Matthew Hopkins was a self proclaimed Witchfinder who started his career in 1644 in Essex, England. In a three year career he is estimated to have killed between 200 and 400 “witches”. The Witchfinder General (The Conqueror Worm) is a movie based on his success as a prosecutor of witches.
Witchfinder General is an interesting movie in that it is part horror, part melodrama, part historical epic. Vincent Price has one of his finest and most effective roles ever as Matthew Hopkins in this 1968 British Classic. The movie was renamed The Conqueror Worm for U.S. audiences to try and take advantage of Price’s fame from Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe inspired series of movies. Except for reading part of the poem The Conqueror Worm during the ending credits, the movie has nothing to do with Poe.
The basic story is common enough for this sub-genre of horror movies: There is an abusive official who accuses and prosecutes alleged witches for his own personal gain and personal power trips. There are two other fine British films from this time period that deal with the same subject matter, The Devils by Kurt Russell and Mark of the Devil starring Herbert Lom. All three are well made and effective, but Witchfinder General is the darkest of the bunch. The tortures are all brutal and unnerving to watch and there is a lot of screaming in this movie. Price plays Hopkins as overbearing and cold bloodedly cruel. He allows a woman to submit to him sexually to prevent someone from being killed, then tortures and murders the guy anyway, and then later has her tortured and murdered for being a witch. What a guy!
The director of this movie was the young and upcoming Michael Reeves who unfortunately committed suicide in 1969, not long after this movie was released. There was a well known feud of sorts between Reeves and the star, Vincent Price. At one point Price is reputed to have said to the 25 year old director: “I have made over 70 films, what have you done?” with a reply from Reeves: “I have made three good ones”. Perhaps the tension between director and star helped to make this the dark and humorless film that it is. Even 34 years after it’s release, it still holds up as a beautifully made movie that hardly looks of feels dated at all. The period movies that Price was making with Roger Corman a few years before this film was made, while still excellent in many respects, are obviously a product of the 60’s.
Unfortunately this movie has not been released in the U.S. on dvd. There is a British release that includes a documentary on Michael Reeves, but for now in America all we have is the MGM midnight movie video release. This film also appears on AMC now and again, and in fact, I just watched it on that channel yesterday.