins needs to dress like a day labourer.

Best outfit: The Witchfinder General himself, Matthew Hopkins, is meticulously dressed in cloak and pristine white gloves. His fashions serve to depict him as a man obsessed with luxury and comfort, all at the expense of the suffering villagers accused of witchcraft. His natty appearance – paid for in blood silver – contrasts with his depraved soul. And of those natty outfits, his Christmas-themed red-and-green tunic is probably the best.

Best line: “Witchfinding? That’s nice. That’s very nice.” – horse trader making small talk about occupations with John Stearne

Best kill: Matthew Hopkins is such an irredeemable figure that you nearly shout with glee when Richard Marshall starts to hack him apart with an axe. Of course, seconds after he does, you realize that Marshall and Sara will never be the same after their ordeal, so Hopkins’s death is cold comfort. But in the moment, it’s nice to see Hopkins on the receiving end of an axe attack.

Unexpected cameo: One of the women in a tavern abused by John Stearne is model and actress Margaret Nolan, perhaps best remembered as the gold woman from the title sequence of James Bond film Goldfinger!

Unexpected lesson(s) learned: Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads were constantly short of horses. Also, literally every fisherman and horse trader in rural England knows exactly which villages to visit to catch all the best witch hunts.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Witchfinder General is already taken by a British metal band. As a backup, Cromwell’s Picnic is also a very good band name.

Next up: V/H/S (2012).