Mind Over Matter: THE SORCERERS (1967)

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Since Michael Reeves unfortunate death in 1969 at the age of 25, the British director’s life has become the stuff of cinematic legend. His reputation as a sort of Byronic hero who challenged the British film establishment was secured when he died much too young due to an accidental drug overdose leaving behind just a handful of low-budget horror films that attained cult status in subsequent years. His distinct talent and the ephemeral nature of his work have led many of Reeve’s colleagues and admirers to speculate on the direction his career might have taken if he had lived longer and it’s not uncommon to see his name mentioned along with better known British filmmakers who also dealt with controversial material including Michael Powell and Ken Russell. Reeves’ bone-chilling WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1969), which explored the brutality of the witch hunts in England during the 17th century, is often cited as one of the greatest and most gruesome horror films produced during the 1960s but his most intimate and introspective film might be THE SORCERERS (1967).

THE SORCERERS was Reeves second film and his first for Tigon, a British film studio established by producer Tony Tenser. Much like its competitors, Hammer and Amicus, Tigon was responsible for releasing and distributing a number of noteworthy genre films before closing its doors in the 1970s. Originally based on a script by John Burke that was adapted for the screen by Michael Reeves and Tom Baker, THE SORCERERS became a pet project for Reeves who managed to convince Boris Karloff to star in the film after the two men met in Madrid where Karloff had just shot a guest appearance for the popular TV series, I SPY. Reeves youthful enthusiasm and appreciation for Karloff’s previous work appealed to the 79-year-old actor who agreed to appear in THE SORCERERS after reading the script but he demanded some changes. Karloff was getting tired of playing villains, monsters and mad men so he insisted that his character should be more sympathetic. Reeves agreed to his request and rewrote the script in an effort to accommodate the actor.

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The plot manages to blend elements of horror and science fiction into a unique concoction that involves Professor Marcus Monserrat (Boris Karloff), an elderly hypnotist who has been forced to live most of his life in isolation with his wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey) thanks to his unusual ideas and questionable medical ethics. The Monserrats reside in a shabby flat but their bleak surroundings hide a secret. The Professor has created a strange contraption that enables the couple to control and experience the sensations of its users but they need a willing test subject who arrives in the form of Mike Roscoe (Ian Ogilvy). Mike is a handsome, well-dressed lad who spends his evenings prowling the streets of Swinging London with his German girlfriend (Élisabeth Ercy) and best pal (Victor Henry). The three hang out in greasy cafes and nightclubs sharing drinks and listening to music but Mike’s become bored with their routine and is eager for new adventures. After a chance encounter on the street, Professor Monserrat manages to convince Mike to try out his new hypnosis machine which allows the old couple to gain control of the young man and manipulate his actions. The Professor’s intentions are benign but his spiteful wife has other plans and she begins using Mike as a surrogate for her greed-fueled longings and murderous desires.

Karloff’s decision to play the sympathetic character may have been a mistake because it gave his costar, the 63-year-old Catherine Lacey, the opportunity to really chew up the scenery as his deeply troubled wife Estelle. Her blood lust and cruelty are profound and she seems to relish every line that she ferociously spits out. Lacey, who made her screen debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES (1938) playing a questionable nun, was apparently unhappy with her performance in THE SORCERERS and she detested the movie. It’s hard to imagine why she decided to disassociate with the film because Lacy is truly marvelous here and I think it provided her with one of the most memorable roles of her career.

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Ian Ogilvy is also well-suited to play the tormented Mike Roscoe, a young charismatic man who isn’t particularly likable but becomes incredibly sympathetic by the film’s end. Ogilvy originally met Michael Reeves when they were just teenagers and they made their first film together when they were both 16-years old. When Reeves began directing professionally he immediately contacted Ogilvy who went on to appear in all three of his films. Many critics and film historians including Robin Wood and Benjamin Halligan have pointed out Ogilvy’s striking resemblance to Reeves. The two were both attractive young men of a similar build who dressed alike and wore their hair in a particular fashion. If you had spotted them on set together you could be forgiven for thinking that they might be brothers. In this regard, Ogilvy can be seen as a stand-in for Reeves who makes his presence particularly felt in THE SORCERERS. Like the young character of Mike Roscoe, director Mike Reeves was also a restless young man eager for new experiences and obviously not afraid to seek them out. The hypnosis machine that lures Roscoe, with its psychedelic lights and synthesizer-like controls, suggests the use of mind-altering drugs that would unfortunately be Reeves’ downfall. It’s worth noting that the director came from a wealthy family that allowed him to pursue his whims and this is reflected in Roscoe’s somewhat cavalier approach to living. Reeves also found himself frequently facing off against hostile or indifferent old men who were either causing him difficulties or trying to derail his career such as the British censors who didn’t appreciate his determination to show the gory results of extreme violence in his films. These are just a few examples of how Ogilvy’s character seems to unintentionally resemble the director, beginning with their corresponding names, but it’s possible that Reeves was consciously (or even unconsciously) projecting much of himself and his own experiences into the complicated character of Mike Roscoe. This kind of personal reflection by chance or by choice makes THE SORCERERS a particularly rich viewing experience for anyone interested in Reeves’ life and work.

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Michael Reeves on the set of WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1969) with its star, Vincent Price.

The film is an interesting observation on the nature of viewer participation and the various ways in which human beings respond to sensory stimulation. Some insist that the film is a critique of the hedonistic 60s that emphasizes the propensity towards violence among youth at the time. I don’t buy into that theory. I tend to believe, as Ian Hunter illustrates in his recent book British Trash Cinema, that THE SORCERERS “sympathised with the young and demonized the Establishment.” This is plainly apparent from the way the elderly characters threaten and torture the youthful Mike and aspire to overpower him. Other critics such as Kim Newman have said that the film offers “. . . a despairing vision, of generations not so much in conflict as collaboration, soullessly feeding each others worst instincts.” While I appreciate Newman’s insightful observation, I think the film’s alliances are much more defined. Maybe it’s because I tend to believe that human nurturing can overcome the basest elements of human nature? In that regard, THE SORCERERS offers up a fascinating look at the way our creators–parents, elders, teachers, etc. –make us in their image, shape us, define our worldview and in this case turn us into cold-blooded killers if the need arises.

By most accounts the film was a labor of love for the 23-year-old director who was forced to use many guerrilla filmmaking techniques during the production due to its limited budget. Streets scenes were shot without permits and real locations were used for the interiors, including the legendary Blaises Club (named after the comic and film character, Modesty Blaise) in London where musical acts such as Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd performed in the 1960s. When they couldn’t get permission to film at a particular location (such as the Dolphin Square Hotel where a pool scene was shot) bribes were used and security eventually let them shoot there. The film’s action sequences were shot without doubles which often put the cast at risk (including the motorcycle racing which was done without helmets) and for the film’s climax involving a car chase that comes to a fiery end, the director and his crew decided to forgo safety measures and proceed without caution. After locating a bomb site in Notting Hill left over from WW2, they doused a 1957 Jaguar with gas and set it on fire. The explosion that followed was so huge that it blew out the windows of nearby buildings and caused many crew members to momentarily lose their hearing. After quickly packing up their equipment, the cast and crew attempted to flee the scene and most escaped without notice but a few crew members had to answer for the major mess they’d created. Thankfully no one was seriously hurt and the scene definitely packs a wallop. Was it worth the risk? I think so!

For decades the film was incredibly hard to see in the US where it languished on bootleg video but in 2012 the Warner Archives made it available on DVD. If you appreciate unusual British horror and science fiction films or just want to see some extreme guerrilla filmmaking in action, I highly recommend making time for THE SORCERERS. It’s a marvelous introduction to the work of Michael Reeves, a young, imaginative and risk taking director who left us much too soon.

Further reading:
Michael Reeves by Benjamin Halligan
Heritage of Horror by David Pirie
Subversive Horror Cinema by Jon Towlson

10 Responses Mind Over Matter: THE SORCERERS (1967)
Posted By James : November 7, 2014 2:43 pm

I haven’t seen The Sorcerers yet(though I certainly want to), but I have read Jon Towlson’s book, and loved it. He examines a certain type of horror film (including all of Reeves’), through the perspective of class and social structures, and the negative effect they can hold over people. His sympathy is with those subverting (and/or suffering from) these problems, and makes the distinction between the subversive horror film, and the reactionary horror film (which supports the status quo of society). Very much in the academic, politic style of Robin Wood’s writing, and very illuminating.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : November 7, 2014 9:07 pm

I watched The Sorcerers about a week before you did and found in it a lot of the same sadness and despair. It certainly can be seen as a footnote to the kind of tragic scientist roles that Karloff played after he left Universal behind, where he invariably went to his death at the fadeout with the hope that humanity had learned from his mistakes. My viewings of the film are easily 40 years apart and I forgot most of what I had seen originally; completely fresh to me was the performance of Catherine Lacey, who rounds that corner between pitiable and fearsome so quickly I thought I’d missed a reel. But, no, that’s the movie’s point, how one thing can so easily become another when things go from actual to virtual.

Posted By george : November 8, 2014 12:21 am

Good, underrated movie. The “Swinging London” aspects gave this the aura of forbidden fruit when I saw it on late-night TV decades ago. Glad there’s a Warner Archive DVD.

“Reeves agreed to his request and rewrote the script in an effort to accommodate the actor.”

Too bad Reeves wasn’t so accomodating with Vincent Price on WITCHFINDER GENERAL. From what I’ve read, he berated Price throughout the filming, treating the veteran actor as a bumbling amateur. Reeves seems to have been an arrogant rich kid who, unfortunately, could afford all the drugs he wanted.

Posted By Jon Towlson : November 8, 2014 2:09 pm

There are a couple more good books on Reeves: John Murray’s “The Remarkable Michael Reeves” which is a detailed biography with lots of interviews with people who knew the director; and Ingrid Cranfield’s memoir, “At Last Michael Reeves”, Cranfield was Reeves’ girlfriend towards the end of his life and writes very revealingly about his last days. Both great books about Reeves’ life and work.

Posted By jbryant : November 10, 2014 9:42 am

I’ll have to seek this out. I’ve seen only WITCHFINDER GENERAL, which I loved. I also had the pleasure of meeting and working with Ian Ogilvy for one evening a few years back, when he played the male lead in a reading of a script I wrote. Unfortunately, I only got to speak to him for a short while during snack time before the reading, and while I told him how much I enjoyed WITCHFINDER, I didn’t get to discuss Reeves with him. But he’s a very nice man and was as handsome as ever at 60-something. I’m surprised he didn’t become a bigger star.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 11, 2014 8:01 am

Thanks for all the comments! They’re appreciated.

Richard – It is a sad film. A very sad film. By the end I felt like crying. The entire thing has a deeply melancholy atmosphere that probably had a lot to do with Reeves’ own battle with depression. You can really sense his sadness here.

George – Not sure where you got the idea that Reeves had “berated Price” and was an “arrogant rich kid.” I haven’t read anything that backs up that assumption. Reeves originally wanted Donald Pleasence for Price’s role in WITCHFINDER and he was upset that the studio insisted he use Price instead. By most accounts Price was rather hard to deal with during the making of WITCHFINDER and Reeves insisted that he tone down the more hammy aspects of his acting and play his role more seriously & severe, which he did. After the film was released Price admitted that Reeves had been right all along and he was thankful that the director managed to get one of his best performances out of him despite their clashes. It’s important to keep in mind that Reeves was constantly battling producers & censors to get his movies made the way he envisioned them so he was undoubtedly a frustrated artist and he also suffered from depression. Some of his associates think his death was a suicide instead of an accidental overdose so he was obviously a deeply troubled young man.

Jon Towlson – Thanks for recommending Ingrid Cranfield’s memoir. I hadn’t heard of the book before but it sounds really intriguing.

jbryant – Thanks for sharing your story about Ian Ogilvy! I’ve always liked him & like you, I’ve wondered why he didn’t become a bigger star because he was a good actor & extremely handsome. I know he was much more popular in the UK but he didn’t have the same kind of success here in the US.

Posted By jbryant : November 12, 2014 11:14 pm

Kimberly: The Wikipedia page for WITCHFINDER GENERAL is packed with anecdotes about run-ins between Reeves and Price on the set. If they’re true, Reeves was vehemently against casting Price, and let Price know it. And Price disagreed with many of Reeves’ methods and was highly frustrated by his apparent inability to communicate what he wanted from his actors. But yes, he did ultimately believe all the conflict resulted in a good film and one of his best performances.

The classic Reeves-Price confrontation has Price asking Reeves, “I’ve made 87 films. What have YOU done?” Reeves’ reply: “I’ve made three good ones.”

Posted By swac44 : November 24, 2014 3:13 pm

I’ve been holding off reading this essay until I could get my copy of The Sorcerers DVD back from a friend, and was glad I could finally catch up with this formerly hard-to-see chapter in ’60s British horror. I didn’t expect the scenes of Karloff and Lacey to pack the punch they did, or that Lacey would turn out to be the real villain, which was a great twist given Karloff’s imperious nature in his opening scenes. The undertones of the elderly couple wishing they could feel young again, and doing it through surrogate Ogilvy, was very well handled I thought, and Reeves’ handling of the action scenes was very deft for a first feature (I have no idea what his involvement was with the previous Castle of the Living Dead, which he was uncredited for, according to IMDb).

Now I need to finally dust off that copy of Reeves’ second feature, The She-Beast with Barbara Steele. I recommend tracking down the Dark Sky edition (with the reddish cover, for around $15) as opposed to the various low-rent PD editions that are floating around.

Posted By Neil Snowdon : March 9, 2015 5:46 pm

The Halligan book is superb, and the UK bluray definitely worth your time. For the completists THIS book details the changes that took place and John Burke’s contribution to the screenplay, which was greatly played downhttp://www.pspublishing.co.uk/the-sorcerers-hc-by-john-burke-1849-p.asp

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 9, 2015 6:47 pm

Thanks for mentioning the John Burke/Johnny Mains book, Neil! It sounds like a fascinating read. For a director who only made three films, it’s amazing how much as been written about Reeves.

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