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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

At Long Last Conquering The Worm

If ever there was a horror film that was truly horrible, then The Conqueror Worm was truly it, at least for me. I came upon it first on May 31, 1969. Not up to then, or since, was I so emotionally spent by a film --- pummeled to a point of declaring it the worst picture made to that date. Certainly no Poe thriller with Vincent Price had sunk so low. The panning review shown here was my childish expression of disapproval in our local newspaper, for which I was permitted to review movies at  ages fourteen and fifteen. The Conqueror Worm played 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. I realize how lucky I was to be there that day, whatever the resentment I felt toward The Conqueror Worm. I'd self-medicate by damning Michael Reeves’ final film and even tossing into the attic a pressbook Colonel Forehand gave me soon after the playdate. 

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 life events that might justify such attitudes. Reeves didn’t stay long enough to find out about any of that. He had brashly barged in on Don Siegel (at his home) to express admiration and ask for work. On that account, I could identify with the young man, for I invaded Siegel’s office space at Universal when I was a student at USC in 1975, but that’s a story 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 encountered several years prior to The Conqueror Worm. 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 needed. They never got along. Reeves would have preferred Donald Pleasance. 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 the director of his greater experience doing films, and indeed, Price’s way had pleased for three decades. For all that time, his was a benign image despite sinister parts he played. Everything in fun and suitable for the family. Price 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 much that Vincent Price 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, their dismissive air toward all horror films being a customary factor. Vincent Price assured 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 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 need only look at what Gordon Hessler did with The Oblong Box, Scream and Scream Again, and Cry Of The Banshee (all with Price), or result that came of 1972’s Murders In The Rue Morgue, the sort of cluck that would kill off AIP horrors for good. The newly released Witchfinder General on DVD rescues the film after decades of neglect. 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, yet there are moments of formal beauty; I’ve seldom seen outdoor locations evoke time and setting so effectively. The fact it was done quickly and on a low budget makes it all a more regrettable that Reeves didn’t live to stage bigger productions. 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 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 has 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 Cinema Retro website and magazine for the Italian poster image from Witchfinder General.


Blogger la peregrina said...

I saw The Conquering Worm at a theater when I was about 15 years- old. Well, I saw some of it. I was so affected by what was happening on the screen I had to leave way short of the half way mark. I can not begin to describe how upsetting this movie was for me at the time. I don't think I will be watching it again anytime soon.

9:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw this at the State Theatre in Shelby, N.C. when I was about 8 or 9 years old with my three siblings. Three of us left the movie crying, upset by the images still on the screen. My oldest brother watched the rest of the film, allegedly unfazed, while we waited in the lobby. This is one of three films that freaked me out as a kid (along with "The Birds" and "The Snorkel".) Haven't seen it since, but at least I now know we were not alone.

9:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am 25 years old, and just watched the movie last night on netflix. I knew little about it, thinking it to be just one of the British AIP Price productions. I was shocked to find myself feeling very squeamish in several scenes, especially ones where the primary female character is in peril.

11:15 AM  

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