At Long Last Conquering The Worm
If a horror film is truly meant to create a sense of fear and dread within its onlooker, then surely one succeeded in its purpose on May 31, 1969 when I first came upon The Conqueror Worm, better known now as Witchfinder General and newly released to DVD. I’d not been, nor would I ever be again, so emotionally pummeled by a film --- undone to the point of declaring it one of the worst pictures made to its date. Certainly no Poe thriller with Vincent Price had sunk so low. The panning review shown here was my artless, if immature, expression of disapproval in our (then) local newspaper, for whom I was (inexplicably) permitted to evaluate movies at the ages of fourteen and fifteen. We attended on a Saturday. The Liberty was perhaps a third filled. Flush days were past for that venerable house. Colonel Forehand could scarcely have known that his combo of The Conqueror Worm with The Devil’s Bride would bring closure to the last great decade of British horror. It’s taken me another thirty-eight years to appreciate how lucky I was to be there that day, despite resentment I’d harbor toward Witchfinder General for long thereafter. Analysis might reveal and rid others of lesser traumas, but I self-medicated by way of damning Michael Reeves’ final film and even tossing into the attic a pressbook Colonel Forehand gave me soon after the playdate. That I would come to embrace said incubus seemed at the least unlikely, yet I’m here to declare Witchfinder General not just a great horror film, but a revolutionary one.
The director had already died (2-11-69) when we saw The Conqueror Worm. He was twenty-five. Some say Michael Reeves committed suicide. The account of what happened looks like an accidental overdose to me. He had a plenty bleak view of the world if his limited filmic output is any indication, but a lot of that may have been youthful affectation. Many of us liked to play cynical in our twenties, little anticipating forthcoming life events that might justify such attitudes. Reeves didn’t stay long enough to find out about any of that. He’d brashly barged in on Don Siegel (at his home!) to express admiration and ask for work. On that account, I’d identify with the young man, for I too invaded Siegel’s sanctum sanctorum at Universal when I was a student at USC in 1975, but that’s a story I’ll save for another post. I mention it for purposes of confirming that Siegel was exceptionally gracious to at least two of his youthful fans. Reeves left but three credits. One of them I’d encountered several years prior to Witchfinder General. That was The She-Beast, reference to which I fleetingly made in a previous story. We’d gone to see it with a dud called The Embalmer (ad shown here), our expectations lowered for having watched the latter first. Who among my cadre of thirteen-year-olds (at least five of us together) would have dreamed that The She-Beast would have a nude scene --- the first ever to be unspooled on the Liberty's screen? Like witnesses to the Hindenberg, we all still remember it.
Witchfinder General is like the evil doppelganger of A Man For All Seasons. That prestigious Best Picture winner of 1966 utilized similar English countryside. Both pictures deal with persecution and religious intolerance. You could take your grandmother to see A Man For All Seasons and she'd thank you for it. Schoolteachers undoubtedly gave extra credit for some who went. Witchfinder General was nasty and cruel, but it was history too. Reeves force-fed fact-based truths that sixties audiences weren’t prepared for. They liked civilized discourse among British pageant players, not on-screen immolation and priests being hung. Star Vincent Price came over figuring he’d walk through another AIP thriller like those he’d done for years in his sleep. Tactless but determined Reeves reshot his way through the actor’s bag of tricks until an exhausted Price finally gave the ice-cold performance he needed. They never got along. Reeves would have preferred Donald Pleasance. One look at Will Penny and you thank God that wish went unfulfilled. Both star and director had compelling arguments. Reeves didn’t want more of a too-familiar face and voice on autopilot from so many routine vehicles. Trouble was he was too impatient and perhaps inarticulate to simply explain what he did want. This was a rushed production after all, and the two men (or more accurately, a man and a boy) could hardly have had less in common on a personal level. Vincent Price reminded his director of greater experience he’d had in films, and indeed, this actor’s way had pleased for three profitable decades. For all that time, Price’s was a benign image despite sinister parts he played. Everything in fun and suitable for the family. His was the friendly face in Sears catalogs promoting art appreciation. American-International’s tenth anniversary found Price acting as genial master of ceremonies at exhibitor confabs where he introduced Beach Party singing regulars. Being told by an upstart kid to abandon every device that had won your audience would at least confuse, and probably alarm, this very set-in-his-ways actor. How would fans react? I knew from nothing about aesthetic contracts upon seeing The Conqueror Worm in 1969, but felt very definitely that Vincent Price had violated ours for making such a picture. Was my response unique, or were others as alienated?
1968 was several years after Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe series limped into closure. Domestic rentals for these had fallen from million plus highs to a piddling $348,000 for Tomb Of Ligeia. Continuation with other directors was worse. War-Gods Of The Deep under Jacques Tournear delivered just $338,000. Admission prices had gone up since these, and AIP was getting better bookings thanks to the runaway success of The Wild Angels. Domestic rentals for The Conqueror Worm approached early Corman standards (but how with a one-sheet as ugly as the one shown here?). Its 1.1 million was fourth highest among the Poes, trailing Pit and The Pendulum (1.474), House Of Usher (1.414), and The Raven (1.2). You could say critics ignored it, but trade reviews were generally okay, that dismissive air of condescension toward all horror films being a customary factor. Perhaps AIP was misguided in selling it as such, but how else? Vincent Price guaranteed business as usual (was this another reason Reeves objected to his casting?), so looking at it from AIP’s viewpoint, the Poe tie-in was a simple economic expediency --- and it worked. In fact, The Conqueror Worm gave new impetus to the company’s ongoing Vincent Price franchise. Too bad for us that Michael Reeves didn’t get to direct The Oblong Box, but it’s unlikely AIP shed tears, for this lazy and perfunctory thriller rode The Conqueror Worm coattails to even greater numbers --- 1.4 million in domestic rentals, despite fewer bookings (8,188) than Worm had (8,766). Retro camp delivered Price from a row of weak sisters he’d done after Worm. The Abominable Dr. Phibes was sold in that backhanded way companies had embraced since Warners struck gold with Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down!). Phibes depicted its star in tender embrace with a rib-tickling poster legend --- Love Means Never Having To Say You’re Ugly. The happy result was 1.8 million in domestic rentals and the best money they’d ever seen for a horror picture. Had Michael Reeves lived to become house director, what might he have done with a property like this?
Anyone with doubts as to Reeves’ contribution with regards Witchfinder General need only refer to what Gordon Hessler delivered with The Oblong Box, Scream and Scream Again, and Cry Of The Banshee (all with Price), or what undistinguished work he did with 1972’s Murders In The Rue Morgue, the sort of listless product that would pretty much kill off AIP horrors for good. The newly released Witchfinder General on DVD rescues the film after decades of neglect. Others tell that story better than I could. Suffice to say we now have something worth looking at (and listening to --- the original musical score is finally back). Reeves’ devotion to Don Siegel was not misplaced. That great action director emphasized movement and tempo in the same way Reeves would in Witchfinder General. This is one lean (and mean!) chiller, and yet there are moments of formal beauty; I’ve seldom seen outdoor locations evoke time and setting as effectively (lots of impressive riding inserts as well). The fact it was done so quickly and at such a low budget makes one regret all the more that Reeves didn’t live longer to stage bigger pictures (but would he have risen to greater challenges?). Boyhood friend Ian Ogilvy played in all three features Reeves directed, yet they seem to have known little of each other outside the work environment. Based on evidence here at hand (Ogilvy with his sports car), the young actor at least appears to have gotten more fun out of working in movies than Reeves ever did. The director boosted sex and violence no more than what his employers sought. American-International arranged for nudity beyond what Reeves had filmed (bringing in another director to shoot footage of topless tavern wenches), as stateside markets were poised as of 1968 to embrace much more explicit on-screen content. The face of horror really was changing. Hammer imports would be henceforth seasoned with nudity as well, and finally The Exorcist would show what fantastic commercial pay-off could flow from hard "R" sensation and all that implied. Witchfinder General was at the vanguard of these. It’s lost none of its capacity to shock. I wonder how jaded viewers of latter-day Saws and Hostels would react to Michael Reeves’ charnel house. Has anyone out there road tested Witchfinder General among younger audiences?
Some UPDATES: Check previous Greenbriar posts for new info recently acquired --- Sunset Boulevard, Ace In The Hole, Brides Of Dracula, and Val Lewton --- Part Two.
And Many Thanks to Lee Pfeiffer and his fabulous Cinema Retro website and magazine (have you subscribed yet? --- it's the greatest!) for the Italian poster image from Witchfinder General.