Director Michael Reeves’ historical horror film features Vincent Price in one of the most grim and serious of his many performances, as Matthew Hopkins, a real-life figure who earned the title “Witchfinder General” for his efforts during the Cromwell era. Reeves threw out historical accuracy and turned the plot into a revenge story that is all the more powerful for not condoning vengeance. Despite a misleading title (THE CONQUEROR WORM) grafted on for American distribution, WITCHFINDER GENERAL is a mini-masterpiece of the horror genre—albeit a much more grim and realistic kind of horror than that seen in most films of the era—and the film stands up well when seen today at revival screenings or on television and home video.
Read below the fold for an in-depth retrospective on the film.
Ian Ogilvy (who had previously appeared in THE SORCERERS for Reeves) plays a young soldier who swears before God to hunt down Hopkins, the witchfinder responsible for torturing and executing the uncle of his fiancé. By the end of the film the soldier has reduced himself into a virtual mirror image of Hopkins. Though not quite so bloody as some later Price films would be (it was trimmed slightly for U.K. release), the brutality of the violence in WITCHFINDER is overwhelming because of it set in a realistic context and because the story invites us to identify with Ogilvy’s character before sickening us with the extreme form his vendetta takes at the climax. When one of the soldier’s brothers-in-arms shoots Hopkins, putting him beyond the reach of further vengeance, Ogilvy cries, “You took him from me! You took him from me!”—reciting the line again and again, huddled over the corpse, while the fiancé he supposedly came to rescue (Hillary Dwyer) erupts into hysterical screams. Twenty years later, FATAL ATTRACTION would have mindless zombies in the audience hooting with applause as the villain was shot; in WITCHFINDER, the audience is overwhelmed and numbed, forced first to seduced into anticipating the violence inherent in the hero’s quest, then disgusted by the results—a far more profound achievement.
Although this is Vincent Price’ best horror effort of the late 1960s, WITCHFINDER was not designed as a vehicle for Price. A co-production between American International Pictures and Tigon, a British company, the film was based on a book by Ronald Bassett, which chronicled the actual exploits of Hopkins. The script was adapted by Tom Baker and up-and-coming genre auteur Reeves, whose previous directing credits were THE SHE-BEAST (a.k.a. REVENGE OF THE BLOOD-BEAST) with Barbara Steele and THE SORCERERS with Boris Karloff. After the script was completed, American International producer Louis Heyward made a deal for the company to co-produce the film and handle American distribution, provided that Price would star.
“There was an existing script, based on a book that Tony Tenser had found,” Heyward recalled of the film’s English executive producer. “He had an outfit called Miracle Films: ‘If it’s a good film, it’s a miracle!’ Tony Tenser’s attitude toward picture-making was the same as Vincent Price’s: ‘I’m gonna collect the money.’ What made the deal happen was we were coming to the end of Vincent’s contract, and we were coming to the end of our financial allocation. I was able to make a deal with Tony Tenser for less than $150,000. The attractive thing about that picture was not the script, not the location, certainly not Michael Reeves—because who the hell knew him—it was the price.”
The deal was not a pleasant one for Reeves, who had wanted Hopkins to be played by Donald Pleasence (whose portrayal of Blofeld in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE was the obvious inspiration for Dr. Evil in the AUSTIN POWERS films). Reeves felt that Prices tongue-in-cheek approach to horror during that period in his career was completely wrong for the role, which Reeves wanted played with dead seriousness. Reeves fought for, and eventually got, the performance he wanted, and the result is one of the most powerfully villainous and evil characterizations in Price’s career. Exactly how Reeves achieved this is now a source of legend, in which varying myths vie for acceptance. Clearly, he and his star did not get along, but the source of the friction is attributed to various causes.
Phillip Waddilove, one of the film’s English producers, has claimed that Reeves let Price know he was not the first choice for the role and intentionally irritated him as a way of provoking an angrier performance. The story, although interesting, seems unlikely, because Reeves hardly had the clout necessary to pull of such a stunt: he was a virtually unknown director, albeit a talented one, and Price was the star whom the financers would probably back in any dispute.
Said Waddilove: “Michael had this plan, which was, ‘I’m not going to have him giving one of those effete performances.’ So he proceeded to ignore Vincent. Vincent never went to dailies. I said, ‘You should see the beautiful job Michael’s doing,” but he wouldn’t go. By ignoring him, Michael got this gutsy performance out of him. Finally, when he saw the movie in New York, about three months after it was finished, he wrote a letter to Michael, saying that he had actually got his best performance out of him.”
Exec producer Heyward dismisses Waddilove’s theory as “gloss.” Heyward attributed the antagonism between actor and director to their different personalities: “Vincent was a social creature. When we were on location, he always liked to have people sitting around over long dinners, laughing and talking. Michael was not anti-social; Michael did homework. He ate the obligatory meal, the meal you had to eat to stay alive, and then he’d go up to his room. He would study his script, worry about camera angles, worry about movement: how are exits and entrances made? He would worry about everything. He marked up his shooting script almost like a musical score. Where he wanted emphasis, he would have a mark; where he wanted a decline in speech, he would have a descending mark. He’d give that to people, most especially Hillary [Dwyer]; he gave strong direction to Hillary, who was not as much an actress then as she later turned into.”
As for the friction over Price’s performance, Heyward had this to say: “Reeves did not feel Vincent could do the acting job necessary. He felt that Vincent was having too good a time at whatever part he was playing, and however horrible the man he was portraying was, there would be an overtone of ‘You and I both know we’re kidding,’ which Michael did not want. But I do not believe Michael would go to the point of being rude. I know he had the capacity of sitting down and talking to people to get a better performance from them.”
Looking back on the experience decades later, Price did not see himself as the victim of an intentional attempt to provoke him into anger. His explanation was much simpler: “Reeves hated me,” the actor told Cinefantastique magazine. “He didn’t want me at all for the part. I didn’t like him, either. It was one of the first times in my life that I’ve been in a picture where the director and I just clashed.”
Price added, “Michael Reeves didn’t really know how to deal with actors. He really got all our backs up. He’d come to your and say the one thing you shouldn’t tell an actor that gives him no security at all. We didn’t get on at all. He would stop me and say, ‘Don’t move your head like that.’ And I would say, ‘Like what? What do you mean?’ and he’d say, ‘There—you’re doing it again. Don’t do that.’ He was only twenty-four years old when he did that film. He had only done two others. He didn’t know how to talk to actors. He hadn’t the experience, or talked to enough of them, to know how. All the actors on the picture had a very bad time.”
Price’s interpretation may sound self-serving, but his description of the way Reeves’ treated his cast is consistent with the recollections of Ian Ogilvy, who starred in all three of the films that Reeves completed. “I was always the hero, and he was always threatening to fire me and get somebody else,” Ogilvy recalled. “I would say ‘Okay,’ and he would always come back to me, because he liked working with people we knew. He didn’t like directing actors at all. He used to say, ‘Cast it right, and that will do.’ So he really liked getting on with making the movie. If he found an actor he could leave alone, he would use them over and over again. I was just the one he used again.”
Of working with Price, Ogilvy said, “He was great. The very first time I met him, he had been on the film about a week. I arrived and put my costume on. I was sitting on this enormous horse, and I was trying him out, riding down this driveway that leads to the pretty house [in the film]. There was what looked like a pile of black rags sitting by the side of the road. As I road past, I heard, ‘Oh my god, she’s so fuckin’ pretty, and she rides that fuckin’ horse so well—I hate her!’ That was Vincent. He was like that all the way through; he was a very funny man. He did alternate between being kind of irritable and being very sweet and cooperative, but you never quite knew where you were with him.”
Apparently, Price had reason to be jealous of Ogilvy’s skill on a horse. Producer Waddilove recalled, “My first day of shooting, I was taking stills of the execution of the witch, and my wife Suzie was over the other side of the fields, helping Vincent get on this gray horse for the first time, familiarizing himself with it. I told the wranglers, ‘He’s got to have a really tame horse.’ When we asked him, he said, ‘I’ve ridden all my life,” so I wasn’t too concerned. The next moment, I saw Suzie waving to me, and I realized there was a riderless horse and no sign of Vincent, just a big pile of black. I rushed over and lifted up the edge of the black cloak. Underneath was Vincent on the ground.”
If Waddilove is to be believed, the friction between Price and Reeves reached a climax while filming Hopkins’ extremely violent demise, which required co-star Ian Ogilvy to attack Price with an ax. According to Waddilove, when Price showed up after having a bit too much to drink, Reeves told Ogilvy to pull no punches while filming. “It was the only time I saw Vincent slightly inebriated, because he was very professional,” Waddilove recalled. “In a few seconds, Michael came up to me and said, ‘He’s bloody drunk—I’ll kill him!’ I said, ‘Michael, you’ll do no such thing.’ I saw him talking to Ian, our other star, so I guessed what he was saying: ‘Kill him; give him hell.’ So I talked to Vincent and said, ‘Come with me a moment, please.’ I took him to another one of the trucks, where the carpenters were, and I got some of that foam rubber. I put it inside Vincent’s clothing, because I knew otherwise he was not going to be too happy.’ When Michael saw what I had done, he was furious; he never forgave me.” (This is one of those Hollywood stories that should probably be taken with a grain of salt. Still, whether or not it literally happened, it probably reflects the feelings on the set at the time.)
Summing up the clash with Reeves, Price concluded, “Afterwards, I realized what he wanted was a low-key, very laid-back, menacing performance. He did get it, but I was fighting with him almost every step of the way. Had I known what he wanted, I could have cooperated. I think it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever given. Plus, I think it’s a classic picture of its kind.”
Price was not the only actor who failed to live up to Reeves’ high standards. One of the highlights of the film is the relationship between Hopkins and his assistant, John Stern, played by Robert Russell. Essentially, they are a dark, mirror image (as critic Robin Wood has pointed out) of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: Hopkins with his head in the clouds, convinced he is doing God’s work; Stern with his feet on the ground, doing what he does because he does it well and gets paid for it. Their scenes together show nice visual contrast between the elegant Hopkins and the scruffy Stern, and the interaction between the actors seems perfect; however, Stern’s voice was dubbed by another actor, Bernard Kay.
Explained Ogilvy: “The interesting thing about Robert: he had this great look, but he had a rather strange, high-pitched voice. Michael felt it didn’t quite work for the character, but it was too late to do anything about it, so at the end he was re-voiced throughout. The person who re-voiced Robert is the actor who played the fisherman [seen briefly on an isolated stretch of coastline], who said that immortal line, ‘I didn’t know there was a war on until you gentlemen told me.’”
The film also featured the debut of Hilary Dwyer, who went on to co-star with Price in THE OBLONG BOX and CRY OF THE BANSHEE before later turning to a career as a producer. Said Ogilvy of his leading lady, “I think what Hilary gives you is a sort of English rose, very perfect skin and a lovely voice. I think it’s a difficult part; all that maiden in distress nonsense is hard to do, and she did a great job.”
“She’s super,” Waddilove agreed. “She actually hasn’t forgiven Michael to this day, I’m told, because Michael said, ‘There’s little nudity.’ Of course when she saw it the first time, she said, ‘My mother can’t come see this!’”
The film made the most of its meager resources by shooting on available locations, many of them places where the events portrayed had actually taken place. Ian Ogilvy sighted one example: “The town where the burning was shot is actually Lavenum, which has hardly changed at all. There were burnings of witches by Matthew Hopkins there, and the names of the women are real. The actual inhabitants came to us the next morning and said, ‘You did stir up a lot of trouble.’ We said, ‘What are you talking about?’ They said, ‘Last night there was more groaning and banging of window shutters and doors and whistling in the chimneys—you woke up every ghost in Lavenum!’”
After the film was completed, it ran afoul of the censor’s scissors. Cuts were made in order to get the film cleared for distribution. “At the time, there was some question of the British censor banning it,” Waddilove recalled. “John Trevelyan, the censor, was some distant uncle [of Reeves]. So we went to John Trevelyan’s office, and he handed Michael a list of ten cuts. Michael really went berserk. I thought he was going to hit John! I sort of pulled him back. All of those cuts, MGM found them all and restored them all.”
Giving the censor the benefit of the doubt, Ogilvy added: “The thing about Trevelyan was that he really did love movies. He wasn’t just Will Hayes, and he greatly admired Michael’s work. He just said, under the climate of the time, he absolutely had to cut it down: ‘Of course, Ian has to kill Vincent with an ax, but he doesn’t have to hit him fifteen times; three will do. Then why don’t you just hold on the two guys watching from the door.’ Some people say Trevelyan’s cuts improve the movie, because it’s left to your imagination.”
Although spared the censorious snips in America, WITCHFINDER GENERAL ran into different difficulties on this side of the Atlantic. For the stateside release, James H. Nicholson (and co-owner of American International Pictures, along with Samuel Z. Arkoff) tacked on the title “The Conqueror Worm,” in order to make the film sound like the next entry in the company’s profitable series of Poe adaptations, which had come to a halt when producer-director Roger Corman declined to continue making any more after 1964’s THE TOMB OF LIGIEA.
Nicholson “went through his well-battered and tattered copy of Edgar Allan Poe to see what would fit,” Heyward recalled. “All we could come up with was having ‘The Conqueror Worm’ recited [by Price] over the opening and the closing.” Poe’s poem appears in the short story “Ligeia,” expressing the title character’s despair over the inevitability of death. Although the retitling the film THE CONQUEROR WORM may have mislead American audience into expecting a science-fiction flick about a killer invertebrate, the nihilistic tone of the poetry did match tolerably well with the film’s devastating finale.
Reeves was not happy with the title change in America, over which he had no control. “I hardly dare tell you what Michael thought about it,” said Phillip Waddilove. “In fact, I really sort of took a vow that one day this movie would come out under its proper title, and it will. In fact, MGM-UA have totally restored it, at considerable expense. I was very privileged to see it through, because they said to me, ‘We want it to be exactly the movie that Michael Reeves directed’ before censor’s cuts were made or anything.”
Unfortunately, Reeves never followed up on the success of this picture; his untimely death from an accidental drug overdose, while prepping THE OBLONG BOX, robbed the cinema of a rising young star. Louis Heyward lamented: “ He was a bloody, bloody genius. If he had lived, he would have been one of the biggest directors in our business today. He was tremendous, not only with cameras but tremendous with people, tremendous with relationships, tremendous with scripts. He understood how important a script is to a film. Rather than [saying] ‘ My pictures are the thing,’ [his attitude was that] ‘the pictures will take care of themselves if I have the right words to make the people believable.’ He did a lot; he put a lot of tender, loving care into this picture.”
When originally released, WITCHFINDER was obviously distinct from the typical horror film of the period, and the brutality of its violence was quite shocking. The gore quotient has been exceeded by many orders of magnitude since then, but the torture scenes remains as powerful as ever, and the use of violence to disturb an audience retains its impact. For all these reasons, the film has come to be regarded, with much justification, as a masterpiece of its kind.
Nevertheless, as sometimes happens with films that develop a cult following, WITCHFINDER GENERAL is in danger of being oversold by the converted. The film’s virtues are undeniable, but there are also several obvious flaws—some due to budgetary restrictions, some not.
“Mike made three movies of this quality for approximately a quarter million dollars—that was not each; that was for all three,” Ogilvy pointed out. “We worked on an absolute shoestring, so there were all sorts of things we would just cut, or we would quickly rewrite it. That’s why the blood looks like red paint—because that’s exactly what it was, red paint from a can…. One of the things Michael wanted and he never did get: when we riding, the troop of soldiers down a lane, he wanted rotting bodies lying in a ditch, and nobody to take any notice of them. That was his idea. We couldn’t afford rotting bodies, but that was the kind of thing he wanted: the lovely beautiful countryside, and that going on, as well.”
Besides red paint, the budget also reveals itself in the limitations of the lighting. Although John Coquillion was an excellent cinematographer whose exterior work in the film is quite beautiful, some of the interior scenes betray signs of having been shot with limited equipment (i.e., the actors are sitting in pools of light while their surroundings are hopelessly underexposed). Available light, without any reflectors or fill lights, was also obviously used in the scene the doorway scene between Ogilvy and Rupert Davies (who plays Sarah’s uncle), making the film look a trifle cheap.
Other weaknesses resulted from the limitations of the era’s technology. “We were still doing day-for-night scenes in those days—which is painfully obviously day—with the awful filter on top,” Ogilvy recalled. The day-for-night exteriors are, indeed, woefully transparent, with blue skies and white clouds clearly visible behind the heads of characters whose faces are underexposed to give the impression of a nighttime setting. Even giving the filmmakers benefit of the doubt because of their limited resources, one has to wonder why simple dialogue changes were not made to cover up the obvious fakery: that is, why not have the characters say “what are you doing out at sundown” instead of “what are you doing out after dark”? (Producer Waddilove tried to correct the day-for-night photography in MGM-UA’s DVD.)
Finally, there are a few minor problems that cannot be blamed on a lack of money and technology. For example, the film could have used more judicious editing during some of the non-dialogue montage scenes. The numerous shots of Ogilvy riding cross-country on his horse slow the pace down, and the love scene between him and Dwyer (a clichéd series of slow dissolves) goes on long past the time when the audience has gotten whatever point the scene has to make.
Nevertheless, the film has its champions, who considered it—if not a perfectly polished gem, then at least a mini-masterpiece that triumphs over its flaws. Both actor Ogilvy and producer Waddilove are a bit perplexed by the praise heaped on the film.
“I don’t know what a masterpiece is, but I don’t put [WITCHFINDER] in the same category as THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE and a few others,” proclaimed Waddilove. “I mean, it’s very flattering for people to say that. I think it was a wonderfully made movie, when you bear in mind that it was made with so little money.”
“It started getting attention drawn to itself very early on,” said Ogilvy, who has attended more than his share of revival screenings and tributes. “So, I’ve seen this movie far too many times: there are places where I have to sit on the floor and shut my eyes; I just can’t watch. I think it’s overrated, to be very honest with you. I think it is a good movie of its genre; I think it’s quite special in certain areas. But I think the mystique surrounding it is partly because the director died when he was twenty-five. If you want to be a legend, don’t stay alive; die young, like James Dean. I do think Mike would have gone on to make great movies. I think the remarkable achievement that Mike had was to make three movies for an extraordinarily small amount of money. He had a very good eye, and the use of tracking in the move [was good]. You must remember this was years before Steadicams were invented, so every move, you had to put the camera on a rail, which took forever. The speed with which he shot, the way he could improvise, was remarkable. But I think we can oversell movies like this a little bit. I mean, I can see why it’s a cult movie, but I’m not sure it’s a masterpiece.”
Compared to TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, perhaps WITCHFINDER GENERAL is not quite a dictionary definition example of a masterpiece. But that’s a bit like complaining that Green Day’s AMERICAN IDIOT is not Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. WITCHFINDER has a kind of raw power because, like the best horror movies, it dares to cross boundaries and go places where ordinary films fear to tread. The most horrifying element of the picture is not the torture that Matthew Hopkins uses to extract confessions; it is that the film’s hero, in his pursuit of the villain, ultimately becomes a sort of mirror image of Hopkins, every bit as violent and sadistic. A later hit film like SIN CITY (2005) plays with extreme violence by crafting the stories to justify whatever punishment the anti-heroes dish out. The effect is entertaining and maybe even cathartic, but it does not approach the profoundly disturbing impact of the conclusion of WITCHFINDER GENERAL, which invites viewers to relish the taste of revenge and then makes it turn sickening. For that reason alone, the film deserves its cult reputation, whatever its flaws.
Executive producer Tony Tenser shot brief flashes of nudity (involving bare-breasted wenches at an inn) for the German version of WITCHFINDER GENERAL, which were not seen in the British or U.S. theatrical release.
In Britain, the censor demanded approximately ten cuts, reducing the on-screen bloodshed, before allowing the film to be released. Even with the cuts, the film still earned the British “X” Certificate. Unlike the American X-rating (which generally denoted pornography), the British X Certificate was sort of the descendent of their old “H” (for “Horrific”) Certificate, and was often applied to films with frightening or violent elements.
In America, the film was released theatrically with its bloodshed intact, but the title was changed to THE CONQUEROR WORM, and Vincent Price read lines from the Poe poem of that title over the opening and closing scenes of the film.
Unfortunately, the initial U.S. videocassette release of THE CONQUEOR WORM during the 1980s only heaped further injury on the film, including the brief nudity filmed for the German version. Even worse, VHS tape was hampered by a problem with the soundtrack that plagued several American International Pictures’ releases from this time: the original orchestral orchestral score by Paul Ferris was replaced with sound-alike synthesizer music—not bad, but no match for the original “Green Sleeves”-inspired soundtrack. Apparently, the rights to the soundtrack music had been sold for a beer commercial. Said producer Phillip Waddilove: “When I arrived in [the United States] in 1977, my first Halloween, I nearly had a fit when I saw a Budweiser commercial, and they were using the entire opening theme from WITCHFINDER GENERAL. The film was no longer with AIP; it was sold to Orion, and Orion sold the music to various companies and just put in a cheap score.”
The MGM-UA DVD is supposed to be the definitive version. It restores the film’s original title, deletes the narration, includes the violence shot by Reeves but not the nudity shot by Tenser (except as supplemental material).
Producer Phillip Waddilove, who was not a fan of the horror genre, was a bit put off by the content of the film: “Michael wanted to make a violent horror movie!” he recalled. “I did not realize, until I read the screenplay, that I was going to be producing something so gory. I had to examine my conscience for about an hour before I accepted the job.”
Ian Ogilvy tried to get his former girlfriend cast in the female lead role (which eventually went to newcomer Hilary Dwyer). “Mike and I interviewed this old girlfriend,” Ogilvy recalled. “She was very suspicious. She thought, ‘Old boyfriend, young director I’ve never heard of, and there’s a nude scene—oh please no, forget it.’”
Producer Louis M. Heyward received an “Additional Scenes” screenwriting credit. According to Waddilove, who handled most of the day-to-day production chores on the film, Heyward made no important contribution to the script: “I don’t think we should comment on that, though I’m going to!” Waddilove joked. “If anybody deserved ‘additional material by,’ it was me. Because the end sequence, where Vincent is hacked to death, was originally going to be burning oil. But the National Trust said, ‘No, you can’t burn any oil in our dungeon!’ So we had to change the screenplay for that scene very quickly, and I came up with the idea. I saw this plinth in the middle of the dungeon, and I said, ‘We’ll make it an altar or something.’”
Regarding Heyward’s contribution to the film, Waddilove said, “Actually, my co-producer, bless his heart, was only representing the money from American International. He was a lovely man, Deke Heyward. The only time he came on the set was when we were near the New Market races, because he loved horse racing. The other time was when we were shooting the bare-breasted sequences for the German market.”
Domestically, the film earned $1.5-million, about par for an American International Picture starring Price at the time. According to Heyward, the film was also a hit in Europe, launching a tide of unrelated pseudo-sequels: “It was very successful in Germany—it was the most successful of the violence pictures—it started a whole new vogue. We had not registered the title in Germany, so they had three companies simultaneously shooting ‘Conqueror Worm II.’”
WITHCFINDER GENERAL was the last film that Michael Reeves completed before his death from a drug overdose. According to Gordon Hessler (who directed Price’s next horror film THE OBLONG BOX), Reeves was supposed to direct both BOX and AIP’s prestige production DESADE (scripted by genre veteran Richard Matheson), but his declining mental health prevented him. “Michael at the time decided he just couldn’t do the picture,” Hessler recalled. “He was mentally sick; he was taking shock treatments at the time I met him. It was very unfortunate, because he was an enormous talent, and he would have been one of the really important directors. WITCHFINDER GENERAL is a wonderful picture.”
NOTE: This article is copyright 2005 by Steve Biodrowski. Some of the material in herein is derived and adapted from the cover story on Vincent Price that Steve Biodrowski co-authored with David Del Valle and Lawerence French for the January 1989 issue of Cinefantastique magazine.
WITCHFINDER GENERAL (a.k.a. “The Conqueror Worm,” American International Pictures, 1968). Directed by Michael Reeves. Screenplay by Reeves and Tom Baker, based on the book by Ronald Bassett, with additional scenes by Louis M. Heyward; lines from the poem “The Conqueror Worm” by Edgar Allan Poe (American version only). Cast: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Hilary Dwyer, Robert Russell, Nicky Henson, Tony Selby, Bernard Kay, Godfrey James, Michael Beint, John Trenaman, Bill Maxwel, Paul Ferris, Patrick Wymark, Wilfrid Brambell