Retro Review: Vincent Price at His Most Evil and Sadistic in WITCHFINDER GENERAL, Splatter Cinema’s September Movie

Posted on: Sep 12th, 2011 By:

By Philip Nutman
Contributing Blogger

Splatter Cinema Presents WITCHFINDER GENERAL (aka THE CONQUEROR WORM) (1968); Dir: Michael Reeves; Starring: Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy; Tues. Sept. 13; 9:30 PM; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

ATLRetro’s excited – one of our favorite horror movies of all time is coming to the Plaza Theatre for an ultra-rare 35 mm screening this week as the cool ghouls at Splatter Cinema present WITCHFINDER GENERAL, the notorious 1968 British wench burning fest starring the fabulous Vincent Price at his most evil.

Recut and retitled THE CONQUEROR WORM by American International Pictures for the US market (the title is a steal from an Edgar Allan Poe poem to make people think it was another Price-Poe flick), this movie is for my money Saint Vincent’s best, most brutal and sadistic performance, a study in ice-cold evil. The print of this much-censored movie the Splatter gang are screening is a British X-rated one, which, sadly, doesn’t include the restored footage from a UK DVD released a few years ago. But since most of the shocking, sadistic, violent footage has been lost over the years, this isn’t a big deal – except for purists such as myself – as this film packs a punch to the guts regardless. (Only seconds were trimmed from several scenes, tightening some of the torture and longer takes of witches being burned alive – material that’s long been a source of conjecture amongst obsessive fans. The screenplay was pre-censored by the British Board of Film Censors before a foot of film was shot back in the ‘60s.

Based on the turgid 1966 historical novel by Ronald Bassett, the film has its roots in truth but is a seriously fictionalized account of the infamous exploits of 17th century self-styled “witchfinder” Matthew Hopkins, who committed hundreds of atrocities during the English civil war as Royalists fought Parliamentary forces for control of the countryside, staining the verdant pastures red. The real Hopkins was a sadistic misogynist who lined his pockets by extracting confessions from innocent women who were accused of witchcraft by paranoid villagers. As played by Price, the character is a power-hungry, puritanical, sexually repressed manipulator of the first order who meets his match in Richard Marshall, a young soldier played by Ian Ogilvy (best known for playing sleuth Simon Templar in the ‘70s Brit TV series THE RETURN OF THE SAINT). When Hopkins and his vile assistant, Stearne, victimize a vicar and his daughter, the soldier’s true love, vengeance becomes the order of the day, and Marshall abandons his political convictions, going crazy as he hunts down and confronts the men who have destroyed his life.

 

Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy) and Vincent Price in WITCHFINDER GENERAL, aka THE CONQUEROR WORM. Photo credit: AIP

Written and directed by Michael Reeves, a very young, ambitious director, whom critics hailed as the Great White Hope of British horror cinema, this movie turned out to be his swan song as he died at age 25 of an accidental drug overdose shortly after completing the film. His next scheduled project was THE OBLONG BOX (1969), another Price-Poe vehicle, and one wonders how that would have turned out considering Price couldn’t stand the young director, whom he thought arrogant and disliked the way he was being commanded as an actor – which makes Price’s understated performance even more tribute-worthy.

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