British director Michael Reeves cemented his reputation in horror with three films before his untimely death from a barbiturate overdose at age 25, all featuring icons of the genre. The first was the Italian lensed THE SHE BEAST (1966) starring beautiful Barbara Steele. The second, 1967’s THE SORCERERS , headlined none other than Boris Karloff. Reeves’ third and final production, 1968’s THE CONQUEROR WORM (also know by the more apt WITCHFINDER GENERAL), saw Vincent Price give one of his greatest performances as the cruel torturer Matthew Hopkins.
1645: England is engaged in a bloody civil war between Charles I’s Royalists and Oliver Cromwell’s army. Amidst this unrest, Matthew Hopkins and his assistant Stearne roam the countryside, hunting down, torturing, and killing accused witches for profit. It’s “The Lord’s work and an honorable one”, states Hopkins, as he and Stearne commit acts of atrocity upon the helpless innocents. They arrive in Brandeston and target the local priest, accused of being in league with the devil. The priest is jabbed with sharp needles and abused by the sadistic Stearne in hopes of gaining a confession when his niece Sara Lowes rushes in. She offers herself to Hopkins in order to stop the torture. The jealous Stearne rapes her when Hopkins leaves town, and upon his return he wants no more of Sara, condemning the priest and two others to be hog-tied, drowned in the moat, then hung.
Richard Marshall, betrothed of Sara, is away at war during all this. He hears of the news and rides back to Brandeston, where Sara tells him of the horrors inflicted on her and her uncle. Marshall marries her, and vows before The Lord to avenge Sara. He tracks down Stearne in a tavern and they engage in a vicious brawl from which Stearne escapes. Stearne reunites with Hopkins, and they plot to “prove” Marshall and Sara are witches. Getting an obliging citizen to do the accusing, Marshall and Sara are taken prisoner and brought to a castle to be “interrogated”… that is, tortured by Hopkins and Stearne into confessing their sins!
Price etches a subtle portrait of evil as Hopkins, his imperious visage dominating the proceedings. He’s sinisterly serious, whether imposing his will on frightened young maidens or devising new, more nefarious ways to torture and kill, such as burning the accused alive in one particularly gruesome scene. Reportedly, director Reeves wanted Donald Pleasance to play Hopkins, but the powers that be at American-International insisted on Price (in order to link the film with their Poe series), and since they controlled the purse strings, Vinnie was in. This didn’t sit well with Reeves, and the director and his star were constantly at odds during the shooting, with Price wanting to play the role in a more bombastic manner. Yet when Price saw the final release, he understood what Reeves was going for, and praised the young tyro’s efforts. The two were scheduled to make THE OBLONG BOX together before Reeves’ demise; it’s a pity, since Reeves would’ve handled the material a lot differently than his replacement, Gordon Hessler.
Reeves’ childhood friend Ian Oglivy, who also played in his other two films, does him proud as Marshall. Oglivy looks dashing riding horseback through the English countryside, and his final violent revenge (which I won’t spoil for those unfamiliar with the movie) is ferocious and intense. Hilary Dwyer (also know as Hilary Heath) made her film debut as Sara, and her screams echoing throughout the castle at film’s end is one of horror’s iconic moments. She also appeared with Price in THE OBLONG BOX and CRY OF THE BANSHEE before becoming a successful talent agent and producer. Robert Russell (Stearne) is one of the most repulsive characters in any genre, and one of the most sadistic sons of bitches you’ll ever see. Hammer vet Rupert Davies plays Sara’s unfortunate priest uncle, and there are cameos by Partick Wymark (as Oliver Cromwell) and Wifred Brambell ( A HARD DAY’S NIGHT ) as a horse trader.
THE CONQUEROR WORM is a unique and highly influential film in the horror canon, opening the floodgates for a new subgenre with titles like BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS, Jess Franco’s NIGHT OF THE BLOOD MONSTER, and the gross-out classic MARK OF THE DEVIL. A hell of a swan song for Michael Reeves, with a darkly disturbing performance by Vincent Price, THE CONQUEROR WORM is must-viewing for your All Hallow’s Eve feast.