EXCLUSIVE: Nicolas Winding Refn and UK-based producer-distributor Rupert Preston are pulling together a passion project, acquiring the remake rights to Michael Reeves’ 1968 Witchfinder General. Re-titled The Conqueror Worm in its U.S. debut at the time, the historical horror drama became a cult favorite. Refn, who will produce and not direct, and Preston are developing the redo — the former via his Space Rocket Nation, in which he is partnered with Lene Borglum, and the latter under his new banner, Sunrise Films, in which he is partnered with Nigel Williams. Vertigo Releasing will handle UK distribution.

Nicolas Winding RefnWitchfinder General starred Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy and Hilary Dwyer and was based on Ronald Bassett’s novel (see orignal trailer below). Set in Norfolk, England, in 1645, it was a fictionalized study of real-life witch hunter Matthew Hopkins and the heinous crimes he committed during the English Civil War. Torture and violence featured heavily in the original film, which stirred controversy, and the censors, in the UK. In the U.S., it played drive-ins and grindhouses and ultimately gained cult status. Director Reeves died within a year of its release. The Telegraph has called the British Reeves “our directorial James Dean, our lost auteur of Sixties nihilism, Hitchcock’s vanished heir.”

The producers are speaking to writers and directors for the $5M-$10M budgeted picture, which will be sold by Protagonist internationally. Refn says a key question has been whether to completely contemporize the story given its real-life roots in the 17th century. The director, who is in Cannes with The Neon Demon, says he sees Reeves as a sort of version of himself, going “against the kitchen sink” and wants to do justice to what he believes was already a “very visual and contemporary film” which he calls “fascinating in its physical and emotional violence.”

The plan is to go into production next year with a view to bringing a new audience to the story.

Refn credits Preston with helping to put him on the map with his 1996 debut Pusher. The Danish helmer tells me that at the time, he couldn’t get the film shown outside of Copenhagen because the genre was “not in vogue” in the mid-’90s. But Preston attended a screening at Mifed, with only one other person, and quickly hopped aboard UK distribution rights. That led to Refn going to London to do press, giving him much wider exposure and being “legitimized.” After that, Preston released all of Refn’s movies up until Drive, also producing 2008’s Bronson.

Refn remarks that loyalty is important to him and that he’d been keen to hook up with his friend as co-producers. Both have a deep fondness for Reeves’ original work and spent time securing the remake rights from Tigon Films. “It’s kind of full circle,” he says, noting that he didn’t want to lose the connection with Preston in this “crazy business.”

This further step into horror follows The Neon Demon and the Refn-produced Maniac Cop remake, which is in the works with director John Hyams.

Here’s the original trailer for Witchfinder General: