Through December the Gene Siskel Film Center celebrates peace on earth and goodwill toward men with a series of occult horror films. Religious people may find this perverse, but look at it this way: they’re the only nonsecular holiday movies you’re likely to see all month.
The series kicks off with a pair of little-known but seriously creepy British features from Tigon Films, a pretender to the Hammer Films throne in the late 60s and early 70s. The Witchfinder General (1968, 86 min.) stars a commanding and unusually restrained Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, a 17th-century magistrate who took advantage of the English civil war to conduct a massive witch hunt across East Anglia. His sinister story comes from a historical tome by Ronald Bassett, though director Michael Reeves (whose life was cut short by a drug overdose the next year) seems equally inspired by the stark visuals in Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath. American drive-in impresario Roger Corman, hoping to capitalize on his earlier Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, acquired the movie, retitled it The Conqueror Worm, and slapped on some voice-over of Price reading from Poe’s poem; the Film Center will screen this version. (Fri 12/3, 8:15 PM, and Mon 12/6, 6 PM)
Two years later Tigon connected again with the nightmarish Satan’s Skin (1970, 93 min.), released in the U.S. as Blood on Satan’s Claw. A young farmer discovers the half-rotten corpse of an unknown beast, a worm sliding across its one glassy eye, and before long the village reverend begins to lose control of his class to a blond nymphet (Linda Hayden) who schools her friends in the black arts. The corrupted children grow patches of thick black fur on their bodies, an unnerving pubic reference that feeds into the movie’s strong current of paganistic sexuality. Directed by Piers Haggard, this was obviously shot on the cheap, but like Robin Hardy’s 1973 classic The Wicker Man it taps into a vast reservoir of puritan fear. (Fri 12/3, 6:15 PM, and Tue 12/7, 8 PM)
Five more films follow in the next four weeks, including Corman and Price’s Masque of the Red Death (12/27 and 12/29), Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves (12/17 and 12/21), and two knockouts from the Val Lewton unit at RKO, The Seventh Victim (1/3 and 1/4) and I Walked With a Zombie (1/3 and 1/5).