Made in England as Witchfinder General and released in the USA as The Conqueror Worm, the film proved to be a financial success in the US and mainland Europe, while sinking like a stone in England. (Indeed, it did well enough in mainland Europe to kick off a whole slew of later imitations, including Germany's legendary Mark of the Devil / Hexen bis aufs Blüt gequält [1970 / trailer] and its later sequel Mark of the Devil II / Hexen geschändet und zu Tode gequält [1973 / trailer].) Often mistaken as simply another low budget AIP film based on an Edgar Allen Poe story and starring Vincent Price—in fact, despite its Poe-based US title, however, Michael Reeves' film has nothing to do with Poe’s ode to worms, and if the film was low budget, it doesn’t show—and initially accused of pointless, unremitting "sadism", time has treated this movie well. What originally was received as cinematic trash has long since become one of the more respected English horror films of the late 60s.
Set in 1645, during the war between Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads and the Royalists, Reeves’ movie is based on a novel by Ronald Bassett, which was in turn based on the true story of Mathew Hopkins, a Puritan minister and lawyer (a man that, in true life, died at half the age that he is played as by Price), and his assistant John Sterne, who together tried and executed around 200 "witches" between 1645 and 1646 before being forced to retire. Unlike in the film, however, in true life both men ended their lives in a peaceful and comfortable manner, and even published books narrating their exploits. (Rather unlike the film's director, actually. On February 11, 1969, at the age of 25, Michael Reeves died—depending on the source, either a suicide or an accidental death, either by auto or a long drop from a high window. [In truth, it was by pill and was attributed as accidental.] Nonetheless, despite his short career, Reeves did manage to work with some of the best genre stars of the time, including Barbara Steele, Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff, in such films as The Castle of the Living Dead / Il castello dei morti vivi (1964), She Beast / La sorella di Satana (1965 / trailer) and The Sorcerers (1967 / trailer).
In Witchfinder General, Hopkins and Sterne come to a village where the local priest has been accused of being a witch. His niece Sarah, engaged to Richard, a soldier off fighting for Cromwell, exchanges sexual favors with Hopkins for the life of her uncle, but once she is raped by Sterne, Hopkins orders her uncle tortured and killed along with the other two accused of witchcraft. Collecting his reward, Hopkins leaves with Stearn for their next destination. Richard, upon hearing that a priest has been killed in his home village, comes back and, alone with the victimized girl in a trashed church, "marries" Sarah and swears revenge. Before leaving to rejoin his regiment, Richard sends Sarah to Lavenham, a town he believes to be "safer." Richard eventually catches up with Hopkins and Sterne, who, after a nasty fight, manage to escape him and continue their way on to Lavenham to try more witches. Seeing Sarah there, they take her and set up a trap, catching Richard when he finally shows up. Off to the dungeon it is, where Hopkins and Sterne attempt to force Richard to confess to being a witch by torturing Sarah....
Starting with its unsettling pre-credit sequence of a screaming "witch" being dragged to and then hung on a gallows, the film is permeated with an all-encompassing and pervading sense of moral corruption and despair, a feeling further acknowledged with an unhappy "happy" ending: the hero and heroine may survive, but he is mad with unsatiated revenge, while she is fully bonkers and screaming her head off. Likewise, much as in the original The Last House On the Left (1972 / trailer), the death of the villains at the film’s end conveys less any sense of satisfaction or justice than it does a complete moral and mental debasement of the heroes.
Despite its original critically unenthusiastic reception, today Witchfinder General is rightfully considered to be a top notch, much imitated English "horror" film that reflects the both the degradation resulting from uncontrolled violence, far less an easy-to-pigeonhole genre film than a brutal and depressing costume drama exploring the pervasively encompassing corrupting influence of power and revenge. Excellently cast and well acted, Vincent Price deserves special notice for his characterization of Hopkins, whom he plays without any of his usual hamming, projecting instead an intelligent man of subdued arrogance, corrupt and of power, willing to use his position for monetary gain and weenie-wetting. Similarly, the location photography—with the exception of the typically lousy day-for-night shot scenes—is of high quality, as is the beautiful score, direction and script.
All that and more big, naked tits than most other non-porno films of that generation or any since—what more do you want, for gawds sake?
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