CONQUEROR WORM, THE (aka: Witchfinder General) (director/writer: Michael Reeves; screenwriters: from the novel The Witchfinder General by Ronald Bassett/Tom Baker/Louis M. Heyward; cinematographer: John Coquillon; editor: Howard Lanning; music: Paul Ferris; cast: Vincent Price (Matthew Hopkins), Ian Ogilvy (Richard Marshall), Hilary Dwyer (Sara Lowes), Robert Russell (John Stearne), Rupert Davies (Father John Lowes), Patrick Wymark (Oliver Cromwell), Nicky Henson (Swallow), Michael Beint (Capt. Gordon); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Louis M. Heyward/Philip Waddilove; AIP/Orion Home Video; 1968-UK)
“Certainly not for the squeamish, but for others it’s a surprisingly well realized study of violence.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Based on the novel The Witchfinder General by Ronald Bassett and written by Tom Baker, Louis M. Heyward and the 23-year-old director Michael Reeves (“Castle of the Living Dead”/”Revenge of the Blood Beast”/”The She-Beast”/”The Sorcerers”). This was the promising young director’s last pic, as he died in 1969 at 24 from an overdose of drugs while in the middle of directing The Oblong Box. It’s filmed on location in Norfolk and Suffolk and depicts a very loose true version of history during the raging Civil War in 1645 between Charles I’s Royalists and Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads. It’s an AIP released modest budgeted period melodrama that’s well made, well acted, frightening in its depiction of a superstitious people burning witches and provides an eye-opening picture of those chaotic times in the backwoods that can easily relate to modern day witch hunts. Besides the cult films unnerving torture scenes, it is especially effective in making good use of the lush English countryside.
The action picks up in East Anglia, where Cromwell’s forces control the area except for sporadic fighting from the outnumbered remains of the Royalists. Fighting for Cromwell cornet Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) in a field skirmish saves the life of his grateful Captain Gordon (Michael Beint). Richard gets a two-day pass and visits his future wife Sara Lowes (Hilary Dwyer) and her uncle, the priest John Lowes (Rupert Davies), who gives his consent to the marriage if Richard promises to take her away from the village of Brandiston as soon as he can as he expects trouble. When Richard returns to his regiment an opportunistic sadistic and materialistic villainous lawyer named Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), an infamous historical figure, the only one in the film who actually existed, and his thuggish assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) ride into Brandiston to answer the complaints of some local peasants who accused the Catholic priest of being an idolater. Hopkins is perceived to hold the office of “Witch-finder General” as bestowed by the Puritan Parliament, and practiced his witch-finding in Suffolk, Essex, and East Anglia. The notorious witch-finder preaches to his vics to confess while Stearne tortures the accused until they confess. The magistrate pays them handsomely for their work, as the bloodthirsty pretenders of piety roam the countryside seemingly never running out of witches to find. To prevent the parish priest from being tortured Sara offers her body to Hopkins; on top of that the jealous brute of an assistant savagely rapes her, and they execute her uncle anyway. When Richard hears about this he swears to get his own kind of justice from the two psychopaths.
Certainly not for the squeamish, but for others it’s a surprisingly well realized study of violence that’s both stylish and well modulated in its scream volume. The American title is derived from the fact that while the opening credits are going up Vincent Price reads Edgar Allan Poe’s poem called The Conqueror Worm (which has nothing to do with the film, but I guess a dash of Poe is classy to the exploitation geniuses at AIP).
REVIEWED ON 3/17/2006 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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