I have been seeking out this 1968 British horror film for quite some time. It is not on YouTube, not in any DVD rental places around here, and not available on Amazon. But I finally found it on Dailymotion in two parts, it was most satisfying to finally find it.
The reason I wanted to see this is because of a fave band of mine called Cathedral. One of their songs is called “Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General”, and the song has a few sound bites from the film, including “I am Matthew Hopkins… Witch-finder” right at the start of the song, a most excellent way to start a song. This band also introduced me to the Doctor Syn book series (very hard to find), and the film based on the book “Captain Clegg” which is a jolly good yarn.
And it turned out to be well worth the wait for. Vincent Price played Matthew Hopkins, and also starring was a dashing Ian Ogilvy as a soldier and hero of the story, as well as a few other familiar British actors from film and television. This was the first film for the “damsel in distress” actress and she did very well.
The star of the show was Vincent of course. He was brilliant as the very enthusiastic witch-finder (this is based on a true story, loosely) and along with his assistant would scour the land looking for witches, torturing and killing them in various fashions, then collect their fees from the local magistrates. Matthew Hopkins also had his way with the womenfolk.
Some of the performances he provided for his previous AIP movies had certain elements of campy overacting, but in Witchfinder he was subtle and deadly serious.
He certainly was serious, and if he did his campy thing it would have completely ruined the whole affair.
Reading on Wikipedia about this I found that the young director and Vincent did not get along at all:
The production went relatively smoothly except for the unrelentingly antagonistic relationship that developed between Reeves and Price. Reeves kept it no secret from everyone associated with the production that the American actor was not his choice for the role, and the director’s comments had reached the actor back in the US. Reeves refused the courtesy of meeting Price at London Heathrow Airport when he arrived in England, a “deliberate snub calculated to offend both Price and AIP.” “Take me to your ####### young genius,” Price reportedly said to co-producer Philip Waddilove, who greeted the actor at the airport instead of Reeves. When Price went on location and met Reeves for the first time, the young director told the actor, “I didn’t want you, and I still don’t want you, but I’m stuck with you!”
On the final day of shooting, Price showed up on the set visibly intoxicated. Reeves seethed to Waddilove, “He’s drunk–how dare he be drunk on my set! I’ll kill the #######.” Waddilove soon discovered that Reeves planned to inflict painful revenge on the actor. During preparations for Price’s violent death scene, the director was overheard instructing Ogilvy to “really lay into Vincent” with the stage axe. Although when the scene was filmed Ogilvy indeed responded with blows that were not faked, Waddilove had earlier found some foam padding and fitted Price’s costume with it, protecting the actor from any injury.
The director wanted Donald Pleasance for the main role, and he would have been good, but I think Vincent nailed this one.
A juicy bit from Wikipedia:
A famous story is told of how Reeves won Price’s respect: Reeves was constantly telling Price to tone down his over-acting, and to play the role more seriously. Price eventually cracked, snapping, “Young man, I have made eighty-four films. What have you done?” Reeves replied: “I’ve made three good ones.” Reeves continued to goad Price into delivering a vicious and brilliant performance, and only upon seeing the finished film did the actor realize what the director was up to, at which point Price took steps to bury the hatchet with Reeves.
The director died a few months after this film was released from an accidental alcohol and barbiturate overdose.
For the time this film was quite sadistic, and even by today’s standards it still is. There were a few torture scenes which were hard to watch, and the killing of a poor lady (“she’s a witch!”) by lowering her into a bonfire. Nasty stuff, and from what I have read is what actually went on during Matthew Hopkins reign as witch-finder (he helped “find” and kill over 300 women in just two years apparently).
The film ended with a blood curdling scream from the damsel in distress, shortly after Matthew Hopkins was brutally killed with an axe, then shot. So it is all pretty grim stuff.
Again from Wikipedia:
The film was retitled The Conqueror Worm in the United States in an attempt to link it with Roger Corman’s earlier series of Edgar Allan Poe–related films starring Price—although this movie has nothing to do with any of Poe’s stories, and only briefly alludes to his poem.
This is called on of Britain’s best horror films and I would not argue with that. While not accurate with it’s history, it does seem to show the attitude of the times. From a comedy point of view “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” pretty much tells a similar story, but the torture and horror parts are just plain funny in that film.
Vincent has a most excellent costume in the film, he looked very menacing in it. Darth Vader would be impressed:
So as you have probably surmised, I rather enjoyed this film. And thanks to Cathedral I have discovered two jolly good yarns about pirates, marsh phantoms, and bootleggers (Doctor Syn), and witch-finders and Oliver Cromwells (he made a brief appearance in this film).
Date watched: August 13th
Film count 2106: 129