Soho is changing so much at the moment, from the cultural heart of London to a playground for the rich with luxury apartments, that in a few years time there won’t be any sign of the film industry left there. Even now it is hard to imagine that fifty years ago Soho thrived on a healthy and successful British cinema scene. From larger prestige David Lean-type projects to the relentless churning out the Carry On movies, Britain made films that the British, and the rest of the world, wanted to see. Okay, maybe no one outside these shores wanted to see the Carry On movies, but then Sid James was never going to translate to an American audience was he?
Within this era was huge scope for the horror film. Of course there was Hammer and its gothic leanings, but there was also lots of room for talented and determined film makers to breath. One of the most talented was Michael Reeves.
Everyone knows that Witchfinder General is one of the greatest British horror movies ever made. It is with a heavy heart that we must watch it knowing that Reeves was never to make another film. Sometimes I like to think about that parallel universe where Reeves went on to make more pictures, and how exciting they would have been. Whilst the Hammer films were still very much a product of the past, Witchfinder General was doing at about the same time what American movies were starting to do. They might seem so different but Witchfinder shares a strong worldview with films such as Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde: that rebellious mood and gritty feel. Although everyone was dressed in 17th century garb, the violence was modern, the anger towards authority real. Reeves was continuing to develop intense, dark horror after his third film and its fascinating to think what he would have done next. Would he have pushed British film towards the realism it needed to survive in the American dominated seventies? Perhaps not, maybe he was never mainstream enough to become widely popular: its hard to believe but the reviews were not kind to Witchfinder General upon its release. We will never know.
All we are left with are the three films he did make.
The Sorcerers is a weird little movie, as much a time capsule of the thoughts prevalent of the time as it is a picture postcard of swinging sixties London and its dark underbelly. Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey play a seemingly sweet old couple whiling away their retirement in a shabby London flat. However they have invented some kind of hypnotising machine that only mad professors in films would do. Tracking down a bored young man, Ian Ogilvy, they put him under their machine’s spell. They are able to control him at will without him being aware of it, let alone being able to stop it. They can also feel what he feels. At first this seems harmless enough, getting him to break an egg and feeling the sensation of yolk running down their arms, getting him to go for a swim and loving the water flowing over their frail, old bodies. However, Lacey spots a fur coat she falls in love with and the two of them make Ogilvy break into the shop and steal it. Karloff is horrified when Ogilvy is almost caught but Lacey gets a thrill out of it and her stronger mind soon starts dominating the poor man’s actions with Karloff unable to stop her. Of course all this power corrupts Lacey too much too quickly and she’s soon on a dangerous and bloody rampage using the avatar at her command. In fact its just like Avatar but with old people instead of Sam Worthington, Ogilvy instead of blue cats and 1960’s London instead of an alien world.
And yet London in 1967 IS an alien world. I’ve lived here all my life and I remember the London seen here from my childhood in the seventies but now its a different place altogether. Telephone boxes, underground clubs, dark Victorian passageways… most of them have gone now. Even then the London Reeves filmed wasn’t quite the wild and happy city people like to think it was. Young girls lived in seedy bedsits, easily preyed upon by bad men. There may have been a scene man, but most people still worked in shitty jobs and ate in greasy spoons. Ogilvy is the coolest character in the film, young, handsome, can ride a Triumph Bonneville like there’s no tomorrow, but even he works in what is either the worst antique store in the world or a brick a’ brac shop. Its called The Glory Hole. I think perhaps that meant something else back then, although the only customer who comes in is clearly a homosexual so perhaps not.
Then there is our old couple. They are bitter and angry that they have not been successful in their lives, the machine they invent gives them a chance to prove the world wrong and to do good for by it, but instead they squander their discovery. On the one hand they are trying to control the youth, bend them to their ways. But on the other they want to experience what it is like to be young again, or young at all. In their day, The Sorcerers wouldn’t of had a swinging sixties to experience: no free love, experimental drugs or revolutionary music. When they are given the free reign to control the youth all they can do is destroy it. Maybe its having lived as a woman through the violence of two world wars, Lacey’s character only sitting on the benches whilst the men act out their murderous ways. When she is given the chance to do what she wants, she wants to feel what it is like to break another man’s jaw, to take away someone’s life my squeezing it out of them. The older generation who might seem twee and old fashioned but it is them, not the modern and hip youth of London, who have blood on their hands.
The Sorcerers is more dated than Reeves’ classic, maybe partly because it is set firmly at a contemporary time and place, unlike Witchfinder General with its historical context. But it does share similar themes of the old or the establishment corrupting the young or the different through violence. Using horror icons like Vincent Price and here Boris Karloff helps sell this idea. It also gave both men some of their best work. Karloff spends ninety percent of this film in a small flat shouting at an old woman but its a reminder of what a versatile actor the man who brought Frankenstein’s monster to life with barely a word could be.
One of Reeves’ great strengths was in his ability to bring out good performances from his cast, obviously with the old ham Price (if you don’t know THAT story please look it up) but besides Karloff, Lacey brings a demented madness to her role as the quiet mouse of a woman, having spent her life in the shadow of a supposed genius, now in complete control of him and his work. Well at least until the bitter, dark ending that is. Then there’s Ian Ogilvy who was always a bit of an underrated actor, he gives some of his best work here (and in Witchfinder General), a cold remote young man, too cool for his girlfriend or best mate, suddenly finding himself no longer in control of his actions.
The Sorcerers is cheap and yes a bit trashy with nods to Peeping Tom in its violence and London scene, but it was also a huge progression towards making Reeves’ third film, his masterpiece and his last completed work.
Michael Reeves was found dead in his London flat at the age of 25, having done more in his short life than most people have done in three times that. I was always under the impression that he had killed himself, he’s mostly reported as such. But looking back at the original coroner’s report it is clear that he did nothing of the sort. He suffered greatly from insomnia (something I also have and its a hideous infliction to live with unless you battle it head on) and was on barbiturates to help him sleep. He clearly drank too much one night and the combination of the drugs and alcohol killed him. However the coroner said that he had not taken any more barbiturates than normal and it was ruled as death by misadventure. I know that that ruling is sometimes given to suicide victims to protect the family, but that’s usually with children or teenagers not grown men. You can never truly know the mind of another, but it seems that Reeves’ death was just a terrible, sad accident. A accident that resulted in the loss in one Britain’s greatest talents.
Whether Michael Reeves would have transformed the British film industry or just made a few more good horror films we will never know. What I do know is now, as I walk through the streets of Soho to my place of work (which is also about to move out of the area), Reeves wouldn’t recognise what it has become. But at least, many years ago, he managed to capture what it once was.