Halloween Havoc!: Vincent Price in THE CONQUEROR WORM (AIP 1968)

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.

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The Old Master: Boris Karloff in THE SORCERERS (Tigon, 1967)

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Boris Karloff had been in movies for almost fifty years by the time 1967 rolled around. The King of Horror hit it big in Universal’s 1931 FRANKENSTEIN, and went on to star in some of the genre’s true classics: THE MUMMY, THE BLACK CAT, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE BODY SNATCHERS, and BEDLAM. While THE SORCERERS isn’t quite in the same league as those films, it gives Boris a chance to shine in the twilight of his career, ably assisted by the direction of young Michael Reeves (THE SHE BEAST, THE CONQUEROR WORM).

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Karloff plays Professor Monserrat, an elderly “medical hypnotist” living in a flat with wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey). When bored young Londoner Mike (Ian Oglivy) meets the old gentleman, he’s promised “something new, something you’ve never done before….intoxication without hangover, ecstasy without consequences”. Mike is hooked up to the professor’s machine, a psychedelic light and sound trip that lets the aged couple control his mind and experience everything he does – sound, touch, taste. The professor wants to use this new gift to help older people, but once Estelle has gotten a taste of vicarious living, she craves more and more new experiences.

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Estelle has Mike rob a furrier, steal his best friend Alan’s (Victor Henry) motorcycle to go speeding down the road, causing a fight between the two. He doesn’t remember a thing about these incidents, which worries his girlfriend Nicole (Elizabeth Ercy). Professor Monserrat realizes Estelle’s gone too far and tries to stop her, but she bashes him with his own cane and ties him up. To prove her will’s stronger than his, Estelle has Mike stab his ex-girlfriend (Susan George) to death. Giddy with her newfound power, she has Mike kill a rock singer. Nicole and Victor saw him leave the nightclub with the girl, and confront him. A scuffle breaks out, and Mike goes on the run. The professor and Estelle engage in a battle of wills for control of Mike, leading to a doomed conclusion for all three of them…

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Boris Karloff gives a sympathetic performance in THE SORCERERS as the professor. Though crippled with arthritis and in obvious pain, the old master hadn’t lost any of the skills he learned from a lifetime of acting. Karloff still had his chops, and holds his own against stage and screen actress Lacey’s showier role. He would go on to star in Peter Bogdanovich’s debut TARGETS (1968), which is on my bucket list of films to see. After appearing with fellow horror icons Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele in CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR and four Mexican lensed quickies, Boris Karloff passed away in 1969, acting right up til the end. There’s a reason he’s known as The King, and THE SORCERERS is a great example of a master actor doing what he does best.