Tag Archives: Cult Classics

The Conqueror Worm

Halloween is my favorite holiday and the bounty of horror movies provided by Turner Classic Movies still fills my DVR.  I am slowly working my way through the backlog.

Most recently I watched the 1968 film The Conqueror Worm staring Vincent Price.  The movie was originally release in Great Britain under the title The Witchfinder General, but was changed for its US release in an attempt to connect it with other Edgar Allen Poe inspired films that were popular at the time.  The movie has nothing to do with the works of Poe and The Witchfinder General is a much better title, but I’ll stick with the title used by TCM.

The story is set during the English Civil War and opens with a screaming old woman being drug to a gallows by a crowd.  She struggles and screams as they force the noose over her head and kick the stool away, hanging her as a witch.  The movie then cuts to another scene where we meet the hero, Richard Marshall, a dashing young cavalry officer in Cromwell’s army.  Marshall is in love with Sarah, the niece of a village priest who has fallen into disfavor with the local folks who suspect him of being a royalist and papist.  The priest, fearing for his niece’s safety, gives his blessing to the marriage of Sarah and Marshall and urges him to return as soon as his duties will permit.

Vincent Price plays Matthew Hopkins, the witchfinder who has been empowered to put accused witches to the question and execute them.  For this service he receives a generous payment from the local magistrate.  His henchman is John Stearne, a sadistic brute with no pretensions about their holy mission.  They arrive in the village just after Marshall has left and torture the priest.  Both rape Sarah, who submits in the hopes that her uncle will be spared, but in the end they hang the priest and two others before leaving town.  Marshall returns too late and swears vengeance against Hopkins.

This is a chillingly atmospheric movie.  The locations are good at capturing the feel of the time period and the costuming looked good to my non-expert eye.  Vincent Price turns in a compelling performance as the witchfinder, playing him as a man of noble bearing who begins the movie with some semblance of belief in his mission, but who discards these illusions as the story progresses.  In the end Hopkins knows there is nothing to himself but an evil, lustful, greedy villain, and he is all the more disturbing because of how comfortable he is with it.  Price had developed a reputation for over-the-top and campy performances, but there is none of that in the reserved menace of Hopkins.  This is the Price of his earlier films, such as The Masque of the Red Death.

There are no supernatural forces at work in this film, the horror comes from the lusts of Hopkins and Stearne and the thuggery of the villagers who make the accusations.  All this is magnified by the detached acceptance of the people, and this is where the true horror lies.

In most horror stories civilization serves as the light in the midst of the chaos.  The village is the beacon of hope, its villagers offering warnings and what protection they can to the protagonists.  The horror lies in the ruined castle of the mad scientist or vampire nobleman.  It’s in the lost catacombs and dungeon vaults. Civilization is what the protagonists fight to protect and where they seek shelter.

Not so here.  The horror of The Conqueror Worm comes from civilization.  It is civilization that sanctions and pays the witchfinder.  It is civilization that makes the accusations.  It is civilization that spawned the war that makes the others possible.  Most horrifying of all, it is the members of civilization who have become so desensitized that they don’t care, watching with a detached eye as the victims are tormented and the people in power struggle with each other.  They are content to watch with disdain as the world descends into hell, caring only for their own lives and wanting nothing to do with the rest.

The civilization of The Conqueror Worm offers no sanctuary, no aid, and no hope.  The heroes are on their own.

This is a wonderfully grim tale.  For its time the depictions of torture and nudity were considered shocking. Even today the film is unnerving for its stark realism.  Today’s movies provide more graphic sadism but have lost all sense of scope, creating scenes of fantasy that are more gross that grotesque.  A movie like Saw will repulse you, but a movie like The Conqueror Worm will unnerve you because the horrors it shows are believable, carried out by average people instead of a superhuman villain.

The Conqueror Worm and Gaming:

The Conqueror Worm is perfect viewing for fans of games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Cthulhu Dark Ages, or Ars Magica.  This is a world where war has broken down the elements of society, where greed and zealotry combine, where the populace are numb to the point of uncaring, and the city offers no solace to the adventurers.  Turning conventions on their heads, the characters may find more safety in facing the dangers of dungeon delving, preferring the direct horrors of forgotten monsters and ancient traps over the risks of jealous townspeople and ruthless fanatics.

What a twist it would be for a party of mid-level adventures to take refuge in a megadungeon, using it as their sanctuary against the forces of the Witchfinder General.



Posted by on November 18, 2013 in Movies & TV


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I love October.  Halloween is my favorite holiday and the movie selections available this month are enough to make my hard drive beg for mercy.  Turner Classic Movies, always one of my favorite networks for frightful films, has really been knocking them out of the park this year.

Among the classics they’ve been showing is the 1932 movie Vampyr by director Carl Dreyer.  Produced in German and French, this movie is known for its heavy atmosphere and creative filming tricks that create an eerie dreamlike quality.  The original masters of the film were lost long ago, resulting in poor quality and heavily edited versions being released.  But new restoration techniques have done wonders and in 2008 the Criterion Collection released a two-disc edition of the complete German version of the film.

The story of Vampyr is a straight-forward affair.  Allan Gray is a student of the occult who happens upon the village of Courtempierre where he seeks lodging for the night.  He wakes before dawn to find a strange and disturbed nobleman in his room.  The man urgently tells him that, “she must not die,” then leaves him a sealed package with the instructions to open it upon the event of his death.  He then leaves.

Gray exits the inn and has a series of ghostly encounters, including entering a coffin maker’s shop where he sees spirits on the walls, a one legged guard whose shadow can leave him, a mysterious doctor, and a strange old crone.  Once back outside he is lead by more spirits to the manor of the man who had visited him during the night, where he witnesses the guard’s shadow shoot the man.  Gray, now enmeshed in the story of the family, meets the staff and the deceased man’s two daughters, one of whom is under the curse of a vampire.

The story itself is a straight forward and good, if predictable, affair.  Events unfold in front of our protagonist rather than as a result of his actions and the final resolution is handed to the characters through the book contained in the package left by the deceased father, a book that Gray is repeatedly interrupted while reading.  In truth, the plot of Vampyr is unremarkable.

What is remarkable is the atmosphere Dreyer conjurers.  He makes great use of shadows, including scenes where the silhouettes of musicians and dancers are seen on the wall though the camera has panned over an empty room.  Shadows lead Gray from one strange encounter to another, as if the spirits of those claimed by the vampire and her minions are seeking revenge.  Shadows also offer menace through the one-legged guard, who uses his shadow to assassinate the nobleman’s father.

Dreyer also used tricks like double exposures to create other spectral effects, such as a girl dancing along the shore, seen only as a reflection in the river beneath an empty riverbank, or the vengeful spirit of the murdered father coming back for the vampire’s henchmen.  The biggest use of these tricks is an extended scene where Gray leaves his body, his astral form seeing a mix of the villains’ current actions and a dream of his own body being placed in a coffin and carried to the graveyard.  The coffin has a glass pane over the corpse’s face and we see much of the scene as if we were lying in the casket, looking up at the passing trees and looming church steeple.

There are plenty of ideas to inspire gamers.  The movie focuses more on the vampire’s henchmen, who seem to be less dominated by magic than by the allure of evil.  This gives them more agency than a character like Dracula’s Renfield.  The shadow spirits, leading the investigator on, but whose motives are unclear is also a good trope, as is the guard’s use of his shadow as an agent for murder.  And while the use of the book is one of the weaknesses of the plot, the information gleaned from it is both a good dose of vampire lore and an example of the value of a good investigation skill.

Though it lacks the horror of Nosferatu, the dreamlike quality of Vampyr is sure to please, making it a must-see for fans of early cinema and classic monster films.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Dreyer also directed the masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, another film no fan of early cinema should miss.

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Posted by on October 16, 2013 in Horror, Movies & TV, Reviews


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Favorite Immortal or Outsider

Day 18 of the 30 Day D&D Challenge.

Today’s question:

18. What is your Favorite Immortal?

“I am Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. I was born in 1518 in the village of Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel. And I am immortal.”

Running back to the outer planes, I’m going to go with the demon lord Orcus.

With his goat-like appearance, his rod of death, and claiming dominion over all undead, Orcus is an outstanding combination of classic demon imagery and fantasy notions.  His massive size and bloated form further combines power with decadence, as befits a demon.  I’m not sure why later editions began drawing Orcus as if he’d gotten a gym membership and a celebrity pharmacist to supply all his steroid needs.  Give me the classic Orcus any day.

Though I must admit to having one other favorite immortal.  Hey, I can’t be the only one whose gaming group kit-bashed rules for playing Highlander.

An immortal’s got to pay the bills too.


Posted by on September 18, 2013 in Gaming, Movies & TV


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Sumer Is Icumen In!

Exciting news by way of the Greyhawk Grognard!

The Wicker Man is coming out in a restored edition with additional footage!  No, not that freakishly bad remake, the original cult classic suspense horror starring Sir Christopher Lee and Edward Woodward.  Even better, some lucky folks will get to see it in a real theater!  I am not that lucky, so I’ll have to wait for the DVD release.

The Wicker Man is a kind of horror that is rarely seen these days, at least in movies made in the United States.  It focuses on weirdness and suspense with a slow burn with a pacing that most audiences today would find boring.  This is not a movie you go and see on a Friday night with the gang, this is a movie you catch coming on at 1:00 AM Sunday morning, when you’re all alone, and you stay up way to late so you can watch it.  This is a movie whose ending isn’t a jump-scare that excites you, it’s one that crawls into your brain and sits there and every now and then it’ll wave at you.  Usually when you’re going to sleep, or on a long drive home, or anytime you go to hear a madrigal choir.

I used to sing in a lot of choirs.  I have a very different take on madrigals now, thanks to this movie.

If you’re looking for a creepy story and not a thrill ride, something that messes with your perceptions instead of jolting your heart, The Wicker Man is an excellent candidate.

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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Movies & TV


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