Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5
Alternate Title: The Conqueror Worm
Tigon British Film Productions, American International Pictures. Screenplay by Tom Baker, Michael Reeves, additional scenes by Louis M. Heyward, based on the novel by Ronald Bassett. Cinematography by John Coquillon. Produced by Louis M. Heyward, Arnold L. Miller, Philip Waddilove. Music by Paul Ferris. Production Design by Jim Morahan. Costume Design by Jill Thompson. Film Editing by Howard Lanning.
Mid-seventeenth century England is divided between those who support Cromwell and those who wish to return Charles II to the throne, a civil war that has made room for all who would take advantage of the lack of overall authority in the land. Among these is Matthew Hopkins, self-appointed witchfinder who scours the nation with religious fervor, determined to rid the land of Satan’s influence by executing all who have been found guilty of devil worship; of course, as we know from the entire history of witch-hunting, guilt usually came down to whether or not the accuser wanted something from the accused and could or couldn’t get it. Michael Reeves, whose death at the age of 24 just months after this film’s release has contributed to its cult status, directs and co-writes a highly fictionalized account of Hopkins’ dark career, combining historical interest with the juicy, exploitative style of Hammer horror films of the time and featuring an unusually staid Vincent Price in the lead role (that he’s too old for, but who cares). Reeves centres the plot on one particular incident, in which a kindly priest and his beautiful niece Sara are singled out as outsiders in their village and invite attention from Hopkins and his vicious servant John Stearne, who immediately accuse the priest of devil worship. Hoping to save her uncle, Sara makes herself sexually available to Hopkins but it doesn’t prevent her being viciously raped by Stearne or sending her uncle to his doom. Handsome soldier Richard (Ian Ogilvy) comes home from battle to find his lady love and discovers Sara’s experiences, vowing to hunt Hopkins down and kill him even if it means deserting the army and getting himself executed for it. There’s a lot of disturbing violence in the movie, a good deal of which was censored at the time and has been restored more recently, and while its style of storytelling is a bit too grindhouse to be accused of being gritty or realistic, the manner in which it portrays the inhumane treatment of those accused of this ridiculous crime (like shoving needles into their back or “ordeal by water”) is surprisingly effective (and efficient, all of this in a mere eighty minutes). Price later referred to his as his favourite of his own performances, but fans will miss the overt ridiculousness of his more famous roles, he barely reads on screen in his attempt to keep it (somewhat) real, while the bright colours of the Roger Corman films that he starred in and the artificial visual landscape that they produced were much more memorable.