A Nasty Little Piece of Work

When I was a kid, I saw a lot of movies. The military bases all had a discount theater showing second-run films – though I didn’t know they were second-run at the time. Back in those days, we didn’t have the access to instant information and I didn’t know about films when they were released. So I would go to the base theater maybe three times a week, a quarter clutched in my paw, to see whatever was showing. I was pretty much an adult before I realized they didn’t play the Star-Spangled Banner (and everyone stand) before every movie. The rating system wasn’t really up to speed either, so it was pretty much hit and miss.

So I saw that they were going to show a movie called The Conqueror Worm. I would have been eleven or twelve. By that time I had read all of Edgar Allen Poe’s work and was familiar with the poem.

The Conqueror Worm, illustration by Frantisek Kupka

The Conqueror Worm – Edgar Allen Poe

  • LO! ‘t is a gala night
  • Within the lonesome latter years.
  • An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
  • In veils, and drowned in tears,
  • Sit in a theatre to see
  • A play of hopes and fears,
  • While the orchestra breathes fitfully
  • The music of the spheres.
  • Mimes, in the form of God on high,
  • Mutter and mumble low,
  • And hither and thither fly;
  • Mere puppets they, who come and go
  • At bidding of vast formless things
  • That shift the scenery to and fro,
  • Flapping from out their condor wings
  • Invisible Woe.
  • That motley drama—oh, be sure
  • It shall not be forgot!
  • With its Phantom chased for evermore
  • By a crowd that seize it not,
  • Through a circle that ever returneth in
  • To the self-same spot;
  • And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
  • And Horror the soul of the plot.
  • But see amid the mimic rout
  • A crawling shape intrude:
  • A blood-red thing that writhes from out
  • The scenic solitude!
  • It writhes—it writhes!—with mortal pangs
  • The mimes become its food,
  • And over each quivering form
  • In human gore imbued.
  • Out—out are the lights—out all!
  • And over each quivering form
  • The curtain, a funeral pall,
  • Comes down with the rush of a storm,
  • While the angels, all pallid and wan,
  • Uprising, unveiling, affirm
  • That the play is the tragedy, “Man,”
  • And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

Oh yeah, that’s the stuff pre-teens should be reading, classic literature. It’s a miracle I ever went to sleep.

At any rate, I went to see the movie and was a bit disappointed to find out it had nothing to do with the poem or Poe in any way. It was a British production called Witchfinder General, staring Vincent Price. The title was changed and a tiny bit of Price narration at the beginning and end were tacked on to make a slim connection with American International’s string of cheap Poe pictures, directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. Those movies were campy, almost funny, spoofs of the horror genre. I had seen them already.

What I saw that day was something completely different. It was horrifying.

It’s over forty years later and I still remember most of that film. I remember the opening where the man is building the gallows out in the English Countryside. The basic plot (such as it is), the torture scenes, and the bleak hopeless ending all stuck with me, hanging on from my impressionable youth.

The film pretty much disappeared from existence. There were some bad, grainy, cut VHS transfers, a German version (with added nudity), and various versions here and there, but the original Witchfinder General was out of my reach. I did read about the film, and learn some of its history.

It was directed by Michael Reeves, a promising young director that had a bright future. For now, though, he was making low budget horror films. For Witchfinder General he wanted Donald Pleasance, but the studio insisted on Vincent Price. He thought Price was too broad and hammy and fought to get him to moderate his performance.

The story is that Price hated this and finally bellowed, “I have made eighty four films, what have you done?”

Reeves replied, “I have made two good ones.”

Later, once the film came out, Price understood what Reeves had wanted and went on to acknowledge that it was his best performance – full of quiet, understated evil.

The film received terrible reviews in England. It was considered grotesque. Playwright Alan Bennett said it was “the most persistently sadistic and morally rotten film I have seen. It was a degrading experience by which I mean it made me feel dirty.” In the United States, however, the critics mostly ignored the film and it went on to modest success (no doubt aided by hordes of underaged Poe-reading moviegoers).

Not only was it Vincent Price’s best performance but it was Micael Reeves’ masterpiece. He died at the age of twenty five of a barbituate overdose a few months after the movie’s release.

After discovering this and other juicy details in the intervening decades since I saw the thing, I was filled with a dark desire to see it again. I was glad when a newly restored version showed up on the Netflix Instant Queue. And it was pretty much as I remembered it. A nasty little piece of work.

It did have a surprisingly pleasant soundtrack. The “love theme” is a good example of lush classical music for film.

The movie is a simple story of Matthew Hopkins, a self-appointed Witchfinder General that roamed the countryside during the war between Cromwell and the Royalists. He would torture and execute witches for a fee – and he was good at his job. The hero of the story is a soldier who is in love with a beautiful young woman that falls into the Witchfinder’s clutches.

Most of the graphic horror is in the methods used to determine if the subject is a witch. For your education, here is a little documentary that shows the real historical methods of detecting witchcraft.

Since rewatching Witchfinder General/The Conqueror Worm, I had been thinking about the reaction to the film. It is a horror film, and maybe a tad graphic for its time – but it isn’t anything like a modern Saw or Chainsaw Massacre – though it shows a lot, at the most horrible instants, the camera cuts away. It is nowhere near as graphic as it seems to be, or as its reputation suggests.

It didn’t take much thought to realize the reason. Most horror films (even modern ones) have moments of humor, or reduced tension, or even winking at the camera. They have built in mechanisms to release the tension during the film. Witchfinder General does not do that. It is relentless. It presents an entire world – historically accurate, it talks about the anarchy that reined during the English Civil War – without rules, without mercy, without hope. The gorgeously filmed countryside is populated with evil men preying on the population’s fear, greed, and base desire for blood. There is madness loose in the world and there is no hope in resisting its inevitable victory, one way or another.

That is why the movie is so horrible and horribly effective at what it does.

BFI Screenonline – Witchfinder General (1968)

Michel Reeves: Witchfinder General

1968 New York Times Review of Conqueror Worm

Trailers from Hell – Witchfinder General/Conqueror Worm

Film Review The Conqueror Worm (1968)

The Conqueror Worm / Witchfinder General / Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General (1968) ***½