The troubled young British director Michael Reeves was credited with only three films and then, just as his star was ascending, died at the age 25. But the James Dean comparison doesn’t end there; Reeves’ signature work, Witchfinder General (released in the US as The Conqueror Worm) is a cry for justice from an angry young rebel, a howl so intense it feels like an assault on the viewer.
To work with such a miscreant as Reeves must have been a shock to the system of the affable Vincent Price and it shows; his fierce performance as the corrupt “witchfinder” Matthew Hopkins feels like it was formed in a blast furnace, his usual florid filigrees burned away leaving a rock-hard, pitiless surface.
Hopkins is the ringmaster of a series of brutal murders carried out in the name of religious purification and though Reeves frames these horrors in the most inartful manner possible, they still achieve their own singular power: the scene of a woman burning at the stake, composed with a an unsteady camera and a hyperbolic soundtrack of blood-curdling screams, plays out like a grindhouse version of Day of Wrath.
The Vincent Price Collection, a recent blu-ray set from Shout factory contains (along with Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death) a beautiful transfer of Witchfinder General that brings out all the horrifying beauty of Reeves’ final film.
And here, from this week’s Vincent Price tribute, is Josh Olson on Witchfinder General.