The Conqueror Worm
Centuries later, Hopkins and Stearne would finally receive their just desserts in director Michael Reeves's revisionist historical thriller, The Conqueror Worm (1968, it was first released in England as Witchfinder General). One of the few films to address this dark period in English history, Witchfinder General was produced for the exploitation horror market but Reeves's intentions were clearly more than just jolting audiences in their seats with sadistic scenes of violence. Hopkins's evil presence dominates the film and infects every character so that by the end - even the nominal hero and heroine of the story (played by Ian Ogilvy and Hilary Dwyer) - have been reduced to a base and demented state. The scenes of innocent people being accused and tortured for witchcraft rises in intensity as the film progresses until it reaches a ferocious, ax-hacking finale where Hopkins and Stearne finally receive their due. But Reeves offers the audience no pleasure or relief because the avenger has been reduced to Hopkins's level and is just as brutal and depraved.
The Conqueror Worm was only Michael Reeves's third film and, unfortunately, it would be his last; he died from an overdose of sleeping pills mixed with alcohol the following year. Yet, based on the three films he left behind, the young director had a dark and uncompromising view of the world. In The She-Beast (1966), The Sorcerers (1967) and Witchfinder General, human nature is presented as something where good qualities are eventually overcome by man's innate evil. Of the three, however, Witchfinder General is the most accomplished and the one that justifies Reeves' cult status. In it, Vincent Price gives what many people feel is his most focused dramatic performance - he is truly frightening. His broad, theatrical style and tendency toward self-parody is absent here due to Reeves' insistence on a quieter, more menacing mood. Reportedly, Price intensely disliked working with Reeves and making this film but even he admitted that the final result was impressive despite the methods Reeves used to achieve it.
The Conqueror Worm also benefits from the stunning cinematography of Johnny Coquillon which juxtaposes the tranquil English countryside against the abominations being committed there. Adding another ironic touch is the lush, romantic music score by Paul Ferris (it was replaced with one by Lex Baxter in the American release) which suggests a period Western. Reeves, in fact, remarked during the filming that he saw The Conqueror Worm as a western in the style of a Budd Boetticher film. Like Randolph Scott's revenge obsessed protagonists of Ride Lonesome (1959) and Comanche Station (1960), Ian Ogilvy's Richard is on a similar mission but one which ends in a much bleaker resolution than any Boetticher western ever did.
When American International Pictures, which had partially funded Reeves' film and insisted on the casting of Vincent Price, distributed it in the U.S. under the title The Conqueror Worm, it was marketed as a horror film in the style of the other AIP Vincent Price/Edgar Allan Poe thrillers but with an added prologue and epilogue featuring Price reading passages from Poe's poem of the same title. In most markets, it was paired with the co-feature, The Young, the Evil and the Savage, an Italian giallo directed by Antonio Margheriti, and relegated to the drive-in circuit and grind houses. As a result, it was barely reviewed by any prominent film critics and when it was, the verdict was overwhelmingly negative due to its overt violence and disturbing subject matter. It wasn't until almost a decade later that The Conqueror Worm was reappraised and recognized as one of the most striking British films of the sixties.
Producer: Louis M. Heyward, Arnold Miller, Tony Tenser, Philip Waddilove
Director: Michael Reeves
Screenplay: Tom Baker, Louis M. Heyward, Michael Reeves, Edgar Allan Poe (poem), Ronald Bassett (novel)
Cinematography: John Coquillon
Film Editing: Howard Lanning
Art Direction: Jim Morahan
Music: Paul Ferris, Kendall Schmidt
Cast: Vincent Price (Matthew Hopkins), Ian Ogilvy (Richard Marshall), Rupert Davies (John Lowes), Hilary Heath (Sarah Lowes, as Hilary Dwyer), Robert Russell (John Stearne), Nicky Henson (Trooper Robert Swallow).
by Jeff Stafford