Based on Ronald Bassett’s — a man who was primarily known for his medical and pharmaceutical work — novel about Matthew Hopkins, a notorious 17th-century witch-hunter, this 1968 film was a co-production of Tigon British Film Productions and American-International Pictures (who retitled the film The Conqueror Worm to link it to their series of Edgar Allan Poe movies).
Michael Reeves was 24 and only three films* into his career when he made this film, the tale of Hopkins (Price), a lawyer who has opportunistically become a witchhunter with no morality whatsoever, blackmailing and killing his way through the world. This film is pure nihilism and makes the statement that when the world goes to hell, there is no way to be an angel.
Reeves saw Donald Pleasence as Price, but AIP only saw Vincent Price as the lead. Reeves had refused the courtesy of meeting Price at Heathrow Airport which was a “deliberate snub calculated to offend both Price and AIP” according to Benjamin Halligan’s book Michael Reeves. When they met for the first time, Reeves said, “I didn’t want you, and I still don’t want you, but I’m stuck with you!”
According to Kim Newman in Nightmare Movies, Reeves and Price argued over the actor’s propensity to chew the scenery and Price supposedly said, “Young man, I have made eighty-four films. What have you done?”
Reeves replied, “I’ve made three good ones.”
And that’s how Reeves pushed Price into delivering the performance in this film. In the book Faster and Furiouser: The Revised and Fattened Fable of American International Pictures, Price said that he wrote the director a ten-page letter after he saw the film, praising the director’s work.
Reeves wrote back, “I knew you would think so.”
After Reeves’s death, Price would think back and say, “I realised what he wanted was a low-key, very laid-back, menacing performance. He did get it, but I was fighting him almost every step of the way. Had I known what he wanted, I would have cooperated.”
That said — Reeves was notoriously poor with actors, mainly concentrating on what the visual look of the film leaving the acting direction — outside of his playing with Price — to the actors.
The poster tagline — “Leave the realized at home…and if you are squeamish stay home with them!” — isn’t a lie. This is a film packed with some of the most intense torture and violence you’ll see. It was heavily censored in England** — yet still upset people — and played uncut in the U.S.
Hopkins is using the English Civil War and the destruction of social order to brutally abuse and torture those he deems witches throughout East Anglia. Then, he and his assistant John Stearne charge the local government for their work and move on.
Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy, who was in several of Reeves’ teenage short films and appeared in his movies The She Beast and The Sorcerers) is a young soldier returning home from the war, asking John Lowes (Rupert Davies) if he may marry his niece Sara (Hilary Dwyer, The Oblong Box, Scream of the Banshee). The old man confides that they are concerned for their safety and feel as if the village has turned on them as Marshall gives his word to protect them. As he leaves their town, he gives the witchfinder directions to get there.
Hopkins and Stearne enter town and instantly go to work taking out witches, including using rats and hot needles to find the Devil’s Mark inside Lowes. Sara offers sexual favors to protect her uncle and as soon as Hopkins leaves town, his partner assaults her.
When Marshall returns, he marries Sara in his own ceremony and vows to kill the two men, nearly beating Stearnes to death. Yet the tables are turned and the hero must watch as his love is tortured before him. That’s not the end, but I’d like you to see this for yourself.
AIP originally made this movie as a tax write-off, but was surprised by the quality of the film. Samuel Z. Arkoff said, “Michael Reeves brought out some elements in Vincent that hadn’t been seen in a long time. Vincent was more savage in the picture. Michael really brought out the balls in him. I was surprised how terrifying Vincent was in that. I hadn’t expected it.”
This film led to the second wave of AIP Poe films like The Oblong Box (originally scheduled to be directed by Reeves, but handed over to Hessler after Reeves fell ill during pre-production), Murders in the Rue Morgue and Cry of the Banshee, which reteamed Price and Dwyer.
It also inspired several inquisitonploitation*** films such as Mark of the Devil and The Bloody Judge, as well as leading the way for religious horror such as The Devils and the folk horror of The Blood on Satan’s Claw.
It also influenced metal, as the band Cathedral has a song “Hopkins (Witchfinder General)” and the band Witchfinder General outright took the name. Like all great NWOBHM bands, they have a self-titled song.
There was even a BBC4 radio play, Vincent Price and the Horror of the English Blood Beast, which tells the story of the relationship between Price and Reeves.
Sadly, a few months after this movie was released, director Reeves died in London at the age of 25 from an accidental alcohol and barbiturate overdose. What an incredible blow to the world of film, as obviously he was going to be a director whose work could only have gotten better.
*Castle of the Living Dead, The She Beast and The Sorcerers.
**Even the script provoked this reply from censors: “A study in sadism in which every detail of cruelty and suffering is lovingly dwelt on…a film which followed the script at all closely would run into endless censorship trouble.”
***Yes, an invented term.