There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.
Sometimes, the worst monster we can face is the one we see in the mirror…
Witchfinder General, aka The Conqueror Worm (1968)
Distributed by: Tigon British Film Productions / American International
Directed by: Michael Reeves
There have been plenty of films that feature witches as the villain. Handmaids of Satan, servants of darkness, all sorts of claims are made regarding their evil intents, which, in a fantasy, can serve a straightforward story that’s neat and tidy to tell.
In real life, stories involving witches are not so clean. Often, there are petty quarrels and bad interactions running through a community before accusations of the Dark Arts being practiced are used to settle some scores, or take advantage of someone (usually women) for personal gain or out of spite. The Salem Witch Trials are probably the most infamous example of this, a reign of fear and terror in Massachusetts over the course of seven months that culminated on September 22, 1692, with the hanging of eight accused witches in one day, which still haunts us into the present.
And, as this film demonstrates, the hunt for witches can be even scarier than any possible spell or curse cast upon you.
Our film opens cold with shots of the bucolic English countryside, interrupted by the sound of hammering. We quickly see its source: a gallows assembled quickly for the hanging of a woman as she is literally dragged through the village to her doom. She screams in agony as she’s led to the noose, but with a single kick of the stool under her, it’s over; among those watching is Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), astride his horse, ready to move on to the next atrocity just as the credits start.
After the credits, we get narration from off screen that it is 1645, three years into the English Civil War. We soon watch a Roundhead patrol foil an ambush, during which time one of their company, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), earns a field promotion thanks to taking out a sniper gunning for his commander, Captain Gordon (Michael Beint).
To celebrate his rising in the ranks, he gets a temporary leave to gallop to Brandeston to celebrate with his beloved Sarah (Hilary Dywer [Heath], in her first feature role) and her uncle John Lowes (Rupert Davies), the village priest. After Marshall gets Lowes to give his blessings to marry Sarah, and a night of passion with the bride-to-be (no judgments here), he returns to his unit just as Hopkins rides into town; he even encounters Hopkins on the road, giving him directions to Brandeston, unaware of the damage he’s about to cause.
We quickly learn that Hopkins is a lawyer who rides through the countryside to persecute prosecute witches, which involves examining cases with the help of John Sterne (Robert Russell), who handles much of the torture needed to pry confessions out of the accused. Hopkins and Sterne are, at best, work acquaintances who tolerate each other as they go about their duties, work which, in addition to cleansing the countryside, is also quite profitable as each witch removed earns them a tidy sum.
In Brandeston, it turns out that the accusation of witchcraft has been leveled against John Lowes, whom Sterne is quick to get to and look for the “Devil’s Mark” through the use of sharp implements. Hopkins is nearly ready to pass sentence on the priest, but Sarah buys her uncle some time by offering “discussion in chambers” to appease him. This arrangement doesn’t last, however, when Hopkins gets called to another case, and Sterne, feeling left out of the bargain made with his partner, sexually assaults Sarah when she’s alone.
Showing no compassion for Sarah, Hopkins proceeds to have Lowes and two other accused witches tested “in accordance with the law,” which as it so happens, is a law that’s got but one outcome intended if you’re considered a witch:
When Marshall comes back to Brandeston, he’s horrified at what he finds. After Sarah tells him everything, he takes her to what’s left of the church and proclaims before God his marriage to Sarah, and that he’s going to kill both Hopkins and Sterne for their crimes. He asks Sarah to lay low in Lavenham and wait there while he goes back to the army, trying to creatively interpret his orders (including those from Oliver Cromwell [Patrick Wymark], the Lord Protector of England himself) to allow him to hunt down his foes.
He comes close to getting Sterne once, but the weasel escapes and finds his way to Hopkins, who is conducting business in, of all places, Lavenham. All the hunters and hunted ultimately meet each other, as violent plays and fates unfold.
The word “violent” can’t be stressed enough here. Reeves’ solid direction on his third and final film gives us a movie that is brutal both in terms of its overall tone, of a land descending into civil disorder where life is suddenly very cheap, as well as what is depicted onscreen overtly. The fact that the crimes of Hopkins are just one facet of life where war ravages the land and regicide is only four years away adds to the sense of dread surrounding the viewer.
Speaking of historic context, the fact that Price’s character is based on an actual historic individual adds an aspect to the film that infuses the production with a much darker context. This allows it to resonate more than a simple gory film would, even if Reeves’ film plays very fast and loose with the historic record; the real Hopkins died at the age of 27, a good 40 years younger than Price was when he took on the role.
Price brings to his character (history be damned) a performance that he considered one of his finest, which is interesting for him to say considering the tension on the set between him and Reeves. The director’s first choice for Hopkins, Donald Pleasence, did not get the role as Price got put on the picture by AI over Reeves’ objections. Reeves and his star butted heads repeatedly, which appears to have influenced Price’s approach to Hopkins as a man with a superiority complex taking it out on his associates and everyone around him, which works to the film’s overall advantage.
The pressure during production was likely felt by Reeves as well; clashes with his star and the British Board of Censors’ many requests to cut and trim elements from the film contributed to his depression and insomnia.
Nine months after the film’s release in the UK, Reeves was found dead from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs at the age of 25; this would prove to be his last work.
As noted, the film got a number of edits on its initial release in the UK, while the American version instead had material added, as well as a name change. Retitled The Conqueror Worm to tie it to Edgar Allen Poe’s poem of that title, and in order to tie it in with other AI-released films starring Price tied to Poe’s works, the film got bookended with Price’s narration of lines from Poe’s work:
All said, though, the poem is not entirely out of place when applied to the film. Poe’s evocation of the tragedy, “Man,” could easily apply to the drama of a land going to hell (literally), and to the pain and suffering that Hopkins causes. Hopkins is cited as being responsible for 300 murders as part of his career over two years’ time, and his handbook, The Discovery of Witches, was consulted by many witch hunters years after his death.
Including by those in Salem, unfortunately.
NEXT TIME: If you’ve had enough of watching scenes from schizophrenic, egocentric, paranoiac prima donnas, you might want to think twice about reading the next column…