Interview with Johnny Mains - Author/Editor of 'The Sorcerers by John Burke'

In 1967 Michael Reeves directed The Sorcerers, a curious blend of horror and sci-fi in which Boris Karloff stars as an ailing scientist who creates a device that enables him to control the mind of a young man and share the sensations of his experiences. It isn’t long before the scientist’s wife, drunk on power and obsessed with experiencing new things, begins to indulge her increasingly perverse desires, including murder.

The original story and screenplay was 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.’ This ‘error’ was eventually corrected in Benjamin Halligan's 2003 biography of Reeves. It is also the raison d’être for a new book by Johnny Mains, an award winning editor, biographer, horror historian and renowned authority on the vintage horror anthology series, The Pan Book of Horror Stories.

The Sorcerers by John Burke details the background of the film, presents – for the first time - its original screenplay, and the mistreatment of its writer John Burke. It contains letters written and received by Mr Burke, a complete reprint of his original story treatment and script - prior to Reeves’ and Baker’s alterations - and the chapter on The Sorcerers from Halligan's Reeves biography. There is also a disarmingly personal introduction by Johnny (for whom this project was clearly a labour of love), notes on The Sorcerers by film critic Kim Newman, and a foreword from Burke's widow Jean, as well as exclusive stills from the film. In other words, for admirers of British horror cinema, this is a must read.

Johnny is currently editing the forthcoming anthology Best British Horror, and he took some time out to chat with me about his latest book and his mission to see that John Burke’s work on The Sorcerers is rightly acknowledged.

How did you first become acquainted with Mr Burke? How did he feel about this project?

I first got in contact with John through Sam Youd (John Christopher, The Tripods) as they were both authors who once wrote for a series called The Pan Book of Horror Stories, which I am an authority on, whatever that means. We started writing letters to each other, once a week, and I would always finish the letter off with ‘Question of the Week’ – and it would be in regards to his career, which was active and vibrant right up until his death. From there a firm friendship was cemented. Sadly John knew nothing about this project as it was undertaken after he died.

Can you tell me about the genesis of this project? You had been at John Burke’s house when he showed you his original screenplay Terror for Kicks…

It was January 2011 and my wife and I went back up to Scotland for a week or so, and part of the holiday was to finally meet up with John Burke, who I had been in letter and phone contact for three or four years by that time. My wife and I took a room in the bed and breakfast on the same street as he and his wife Jean lived and went round one afternoon. Stayed for around seven hours and drunk a lot of whisky. My headache the next day was something else, I can tell you. But in between lunch and a wee drinky, we went up to John’s office to see where he worked and it was whilst going through his archive that he first brought out the original screenplay to The Sorcerers, which was originally called, you are right, Terror For Kicks. I was blown away by what he had managed to keep a hold of – contracts, letters to Michael Reeves and his original screenplay and also a copy of the shooting screenplay. I did say to John at the time that this stuff should be out there, that people should know the truth. John thought that too much time had passed and that no-one would really be bothered.

What made you decide to embark on this project and bring to light John’s original screenplay? 

John sadly passed away in September 2011 and it was a really sad time, although he had been poorly for a while. After he passed, his son asked me what materials I would like sent to me. I had asked if I could get access to his autobiography that he had started writing it in the months before his death - there was about ten short chapters in a Word file and I am going to try and fill in the gaps as much as I am able and do a scrapbook of sorts, of John’s life. I asked straight away for the file with The Sorcerers material in it, because I just had a gut feeling that this was the book that needed to come out first. Once it arrived (January 2012) and I began to pour over it, another project was begun, but wouldn’t be completed until the book went to print a few months ago.

Boris Karloff as Dr Monserrat
How difficult was it sourcing all the materials (letters, documents, drafts etc) that appear in the book?

Very easy, everything came with the original screenplay. Tony Earnshaw was very helpful in supplying some stills from the film – but everything else came from John’s family.

What do you hope the outcome of the book will be?

I hope that people start to realise that Michael Reeves played dirty when it came to dealing with John Burke. John came up with the original idea, wrote the screenplay – and after Boris Karloff came on board and said he wanted the ending to be changed to make his character have a noble death - which John didn’t think would work - John said that he was working on something else (Late Night Horror) and couldn’t come back to the project. Michael Reeves brought Tom Baker on board to help re-write the ending - whilst promising John that he would still keep main screenwriting credit – and not only changed the ending but other parts as well. When John finally watched the film he discovered to his shock that he had been bumped down to ‘an idea by’ – when a very large proportion of his original screenplay remains in the finished film.

How did John feel about his final credit on the film?

He wasn’t happy.

What is it about the film – or more precisely, its original screenplay and the story behind it – that draws you to it in the way that it has?

The original screenplay is much darker than the finished film and you’ll see that when you read it. But the film’s still a good watch. I watched it recently on the big screen for the first time – and it’s a much funnier film than you realise.

Where do you see The Sorcerers – and indeed John Burke – fitting in with British horror/genre cinema?

The Sorcerers is now a very outdated film – perhaps not so much in concept, but in style and looks – it’s old and tired. Much like Karloff was whilst filming it. But its place is assured and I prefer it to Michael Reeves’ last film Witchfinder General – that’s a film that’s riddled with problems. But we mustn’t forget that Reeves was a blossoming director and would have gone on to film great films etc, etc, etc… Bollocks – that’s tripe. If you look at directors that were doing the same thing as Reeves back then, they went to America, did one or two films over there then faded into obscurity. Had he lived, the same thing would have happened to Reeves. As to John’s legacy – don’t forget that he wrote many film tie-ins to such works as The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night, The Hammer Horror Omnibus, Dr Terrors House of Horrors, The Man Who Finally Died, Privilege, Jason King, UFO, The Bliss of Miss Blossom, The Smashing Bird I Used To Know and other novels. His place in film history is secure – in fact some of the books he wrote ended up being better than the films they were based on!

Before he wrote The Sorcerers, John had penned a screenplay – to be directed by Michael Reeves – called The Devil’s Discord. After problems during pre-production, the film was shelved. Whatever happened to this script?

It was never made by Michael Reeves and the option ran out and it’s now owned by the Burke family. I’m hoping to bring that screenplay out as a book next.

If Michael Reeves were still alive today, what sort of films do you think he’d be making? And if you had a chance to talk to him about The Sorcerers/Terror For Kicks – what would you want to know?

He’d languish in obscurity for years, maybe making lots of B movies – then probably pull an Oscar winner out of the bag. Who knows. As to Terror For Kicks, the truth would have come out, but nobody would have been bothered, I don’t think. It’s only because Reeves died and the ‘Cult of Reeves’ is so strong and so many people are interested in him and his life, that this book becomes all the more relevant.

John was really rather prolific, to say the least – do you have any favourites amongst his works of fiction? What do you think he will be remembered for?

He’ll be remembered mainly for his tie-ins, but he was a prolific science-fiction writer and wrote many works of non-fiction. My favourite book is his last, published after his death, called The Nightmare Whisperers. It was first started in the 50s, forgotten about until I found out about it in 2010 and at my insistence, urged him to finish it. The book is dedicated to me and says: ‘For Johnny Mains, a staunch friend who still works tirelessly in the cause of we fantasists of the old tradition.’ Needless to say I cried when my copy came through the post.

For more information - and to pre-order a copy of The Sorcerers by John Burke - go here

To keep up to date with Johnny's various projects, follow him on Twitter.


psynno said…
Thanks for the interview James. It's very exciting to know that John completed many short stories as well, definitely going to seek them out. I was sorry to hear he felt a bit cheated by Reeves's passion to control the film and hope he can be properly credited... I wonder how Reeves's career would have panned out: similar to Michael Armstrong's perhaps? Maybe he would have gone over to the States and made a few more classics... By the way, have you been to Frightfest this year. Looking forward to more reviews.
James Gracey said…
Glad you enjoyed this - I too feel compelled to seek out more of John's work, particularly his short stories.

I've often wondered (well, whenever I watch Witchfinder General) what sort of films Reeves would be making now. I liked Johnny's response - he really didn't hold back. ;)

Sadly this has been yet another year when I've been unable to head to Frightfest - the films I did see were screeners, and I was basically helping Naila (Exquisite Terror) review a few titles for her website. So much more I want to check out. Did you make it there yourself?
psynno said…
Pity you couldn't make the screenings. Would like to see you reviews at Exquisite Terror. Keep me posted. I only went briefly to see one of the idents I worked on about switching off your phone. I done the music/sound for it. It was based on Ringu in the cinema and good fun. I'll send you the link if it comes up. I heard good things about In Fear. There seems to be too many zombie films, and no new Argento! But there's usually a few crackers in there. I did catch Simon Killer a while ago and recommend it: makes you quite uncomfortable and makes you think throughout. Why do films like that seem to disappear, yet anyone I talk to who's seen it raves about it. Would like to hear your thoughts on it too.
James Gracey said…
Awesome stuff! Love the sound of the ident you worked on - please do link me up if/when you can, would love to check it out.

Out of the few titles I was able to check out, VHS2 and Missionary were my favourites. I also keep hearing good things about Dark Touch (?). Will keep an eye out for Simon Killer.
psynno said…
I saw VHS1, a mind boggling showcase of weird new work, hit and miss, but at least personal and original. Definitely keen to see the follow up.

I tried to message you privately, but here's link to that Frightfest ident by Jacqui Wright. Understand if you don't want to add this post to the blog. Hope you enjoy it!
pw: facetime
James Gracey said…
Of course I don't mind! Thanks very much for the link, I love the ident. I only wish Sadako could accompany me to the cinema for when anoying people fiddle with their phones... Keep up the great work.
psynno said…
Thanks James! You might want to see one of M.Armstrong's later films. It's an anthology. Some familiar faces there...

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