Witchfinder General (THE CONQUEROR WORM) | 1968
Director Michael Reeves wanted Donald Pleasence for the role of Matthew Hopkins, who made a lucrative career in the 17th century searching out witches. The studio insisted on the more bankable Vincent Price, but after a running battle with the veteran star, the 24-year-old director extracted a performance for once more sinister than camp, and produced a genuine English classic, violent, bleak and beautiful.
In the US, distributors attempted to pass off the film as part of the Vincent Price-Edgar Allan Poe series by retitling it The Conqueror Worm – the title of a poem by Poe.
Based on a true story, the film uses the landscapes around Suffolk in East Anglia. John Lowes (Rupert Davies) was the priest at Brandeston, ten miles northeast of Ipswich, who really was tried by water and executed for witchcraft. The film, though, uses St John’s Church, Rushford, about three miles east of Thetford in Norfolk.
The witch burning was filmed on the site of real burnings in the town square of Lavenham, on the A1141, fifteen miles west of Ipswich. The picturesque village can also be seen in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, as ‘Godric’s Hollow’ in Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1971 film of The Canterbury Tales.
The magistrate’s house, site of John Lowes’ trial by water, is the moated Kentwell Hall, Long Melford, on the A134, three miles north of Sudbury, Suffolk – also seen as ‘Toad Hall’ in the 1996 Wind in the Willows. The Hall, built in the 16th century, is open to the public and regularly holds re-creations of Tudor life.
The escape of the Witchfinder’s henchmen is Langley Park, on the A412, north of Slough in Buckinghamshire; while the ambush of the soldiers is the oft-used Black Park, alongside Pinewood Studios, familiar from many Bond and Hammer movies.
The fortified tower, where vengeful Marshall bloodily dispatches Hopkins, is Orford Castle, Orford, about 15 miles east of Ipswich on the B1084 on the River Alde. Built by Henry II around 1173, it was a pretty advanced design for its time, and was an important royal residence until being handed over to the Earl of Norfolk in 1280. It’s now managed by English Heritage and open to the public.