Witchfinder General is currently available on instant Netflix and Conqueror Worm (essentially the same film) is available on Amazon Prime.
Witchfinder General (1968)
“Set in 17th-century England, this chilling tale follows corrupt official Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), who claims an ability to discover witches. But he uses his power to gain money and favors from people he’s fingered in return for declaring them innocent. When he arrests and tortures Father Lowes (Rupert Davies), Lowes’s niece’s fiancé (Ian Ogilvy) decides to put an end to Hopkins’s sleazy practices and goes on a quest to seek vengeance.”
“They swim… the mark of Satan is upon them. They must hang.”
Witchfinder General is the British title. In America it is called The Conqueror Worm after the Poe poem. Other than the presence of Vincent Price, Witchfinder General has nothing to do with the series of Roger Corman / Edgar Allan Poe films. They throw in a few snippets of the poem to use Poe as a selling point but also the poem has nothing to do with the movie. The movie is instead based on the novel Witchfinder General by Ronald Bassett.
Witchfinder General was director Michael Reeves fourth and final film. He had previously directed the horror movies Castle of the Living Dead (1964 with Christopher Lee and Donald Sutherland), She Beast (1966 with Barbara Steele and Ian Ogilvy), and The Sorcerers (1967 with Boris Karloff and Ian Ogilvy). He was chosen to direct The Oblong Box but died at age 25 from an overdose of barbituates.
Reeves wanted Donald Pleasance for the titular role but American International Pictures insisted on a proven box office draw, Vincent Price. While I am sure that Pleasance’s take would have been interesting, this turned out to be Price’s best role in a long line of great roles.
Vincent Price believed his portrayal of Matthew Hopkins to be his finest performance and I concur. This is largely because all camp is removed from his portrayal. His Matthew Hopkins is real evil – a man who uses his office to go around the countryside killing people, settling scores, and taking advantage without actually believing in witchfinding. Vincent Price is ugly and chilling.
Our protagonist Richard Marshall is played by Reeves regular Ian Ogilvy. Ogilvy is a good and stalwart leading man here. He went on to play Drusus in I, Claudius and The Saint in the 1978-79 reboot of the television series.
While they may seem quaint today, Reeves’ scenes of torture and violence were very brutal for this time. It was clear that Reeves wanted to make as authentic feeling a film as possible. Although this story is fiction, there was an actual Matthew Hopkins who claimed to be a Witchfinder. In reality, Hopkins and Stearns tortured and hung Lowes as in the film.
This is another showcase for Price but it is not a fun film to watch as the Poe adaptations were. Watching the pre-credits sequence will give you a feel for whether you want to watch the rest of the film. I recommend this film both for what Reeves was trying to accomplish and for Price’s superlative performance – however this film is ugly and may not be for all audiences as it were.
People Watch: Margaret Nolan plays girl at inn here. She is better remembered as the Bond girl Dink and the golden girl in the opening credits in Goldfinger.