Friday, 2 March 2012

The Sorcerers

1967
Dir. Michael Reeves

An elderly scientist and his wife create a device that enables them to control the mind of a young man and share the sensations of his experiences. It isn’t long though before the wife, drunk on power and obsessed with experiencing new things, begins to indulge her increasingly perverse desires, including murder.

Reeves’ penultimate film is a curiously irresistible blend of horror and sci-fi, filtered through a cynical snapshot of swinging sixties London – and the seemingly moral vacuum its inhabitants occupied – spiced up with various ‘mad scientist’ movie tropes. While it may be overshadowed by his last film The Witchfinder General, The Sorcerers exhibits as idiosyncratic and bleak an outlook on the corruptible nature of humanity as the Vincent Price starring classic. While both films peer into the depths of what causes normal people to do corrupt, despicable things, due to its then-contemporary setting, The Sorcerers makes much more of an impact in this regard. As the initially benign old couple begin to wade out of their depth the longer their experiment continues, the more things get out of hand. The Sorcerers arguably acts as a sly metaphor for cinema and the experience it provides to its audience, with Dr Monserrat and his wife Estelle (Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey), much like the detached viewer, abandoning their own lives and momentarily escaping into a new world experiencing sensations through someone else.



While Mike (Ian Ogilvy) isn’t particularly likeable, that he is forced to carry out such wicked actions against, and even oblivious, to his own will, generates a certain degree of sympathy for him, and poses provocative questions about free will and predestination. When Dr Monserrat initially created the device, it was with the intention of providing certain experiences to those no longer capable of such things; such as the poor and the elderly. The flipside of course is that the person who is actually living the experiences on behalf of the mind-controller, no longer has any control or free will. Their life is not their own. Both the Monserrats and Mike discard their responsibilities to pursue selfish needs. Mike constantly abandons his friends without a thought for their feelings, and Estelle increasingly cares less about the consequences of her selfish actions.

While Lacey and Karloff are relegated to their small flat for the majority of the film, sitting around a table emoting as they experience life through Mike and spitting expository and at times rather heavy-handed dialogue, they still prove rather compelling to watch. In lesser hands, these moments would become pantomime. Boris Karloff actually plays against type here and he imbues Dr Monserrat with a quiet dignity. Far from the mad scientist he initially appears to be, he forms the moral conscience of the film, helplessly watching as his wife delves deeper into her increasingly dark and diabolical instincts and living out her depraved fantasies through Mike. Generational conflict is evident throughout proceedings, with the Monserrats viewing young people with disdain for their seemingly loose morals – as evident in the first scene where Dr Monserrat glares witheringly at a canoodling couple – and eventually as mere commodities through which they can live out their own desires.



The story uncoils in a Pete Walker-esque London – all grimy nightclubs, dingy bedsits, greasy spoon cafes and murky back alleys. The heavy stylisation dates the film somewhat, but Reeves still manages to create a few memorable moments such as the psychedelic hypnosis scene; all kaleidoscopic lighting, ferocious zooms and frenzied editing. While Reeves was only 23 when he made The Sorcerers, his view of the swinging sixties is predominately one of utter contempt. Aside from Karloff, characters act selfishly and without a thought of repercussion or consequence. The Sorcerers provides a subversive look at the love generation and the abandoned morals left in its wake.

Despite what the credits say, the original story and screenplay was actually conceived and written by John Burke; however when Reeves and Tom Baker re-wrote sections of it at Karloff's behest, Burke’s credit as screenwriter was relegated to ‘Based on an idea by.’

You can read more about this here.

19 comments:

Wes M said...

An excellent selection and an excellent review James. The Witchfinder General casts such mighty shadow over British Horror Cinema, The Sorcerers tends to get dismissed as a minor work, but I think it's a superb film, and I was genuinely impressed when I caught it on a dead of night screening on BBC2 some years ago. Unlike Witchfinder General which we grew up knowing it was an important work before we ever saw it, The Sorcerers was a real discovery and in a peculiar way I may even like it more than General. Love the fact that you got a Pete Walker vibe from the film - me too, and there's a real palpable sense of place and time - London at the fag-end of the sixties, and a long way from Blow-Up. I think Reeves' film is made with a steadier hand than Walker's, and I'm not ashamed to draw an analogy between Orson Welles making Citizen Kane at 24, and Reeves making The Sorcerers at 23 - my God what an earth shaking talent, and what a tragedy it was cut short so quickly...

Paul Synnott said...

Hey James, nice take on the film,the old couple were particularly good. Sad to see Karloff looking ill though. I like the comparison to Pete Walker's london too. Reeves was pretty confident to make this. He had a better grip on his narrative, and he doesn't spend as much time on the dodgy acting as Walker!

James Gracey said...

It’s funny you should say that Wes, because that’s exactly what happened to me the other night! I just happened to notice that this was on, so I tuned in and absolutely loved it! Karloff and Lacey were fantastic. “London at the fag-end of the sixties” – I love that! And I completely agree with you – Reeves’ death was so tragic. I wonder what sort of films he’d be making these days? Can you imagine?? Just going by The Sorcerers and Witchfinder, I reckon he would have been a fascinating filmmaker. His legacy is brief – but boy, what films! I just need to see She-Beast now.

@Paul - From the opening shot of Karloff trudging down the street to the newsagents, The Sorcerers instantly made me think of Walker – just that grimy, grubby demeanour and everything looking so drab and bleak. Hmm. In the mood to watch Frightmare now! ;)

Jon T said...

Excellent review, James. Next time you're in London you should check out Reeves's Kensington haunts - its fascinating to see many of the locations used in the film looking pretty much the same today as they were in 1967. (The same with Repulsion, which was shot nearby in and around South Kensington near the tube station)I think Pete Walker was Reeves' natural successor in many ways. Maybe Walker channelled his spirit somehow...

James Gracey said...

Cheers Jon. I SHOULD check out those places you mentioned next time I'm over in London. I also want to go back to that pub on the embankment where a scene from Sergio Martino's All the Colours of the Dark was filmed. Can't remember what it's called, but I need to get some photos of that place! Hope you're well.

Anonymous said...

Just watched Targets and found Golden Years-ear Karloff both adorable and completely charming. Will have to check this out as well...

James Gracey said...

I've yet to see Targets - is that the film where he plays an aging horror star? Hope you enjoy The Sorcerers. :)

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Yeah I'm in general agreement about THE SORCERERS, but its position of marginalisation in relation to WITCHFINDER GENERAL is entirely justified in my view. Its a bit amatuerish in execution at certain points, which is perfectly understandable considering Reeves' relative inexperience. In many ways Boris Karloff saves this film, were his role played by a lesser actor, I don't think THE SORCERERS would be thought of highly at all...WITCHFINDER GENERAL or not! However while the casting of the oldies is a great success, the remainder of the cast is abysmal.

James Gracey said...

Perhaps if Reeves hadn't directed Witchfinder, this film may have been regarded differently? I still think it's a really interesting and novel little flick that further exhibits the director's unique outlook. Sure, Witchfinder is superior, but The Sorcerers still ain't bad. Like I said, it would have been so interesting to see Reeves' career progress had he not died so young. And I agree that Karloff carries the film! I also thought Catherine Lacey's performance was very decent.

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Yeah I still think it's regarded as a cut above, even in light of WITCHFINDER. In terms of this particular title though one would have to acknowledge the contributor of John Burke who came up with idea, and Tom Baker who co-wrote the screenplay. In fact Baker co-wrote WITCHFINDER as well, so his contribution to Reeves' unique outlook may be a lot greater than we think.

Yeah I did say the casting of the oldies was a great success...but Ogilvy taints proceedings. Either way great to see this reviewed here James. I look forward to you devling further into the annals of British horror.

James Gracey said...

Argh! You're absolutely right, Shaun. Tom Baker did co-write this and I completely forgot to mention that in the review. Didn't know he also co-wrote Witchfinder though! Certain aspects of The Sorcerers have a kind of 'Dr Who' feel to them - a kinda kitchen sink supernaturalism.

Cody said...

Is that Tilda Swinton?! Just kidding...

James Gracey said...

Heehee!

Johnny said...

I should perhaps clear up something.

John Burke originally wrote a screenplay called THE DEVIL'S DISCORD which Micheal Reeves was due to film, but because of an actor dropping out, the film was dropped in favour for THE SORCERERS.

John came up with the original idea and wrote the screenplay, which was at that time called TERROR FOR KICKS. He was contracted to write the treatment and the screenplay, both which he did.

Boris Karloff would only agree to come on board if the ending was changed. Due to other work commitments John said no and left the project. Mr Reeves and Mr Baker then went in and changed the end and some other bits throughout the film. At that moment in time the shooting script read "Screenplay by John Burke, Micheal Reeves & Tom Baker." By the time the film came out, John's output was reduced to 'from an idea by'.

I know this because I am working on bringing out the original treatment and screenplay plus some of the letters John wrote with regards to this film.

cheers,

Johnny Mains

James Gracey said...

Thanks for the info, Johnny. What happened with John Burke's screenplay is a sad testament to the shoddy way in which writers in the film industry are usually treated. Is there anywhere we can follow your progress on bringing out the original treatment and some of the letters Mr Burke wrote? I'd be very interested in keeping up to date with your endeavours!

Johnny said...

Heya James,

I've got you on my bookmarks - and when I'm closer to getting the book out I'll let you know.

Johnny

James Gracey said...

Thanks Johnny, that sounds great. Good luck with everything!

Johnny Mains said...

A little bit more info on my book can be found here:

http://vaultofevil.proboards.com/thread/5220/sorcerers-original-screenplay-john-burke

cheers!

Johnny

Johnny Mains said...

Hello folks, good news - the book is now available to pre-order!!

http://www.pspublishing.co.uk/the-sorcerers-jhc-by-john-burke-1849-p.asp