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on September 13, 2007
Every lover of film has had a pivotal film experience, the movie that made such an impact on them that they have never forgotten it. For me WITCHFINDER GENERAL is that film. I first saw it in 1969 as THE CONQUERER WORM (AIP's American release title designed to cash in on the Vincent Price/Edgar Allan Poe series although the movie has nothing to do with Poe). I was 17 years old, just about to complete my junior year of high school in Greenville SC, and was a big fan of the Roger Corman/Vincent Price Poe series. I had seen very few films that would not qualify as G rated. The ratings system had just been introduced the year before and this film was rated M (for mature audiences, later GP then PG). It was a complete shock to the system in every way. It was the first time I had seen nudity/lovemaking before and the violence was painful and ugly. Vincent Price was cold and hard without a trace of his usual mannerisms and therefore not sympathetic in the least. To top it all off there was no happy ending and people were worse off than they were before. Of course these things had been in films since the silent era but it was the first time I had seen them and we always remember our firsts.

I have seen just about everything in the movies since then but seeing WITCHFINDER nearly 40 years later I'm amazed at how well it holds up. I am happy to report that after years of substandard VHS and Region 2 DVD editions this version features the original director's cut and restores the original soundtrack which was not available in America. An added bonus is the commentary which features star Ian Ogilvy that fills in the background of the making of the film. For those who don't know, the film is set during the English Civil War and pits two young lovers against a sadistic Puritan witchfinder. The director, Michael Reeves, died shortly afterwards of an accidental prescription drug overdose at the age of 25. The 5 star rating is purely subjective because of the important part it played in my overall movie development but it's a solid 4 star film anyway.
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on September 7, 2000
The Conqueror Worm is a textbook example of a movie's potential prospects as an acknowledged classic being wrecked by the stupidity of critics and the cynical manipulations of a distributor underestimating the intelligence of American viewers. Distributed by AIP in America as "The Conqueror Worm" and purportedly "based on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe", the film got buried by disinterested US critics who incorrectly passed it off as simply another addition to the increasingly tiresome Poe fare being churned out by AIP, Roger Corman and others. The casting of Vincent Price, of course, only strengthened this unfortunate and lazy critical impulse. For this, the distributor is as much to blame as the critics, by consciously pursuing a marketing strategy which implied precisely what critics chose to believe. And by tampering with the film itself to contrive to provide a Poe connection (by adding prologue and epilogue commentary by Vincent Price quoting from Poe's poem) AIP hung its sinking critical reputation around the neck of this great movie. In fact, The Conqueror Worm has nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe and was not even made by the AIP studio either. And when US critics began hearing European buzz about a great little horror movie called The Witchfinder General by an innovative young Brit director, Michael Reeves, how were they then to know it was the same movie they had so flippantly disregarded? By the time The Witchfinder General was rereviewed as the stand alone original it is, it was too late. The movie's moment had passed amongst the moviegoing mainstream. It is only through its devoted cult following that memory of it and its tragic young director (who died in mysterious circumstances at the age of 25) has deservedly been kept alive. Considered in the context of its time, The Conqueror Worm is a powerful, violent tale of hypocrisy and vengeance. It tells the story of the villainous opportunist Matthew Hopkins and his sidekick, the brutish moron John Stearne, who went from village to village in Cromwellian England torturing, hanging and burning "witches". The movie pulls no punches in its portrayal of the methods used by Hopkins and Stearne to extract confessions and exact punishment, but is also satisfyingly contemptuous in its portrayal of these two psychopaths. In this regard, Reeves manages something even Roger Corman couldn't do: extract a layered, complex and credible performance from the normally corny Vincent Price. This simply has to be one of his best performances ever - the one that could've given him consolidated mainstream respectability, but the one that probably the least people actually saw. Ian Ogilvy (TV's The Saint - after Roger Moore's stint)- is also very good as the tender then vengeful soldier, Richard Marshall. I am of the view that the original reason this film got trumpeted as a horror movie related to the casting of Vincent Price and AIP's cynical business calculations. However, it is indeed a horror movie, just not the kind of horror movie AIP wanted the public to believe. It falls rather - despite its gorgeous costume dress and sets - into the same category of horror sub genre which deals with studies of pure evil a la Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. (In fact, the knowing, murderous collusion - and tension - between Hopkins and Stearne resembles somewhat the relationship between the calculating Henry and moronic Otis in the later movie.) The Conqueror Worm is also, however, a revenge movie - a kind of proto-Death Wish - in that the story is driven by Richard Marshall's obsessive quest to avenge the violation and rape of his fiance by both Hopkins and Stearne. The movie looks fantastic, probably the best sense of that period ever captured on film. The shots of Marshall racing his horse through the English countryside under a foreboding evening sky are simply breathtaking. The images are strong and dark as well, contributing to a grave atmosphere of oppression in the air. The opening scenes - incorporating a lone townsman preparing a hilltop gallows against a dark sky and an old woman being dragged to her execution - are as powerful as anything you'll ever see. The wonderful thing is, the movie never lets up on this opening power. It runs its violent course without dragging and delivers a stunning visual feast of violence and evil. This movie absolutely has to find its way to DVD - and soon. And, for once, the audience frustration that builds up in the face of hypocrisy and cruelty, is satifactorily resolved. So, for those of you who are still wound up from having experienced Nicholas Hytner's brilliant version of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, watch this movie to get the closure you need! Highly recommended to serious moviegoers and collectors - but also as a great midnight with popcorn movie for couples! At under $12, buy, buy, buy. Or wait for the DVD which will be stunning.
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on October 16, 2005
... or maybe the best horror western ever. What you make of this will depend on two things. How much you like old British horror and how much you know about the production of this particular film. When you realize that this is the last production of a young talented Director, Michael Reeves, who died (25 - accidental overdose) on the path to being one of the all time greatest film directors, and that this is his third, last and best film, you will under its value (as an example of his talent watch the shot in this film of young children cooking potatoes in the ashes of a `witch' that has just been burned). It is a notch above your average late 1960s early 1970s horror films. In fact it is a notch above nearly every British film making it one of the British modern classics.

The story is based on the real life times and crimes of the lawyer and Witchfinder General - Mathew Hopkins, who set about destroying alleged witches across England with the full power of the law. This film depicts the various acts of torture and trials conducted on witches making it an extremely important historical document (as a note the Western influence comes from the gallant long countryside horseback riding shots, mobs in the villages and things like gallows being erected in the same vein as the cowboy movies in the USA of that era. It WORKS extremely well!) It is also certainly the best rendition of such grim persecutions to date on the screen (US viewers should think Salem Witch Trials x 100).

There is an interesting plot involving a young soldier whose fiancée's father - a priest, is put on trial for witchcraft while the soldier is away. When the soldier returns he vows to track down Hopkins for the crimes he has committed against his wife and father and so the movie is essentially a story of revenge as this soldier chases Hopkins across the countryside passing through villages where Hopkins has been.

Some find this film hard to watch because of this subplot but stick with it because after the first twenty minutes or so the film really takes off. This is also Vincent Price in his best role ever and some would say his best work although the production values are somewhat low (a very restrictive budget with a young director practically making it by himself). Many of the scenes are underexposed, dirty, bad cuts, lots of zooms (a no-no in cinematography these days), daft credits that almost underexpose Hopkins face in the background and other elements of film making associated with tight finances. However ALL of the fight sequences and torture sequences are very well done. In fact some of those scenes had to be cut!

The real gem in this movie though is to know how much it has been through. The director set out to make one of the most violent films ever conceived in the UK. The UK censors immediately cut it to ribbons saying that it would shock the viewers too much. Also the US censors agreed that the violence should be toned down considerably but agreed that the US version could contain different takes with nude women. This led to several versions of the film over the years.

This review refers to the superb DVD version of the film. You can only currently get it on PAL but it contains 2 versions of the films, excellent bonus materials including documentaries, Empire Magazine's Kim Newman provides excellent production notes (best seen on any DVD to date), trailers and biographies. It is dirt cheap. Get it!

Anyway the DVD has 2 versions - The Directors Cut (featuring NO nude women and all the restored cuts) and the Export Version (featuring nude women and all the restored cuts). The VHS version is CUT. However this decade one scene was restored that was originally omitted from the screen version - of the infamous boot in the eye sequence. So all new VHS versions of the film have this restored... but the DVD has also restored - (1) A priest being tortured, (2) A women being slapped, (3)An extended version of the river dunking, (4)A witch missing her eye being tied up and burnt alive, (5)A woman being tortured and (6) the notorious axing sequence. Unfortunately these cut scenes had to be restored from a poor quality tape recording in the Director's own personal collection, so these cut scenes look very different from the quality of the actual film - however this is only a minor point given that the film is over 30 years old and was made on a shoe-string budget. The fact that we get to see these cuts at all on a DVD in SUBLIME for fans!

So for the first time ever - The Fully Restored - Witchfinder General as it was meant to be seen is now available!

CLASSIC!
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on March 28, 2005
"The Conqueror Worm" is the American title of "Witchfinder General," which was sold -- deceitfully -- by American International as part of the Edgar Allan Poe cycle (a dubbed-in recitation of Poe's poem "The Conqueror Worm" by Vincent Price is its only connection). While "Conqueror Worm" contains all of the picture elements of the available British version (though the version released to theatres in 1968 was even more graphic in the torture scenes), the superlative music score by Paul Ferris did not make the transition and was replaced by an initially pleasing, but quickly repetitive and inadequate synthesizer theme (in some scenes the music simply runs out, then starts over again like its on a loop). Even so, this grim historical thriller features one of Vincent Price's all time best performances as Matthew Hopkins, a powerful man with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Price was not so much directed by Michael Reeves as goaded by him (Reeves really wanted Donald Pleasence for the role and was bitter over having Price forced on him by AIP). But Price acquiesced and managed to keep the twinkle out of his eye and his tongue out of his cheek, and the result is ferociously evil. In addition, the settings and costumes are so authentic that you will believe you are really watching the 17th century play out before you.

If only they could have retained the music...
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on September 3, 2007
There's more good news regarding MGM's long awaited September 11 DVD release of WITCHFINDER GENERAL (aka THE CONQUEROR WORM). Producer Philip Waddilove has confirmed to DVD Drive-In that the movie will not only be presented as Michael Reeves' director cut, but will also contain the original music score by Paul Ferris which was removed from all previous home video versions in the U.S. For this DVD, Waddilove has also just recorded an audio commentary along with star Ian Ogilvy, and an additional supplement will be a collection of Waddilove's personal stills, taken on the set. Looks like it's going to be one hell of a release!
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on August 28, 2003
Why one of the reviewers here insists on calling this a Hammer movie I don't know. It certainly isn't, and never was. I saw this on its initial release in 1968, and its dark power burned a hole in my psyche. It was released on a double bill with "Blood Beast Terror", starring Peter Cushing (and also NOT a Hammer film). The production outfit was an enterprising competitor of Hammer's called Tigon Pictures. The billing with the Cushing epic (an endearing thriller about a vampire moth), tells you that this movie was unfairly promoted (and trailed) as a horror pic. While it certainly is horrific, even sitting in the Sadean tradition of UK movies like "Peeping Tom" and "Circus of Horrors", it really transcends all genres, including the historical epic, while employing tropes from many diverse genres.
I asked Ian Ogilvy for his recollections of the movie a few years ago, but he seemed - strangely - not to understand what a masterpiece he'd been involved with ... he told me, for example, that filming the scene in the church, wherein Richard pledges vengeance, he'd felt it to be both sentimental and slightly silly. Rumors and gossip abound about the filming of the movie, and you can read some interesting anecdotes from contributors on the IMDB.com pages dealing with "Witchfinder General". For instance, Vincent Price to the director Michael Reeves: "I've made over 70 movies, what have YOU done?" Reeves: "Made three good ones."
It was also interesting when some years ago I visited the village of Lavenham, where much of the movie takes place, to hear recollections of the townspeople, many of whom appeared in the movie, and all of whom adored Vincent Price as a real gentleman. A pity Price never acknowledged publicly that "Witchfinder General" featured his best movie performance. Two other points: Johnny Coquillon's photography makes this movie what it is ... that, and Paul Ferris's ORIGINAL music score with its haunting "Greensleeves"-inspired melodies, which was foolishly washed out of the US release and replaced with generic soapy schmaltz. Perhaps this is at heart a movie for Brits (particularly ex-pats like me?) who adored the English landscape and sensed something terrible emerging in the collective unconscious during the late sixties that belied the pastoral hippie dream. The original version ended with a freeze frame of Hilary Dwyer, at the moment of her greatest anguish, and darkness has won, and we are all in hell. At this point in the American-International release, Poe's "Conqueror Worm" is inserted on the soundtrack to justify packaging the movie as a Price/Poe flick, brutalizing the movie and wrecking its original dark vision. I understand a DVD is available now with original score restored - I can only hope the ending, too, is given back to Reeves's vision. Incidentally, Michael Reeves's "Sorcerers", made just before "Witchfinder", anticipated the vicarious thrills of snuff movies and the Internet by decades, and contains one of Boris Karloff's finest performances. We mourn the loss of Reeves, but in his brief career he created at least one enduring masterpiece, and it's called "Witchfinder General".
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on October 26, 2007
Witchfinder General also know as The Conqueror Worm based on a poem from Edgar Allan Poe is a revenge tale inspired by Matthew Hopkins who made a lucrative career seeking out witches and devil worshipers in 17th century England.
Witchfinder General is the September October Cult Pick in Film Comment Magazine and Maitland McDonagh writes that director Michael Reeves badgered and bullied the self parody and camp mannerisms out of the horror icon Vincent Price. Price himself admitted that the "kid had browbeaten him into a subtle, utterly chilling performance as a sanctimonious opportunist." I think Reeves strategy was a success as this is the best I have seen Vincent Price.
The film pushes the limits and horror fans of revenge tales such as Wes Craven's Last House on the Left will enjoy and the end was reminiscent of Toby Hooper's ending of his original classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's torture horror with great atmosphere, (when it's nightime in the movie it's actually dark and nightime), scenery, with an actual story.

THE DVD:
The midnite movies version has Paul Ferris's orchestral score.
The Transfer looked amazing and for the price you can't beat this film.
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on March 13, 2005
The masterful direction of Michael Reeves has blended cracking adventure, achingly beautiful photography, inspired use of violence/horror, a genuinely moving love story and a memorable stirring score into, quite simply, one of the best British movies of all time.

Reeves coaxed a life-time best performance from veteran actor Vincent Price (I'll leave the viewer to discover the delightful anecdote about this in the accompanying documentary), as Matthew Hopkins. No Abominable Dr Phibes here! Price keeps the hamminess in check to deliver a genuinely chilling and convincing performance. His assistant, the utterly egotistical and brutal John Stearne, is superbly played by Robert Russell. Ian Ogilvy and Hilary Dwyer are also magnificent as the young lovers, who have the misfortune to cross the path of the Witchfinder. The tender beauty of their love scene generates a huge amount of empathy with the lovers and contrasts most markedly with the horrors to come.

Some elements of very black gallows humour - the kids roasting their potatoes in the post-execution fire, and a cheeky cameo from 'old man Steptoe', were truly inspired, but Reeves brutally realistic (some would argue pessimistic) view of humanity, leads us to the inevitable jaw-droppingly stark and bleak conclusion.

From comments in previous reviews, it appears that the US VHS release has butchered this movie, even shockingly stripping away the excellent score, so go for the (UK) Region 0 DVD instead, available through Amazon UK.

The DVD presentation is generally good, although the additional scenes from the export version are of noticeably poorer picture quality with apparently no attempt having been made to digitally restore them. This is a shame, as some of the interrogation scenes and the tavern scenes with John Stearne are genuinely compelling. The audio - Dolby mono, is adequately clear, but with the occasional soupcon of distortion. The extras include the theatrical trailer, production notes and, importantly, an excellent and revealing documentary about the tragically short life of the hugely talented Michael Reeves.

If you like a movie with a feel-good ending, then don't touch this DVD with a 16-foot Civil War pike, but if you enjoy very powerful, memorable and disturbing cinema, then the masterpiece that is Witchfinder General (bizarrely re-titled 'Conqueror Worm' in the USA) is an indispensable purchase.
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on May 30, 2004
... or maybe the best horror western ever. What you make of this will depend on two things. How much you like old British horror and how much you know about the production of this particular film. When you realize that this is the last production of a young talented Director, Michael Reeves, who died (25 - accidental overdose) on the path to being one of the all time greatest film directors, and that this is his third, last and best film, you will under its value (as an example of his talent watch the shot in this film of young children cooking potatoes in the ashes of a `witch' that has just been burned). It is a notch above your average late 1960s early 1970s horror films. In fact it is a notch above nearly every British film making it one of the British modern classics.
The story is based on the real life times and crimes of the lawyer and Witchfinder General - Mathew Hopkins, who set about destroying alleged witches across England with the full power of the law. This film depicts the various acts of torture and trials conducted on witches making it an extremely important historical document (as a note the Western influence comes from the gallant long countryside horseback riding shots, mobs in the villages and things like gallows being erected in the same vein as the cowboy movies in the USA of that era. It WORKS extremely well!) It is also certainly the best rendition of such grim persecutions to date on the screen (US viewers should think Salem Witch Trials x 100).
There is an interesting plot involving a young soldier whose fiancée's father - a priest, is put on trial for witchcraft while the soldier is away. When the soldier returns he vows to track down Hopkins for the crimes he has committed against his wife and father and so the movie is essentially a story of revenge as this soldier chases Hopkins across the countryside passing through villages where Hopkins has been.
Some find this film hard to watch because of this subplot but stick with it because after the first twenty minutes or so the film really takes off. This is also Vincent Price in his best role ever and some would say his best work although the production values are somewhat low (a very restrictive budget with a young director practically making it by himself). Many of the scenes are underexposed, dirty, bad cuts, lots of zooms (a no-no in cinematography these days), daft credits that almost underexpose Hopkins face in the background and other elements of film making associated with tight finances. However ALL of the fight sequences and torture sequences are very well done. In fact some of those scenes had to be cut!
The real gem in this movie though is to know how much it has been through. The director set out to make one of the most violent films ever conceived in the UK. The UK censors immediately cut it to ribbons saying that it would shock the viewers too much. Also the US censors agreed that the violence should be toned down considerably but agreed that the US version could contain different takes with nude women. This led to several versions of the film over the years.
This review refers to the superb DVD version of the film. You can only currently get it on PAL but it contains 2 versions of the films, excellent bonus materials including documentaries, Empire Magazine's Kim Newman provides excellent production notes (best seen on any DVD to date), trailers and biographies. It is dirt cheap. Get it!
Anyway the DVD has 2 versions - The Directors Cut (featuring NO nude women and all the restored cuts) and the Export Version (featuring nude women and all the restored cuts). The VHS version is CUT. However this decade one scene was restored that was originally omitted from the screen version - of the infamous boot in the eye sequence. So all new VHS versions of the film have this restored... but the DVD has also restored - (1) A priest being tortured, (2) A women being slapped, (3)An extended version of the river dunking, (4)A witch missing her eye being tied up and burnt alive, (5)A woman being tortured and (6) the notorious axing sequence. Unfortunately these cut scenes had to be restored from a poor quality tape recording in the Director's own personal collection, so these cut scenes look very different from the quality of the actual film - however this is only a minor point given that the film is over 30 years old and was made on a shoe-string budget. The fact that we get to see these cuts at all on a DVD in SUBLIME for fans!
So for the first time ever - The Fully Restored - Witchfinder General as it was meant to be seen is now available!
CLASSIC!
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on March 1, 2003
Film director Michael Reeves' 1969 "The Conqueror Worm" is such a harrowing film, one will look past its many faults including an obvious low budget, poor editing and wooden acting by several supporting performers. Make no doubt, this was strictly a "B" goth film made popular by Roger Corman at the time, though Reeves refused to pull any punches in his uncomfortable examination of witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins. Notorious for many reasons, including the suicide of young director Reeves soon after completing this film, especially intense scenes of angst and torture, and what must rank as Vincent Price's most villainous performance, "The Conqueror Worm" will stay with the viewer.
The unremitting tone of this English film must be admired, as Reeves was obviously attempting to reveal the evil within all men, and most certainly the type of paranoid fear and weakness which lead to such witch hunts. The scenes of torture, while intense, are never exploitative. There is an overall unwavering sadness to "The Conqueror Worm," but the film's themes are valid, if not thought-provoking. Reeves should be admired for sticking to his guns, and his feuds with Vincent Price on the set ("Please Vincent, stop rolling your eyes. Try to act natural!" he reportedly said to Mr. Price) are now part of horror film legend.
It's a fine line this atypical film walks, and all one has to do is view the similar "Mark of the Devil" (though I would not recommend it) which was released within the same year. The German film, dealing with the hunting and persecution of witches, chose to emphasize graphic scenes of torture rather than the dark character motivation for such heinous acts. And thus, "Mark of the Devil" must rank as one of the most vile films ever made.
I'm not sure one could truly call "The Conqueror Worm" vile, but this film is attempting to reveal some dark truths about man. Unconventional and brave, this cheerless tale was one of the most unique horror films during the decade of the 1960s, and serves as an interesting testament to a film director who tragically might have been on the verge of greatness.
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