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.