Michael Reeves, 1967
Starring: Boris Karloff, Catherine Lacey, Ian Ogilvy, Elizabeth Ercy, Victor Henry
Professor Marcus Montserrat, a downtrodden medical hypnotist, has developed the technology to transfer thoughts. He and his wife Estelle are eager to try it out and convince a bored young man, Mike, to come back to their rundown apartment. They are successful and find that they can physically feel everything Mike is experiencing; they are also able to telepathically control him. What begins as a way for two aged, restricted people to take a vacation from their lives soon turns sinister as Montserrat’s wife becomes power mad and sadistic, encouraging Mike towards increasingly dangerous, violent behavior that leads to theft, physical violence, and even murder. Montserrat is the only one who can stop her.
This was the first horror film from Tigon British Film Productions, a studio founded by producer Tony Tenser in 1966. Tenser worked primarily in mainstream, exploitation, and genre cinema; in the years before he founded Tigon, he had a hand in productions like Gothic horror film The Black Torment (1964), the horror-tinged Sherlock Holmes adaptation A Study in Terror (1965), and Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-sac (1966). Tigon is generally considered as sort of a lesser sibling to British studios like Hammer and Amicus, but it’s always held a special place in my heart. This is primarily thanks to their emphasis on satanic and folk horror; while Hammer generally focused on lush, period-set adaptations of classic horror texts and Amicus cornered the market on anthology tales, Tigon released films like Curse of the Crimson Altar and Blood on Satan’s Claw, and of course the great Witchfinder General.
And speaking of that film, its director, the unfortunately not long for this world Michael Reeves, made a definite imprint on the studio’s legacy and that of British horror in general. After his first film, She Beast (1966) with Barbara Steele — not for Tigon — he turned to this second, surprisingly successful production, which allowed him to team up with the studio a third time for Witchfinder General. He made quite an impression on British genre cinema and it’s a shame his career was cut short by his death of an accidental overdose in 1969 when he was just 25 years old.
While a lot of praise heaped on Reeves is no doubt exaggerated by his early passing, a number of fans and critics have suggested that he should be seen as something of a genre auteur. I can’t say for sure whether or not I agree with this — Witchfinder General is undoubtedly a masterpiece — as The Sorcerers is not necessarily an overlooked triumph, but at the very least hints at a promising future career. The film has a number of strengths: namely the compelling premise, featuring an aged but still great Karloff in one of his last roles, which is an interesting riff on the kind of mad science-fueled horror that could be found in England in the ‘50s with titles like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and especially The Haunted Strangler (1958) or Corridors of Blood (1958), both of which starred Karloff.
But The Sorcerers also has a number of weaknesses: the script is unfulfilling and doesn’t resolve a number of interesting issues it raises, possibly because the original screenplay from John Burke was largely re-written by Reeves and his friend Tom Baker (no, not that Tom Baker), allegedly to appeal more to the censors. There’s definitely an emphasis on action — including a number of convincing fight scenes, with Mike and his friend rolling around in oil at an auto-mechanic repair garage or breaking everything in sight at an antique shop — and psychological tension rather than sex or violence. Though Reeves ups the ante with some increasingly perverse whims on the part of Estelle, the camera cuts away at a number of crucial scenes and there’s something a little repetitive in the formula.
Karloff allegedly asked for some script changed, because he wanted to play Montserrat’s character more sympathetically than was initially intended, which I’ve seen some critics list as being a misstep, though I disagree. On one hand, it’s a shame that he sort of plays second fiddle to Catherine Lacey (The Lady Vanishes), but she’s fantastic as the unexpectedly sadistic Estelle. Part of her ferocious joy lies not only in spurning Mike onto increasingly horrible actions, but she admits that much of it comes from the battle of wills with her husband himself. Her motivation for not simply killing him herself (or having Mike do it) is that the game would just not be the same without him there attempting to thwart her and steal back Mike’s will.
The talented, prolific Ian Ogilvy, who was close friends with Reeves and would return to work with him on Witchfinder General, is a bit wasted here. Mike’s ennui is never explained and I think the director missed an opportunity to also re-interpret the attractive young psychopath type that emerged in British horror with a vengeance during this period in films like Peeping Tom, Night Must Fall, and The Collector. At first he seems like a real bastard, but instead (and somewhat disappointingly) he turns out to be quite a nice guy, with all his misdeeds solely Estelle’s blame.
All in all, The Sorcerers is an interesting experiment and even though it isn’t a totally successful one, it comes recommended. As I mentioned, it’s an interesting take on the evolution of the mad doctor in British horror and is also yet another film to explore the tension between generations. In this case, it unusually shows the similarities rather than the differences between Montserrat’s aged group and Mike’s; both are bored, locked into their narrow social groups like caged animals. It’s a shame the film wasn’t given full range to explore how dark those impulses can become when finally released. Pick it up on Blu-ray.