Director Michael Reeves had made only four films before his accidental death (from a mixture of alcohol and barbiturates) in 1969 at the age of 25. "Witchfinder General," released in the U.S. by American International under the title "The Conqueror Worm" (in attempt to pass it off as part of AIP's Edgar Alan Poe series), is his masterpiece.
The film is also notable for being perhaps the finest performance of horror icon Vincent Price, who was cast against the wishes of Reeves, who wanted Donald Pleasence for the role. Price and Reeves clashed on the set, with the young director demanding that Vincent not "ham it up," as the veteran actor had a tendency to overplay to the point of self-parody. Price challenged the young auteur, "Young man, I have made eighty-four films. What have you done?"
To which Reeves replied: "I've made three good ones."
Reeves was a master at achieving his directorial vision despite budgetary limitations, or an affronted star. Price's acting in the film is a testament to the wisdom of Reeves, as the veteran thespian imbues the character of Matthew Hopkins, the Witch hunter of the title, with pure malevolence without a trace of camp.
Based on the novel by Ronald Bassett, the story is set in 17th century England, where the Royalists of King George battle Oliver Cromwell's Parliamentary Party for the soul of the nation. In the countryside, old superstitions still hold sway over the populace, allowing Hopkins and his sadistic henchman John Stearne to travel from town to town, collecting tidy sums and the odd sexual favor, for persecuting the local witches. When Hopkins hangs a priest, and has his way with the man's niece, the girl's fiancee, Cromwellian soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvie) swears vengeance. Risking court martial by abandoning his military duties, Marshall sets out to destroy the power-mad Hopkins.
Reeves maintains a dark tone and a breathless pace throughout, as Marshall is constantly racing towards confrontation with Hopkins on his mighty steed, seeking to mete out savage justice. The ending is particularly bleak, and the film itself was condemned by many contemporary critics as being overly violent. British film critic Alan Bennett called it "the most persistently sadistic and morally rotten film I have seen," but while the characters of Hopkins and Sterne can be described that way, the message of the film is quite the opposite. Reeves condemns the actions of the villains, and in a way, the bitter evenge of the hero as well.
In the years since its release, "Witchfinder General" has come to be regarded as a classic, and its influence led to such films as Ken Russell's "The Devils," "Cry of the Banshee," and "The Oblong Box," an actual Poe adaptation that Reeves was working on at the time of his death. According to Wikipedia, Michael Reeves "was suffering from depression and insomnia, for which he took tablets and received a variety of treatments from medical and psychiatric practitioners. On the morning of February 11, 1969, Reeves was found dead in his bedroom, in Cadogan Place, Knightsbridge, by his cleaning lady."
It is intriguing to postulate what kind of a career Reeves might have had if he had lived. He wanted to branch out from the horror genre, although the four films he left behind - "The Sorcerers" (1967, with Boris Karloff), "The She Beast" (1966, with Barbara Steele), "The Castle of Living Dead" (1964, with Christopher Lee), and "Witchfinder General" - make him of one of the most distinctive horror filmmakers ever.