Color, 1968, m.
Directed by Michael Reeves
Starring Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Hilary Dwyer, Nicky Henson, Patrick Wymark
Odeon (Blu-Ray) (UK R0 HD), MGM (US R1 NTSC), Prism (UK R0 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

American International Pictures pulled some pretty shady shenanigans on moviegoers after striking gold with their Vincent Price/Edgar Allan Poe cycle in the early '60s. To pull in extra cash, they tried dressing up H.P. Lovecraft as Poe (The Haunted Palace) and used a few lines from one of Poe's poems to create a fantasy comedy (The Raven), but nothing quite compares to what they did to Witchfinder General, the third and greatest film from tragic and gifted young British director Michael Reeves (The She-Beast, The Sorcerers), who committed suicide at the age of 25. AIP promptly retitled the film for American audiences as The Conqueror Worm, slapped on a Vincent Price reading of Poe's poem over the opening sequence, and voila! Needless to say, the brutal and unsparing film inside shocked quite a few moviegoers, and it was even cut significantly in the UK due to the harshness of its violence. Though not really explicit, the brutality here is still startling today as the film careens to its nasty conclusion, which leaves no one (including the viewer) unscatched.

Providing eternal ammunition against critics of his more flamboyant horror performances, Vincent Price turns in a terrifying and utterly serious turn here as Matthew Hopkins, a witch hunter during England's civil upheaval as the Royalist grapple for political control. He tours the countryside trying and torturing citizens accused of witchcraft, leaving little but death and despair in his wake. Meanwhile young soldier Richard Marshall (And Now the Screaming Starts' Ogilvy) arrives to spend some time with his fiancee, Sara (The Oblong Box's Dwyer), whose reverend uncle (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave's Davies) is one of Hopkins' latest targets. Soon Hopkins and Marshall square off in a protracted game of wits and nerve that culminates in a violent final confrontation.

Though set during 1645 in the time of Oliver Cromwell (who even makes an appearance in the film portrayed by Patrick Wymark), Conqueror Worm is obviously an angry youth film reacting to the turbulent world events unfolding in 1968. It's still shocking to see genial horror icon Price letting loose here with his nastiest film portrayal, and the film's potency led to a string of much more explicit imitations like Mark of the Devil and The Bloody Judge. However, the film was also impossible to see in anything resembling what we would now term a "director's cut;" two tavern scenes were shot in both clothed and topless versions (the latter imposed by the producers, who tried a similar gambit with Curse of the Crimson Altar), the American version was tampered with as mentioned before, and various violent bits were trimmed out all around the world. When MGM inherited the AIP library, they issued the film in its longest variant at the time (with the Poe changes, natch) and the nudie shots but, as with several other problematic AIP titles, had to replace the music score with a dreary new synth replacement. The original music by regular Reeves composer Paul Ferris (who pops up onscreen, too) is an integral part of the film, but for many years American couldn't hear it even when MGM got around to finally issuing a VHS version early in the DVD era.

Meanwhile British consumers (and happy importers) were better served by the first DVD incarnation from Metrodome, which featured an okay transfer of the edited UK version as well as the alternate continental version with additional violence and bare flesh; however, the restored footage was pulled from a dupier one-inch tape source and didn't make for ideal viewing. On the other hand, this disc did contain some nifty extras including the Eurotika! TV episode "Revenge of the Blood Beast" about Reeves (including interviews with Ogilvy and other collaborators), a hefty image gallery, trailers for this film and The Sorcerers, liner notes by Kim Newman, and an odd goth music video by Cathedral. This same disc was issued as part of Anchor Bay UK's now-discontinued The Tigon Collection.

After seemingly endless delays and constant fan demands, MGM finally slotted the film for an HD restoration in 2007 that made its DVD debut with all violence intact, the clothed tavern scenes, the original score, and far better picture quality all around. As with most of their other AIP hi-def masters, the image quality is very fresh, crisp, and colorful, with just a smattering of edge enhancement (noticeable in a few scenes with actors in dark clothes standing against a bright outdoor sky) in what is otherwise a presentation about as good as NTSC could handle. The US disc (also included in MGM's Vincent Price Scream Legends Collection) features a completely different set of extras, namely a new making-of video featurette (including Kim Newman, covering some of the same ground as his earlier notes rather eloquently) and a solid audio commentary with Ogilvy and producer Philip Waddilove.

Though MGM (as distributed through Fox) seems completely uninterested in mining its horror catalog on Blu-Ray beyond the late '70s, Odeon has come to the rescue in the UK with a superlative all-region release that's easily the best of all possible options. The MGM logo at the beginning is a tip-off that this is indeed from the same restored director's cut element made for the earlier release, but the boost in resolution here is very welcome as you can now count the hairs on Dwyer's head and make out minute texture details in the military uniforms. Some of the earlier edge enhancement is still in evidence here in the same spots (watch out when Price gets framed from low angles outdoors), a factor inherent in MGM's master, but it's a very minor distraction in an otherwise satisfying visual experience. The audio is also pin-sharp, with Ferris' score sounding clear and robust. It should be noted that a small handful of element flaws (two unsteady shots in the prologue and some debris in the credits) have been there long before the MGM restoration. The alternate tavern scenes and US opening and closing credits (with the Poe readings) are included as extras, the latter in HD, and the trailer, gallery, and Eurotika! episode are carried over here from the earlier UK disc. However, you also get some great new extras, kicking off with a new commentary with film writer Benjamin Halligan (who penned a fascinating book about Reeves) and producer Michael Armstrong (who, of course, went on to the infamous Mark of the Devil) who do a thorough job of talking about the film, the witch-hunting horror subgenre, Reeves' path to directing and short but fascinating career, and the relationships of the actors to this troubled material. This all comes from a very different angle than the Ogilvy commentary, and the two balance each other nicely with Halligan in particular offering some intriguing readings on the film. Also included is a charming 10-minute Vincent Price appearance on the British talk/variety show Aspel & Company (in which he talks about being mistaken for Boris Karloff and some of his career highlights), the odd but stylish Reeves short film "Intrusion" (with or without commentary as well), and a flashy 24-minute TV episode of Bloody Crimes, "Witchcraft," about the grisly real-life incidents related to this film. All of the extras are presented in anamorphic widescreen, which is a little odd in the case of Aspel but not ruinous since it's just shots of two men sitting in chairs. All in all, it's a terrific treat for horror fans from Odeon, who will hopefully consider Blood on Satan's Claw as their next Blu-Ray upgrade.

Reviewed on 6/1/11.