Reviewed by Stuart Galbraith IV
British Director Michael Reeves is remembered almost exclusively for
Matthew Hopkins-Witchfinder General
(1968, released in the U.S. by AIP as The Conqueror Worm), the excellent if grim cult
Vincent Price, and for Reeves's accidental overdose/suicide the following
year. He was only 24 years old when he died, and ever since fans and film
scholars alike have speculated on what might have been had this promising
talent not been lost in a sea of alcohol, drugs, and deep depression.
Reeves had only directed two features prior to Witchfinder General.
The made-in-Italy Revenge of the Blood Beast (La Sorella di Satana,
1966), released in America as She-Beast is a lively but amateurish
no-budget no-brainer, but his next film was something else entirely.
The Sorcerers (1967), Reeves's second film, is shamelessly neglected.
It was, obviously, overshadowed by the popular and more
artistically-recognized Witchfinder General, and by Reeves's death soon
thereafter. In this home video age, Witchfinder's reputation
has only swelled with time, with M-G-M painstakingly restoring Reeves's
preferred cut for DVD release next year. The Sorcerers isn't as
fashionably nihilistic or unflinchingly bleak as Witchfinder,
but it equally impressive in many ways, and just like Reeves's final work,
it's a genuine original.
Discredited hypnotist/inventor Marcus Monserrat (Boris Karloff), working out
of his shabby apartment, has invented a technique for controlling minds.
Picking up Mike Roscoe (Ian Ogilvy), a young man looking for new
mind-altering thrills, Monserrat and his assistant-wife Estelle (Catherine
Lacey) alter the unwitting man's mind with their Ipcress File-like
contraption. The elderly couple, as it turns out, can not only control
Mike's actions from afar, but their thought control actually extends to
experiencing Mike's physical sensations as well. This proves too
tempting for the long-suffering Estelle. She becomes addicted to living
vicariously through the young man, whom she soon has committing the most
heinous of crimes.
The Sorcerers has been described as an engaging pot pourri of genres:
classic mad doctor stuff, psychedelic science fiction, angry Mod melodrama.
But it's really much more than that. The heart of The Sorcerers is
its multi-generational story of liberation and addiction. On one hand you
have Ogilvy's aimless mechanic, a man whose hallucinogenic experiences are
taking him nowhere fast until Boris Karloff meets him at a burger joint and
offers to fry his brain for him. (Reeves even cuts to a hamburger patty
sizzling away in a clumsy shock cut.)
Karloff spent his last few years alternating between respectable TV guest
shots and mostly wretched movie roles. His semi-autobiographical turn as
aging horror star Byron Orlok in Targets (1968), much like
Witchfinder General did with The Sorcerers, completely
overshadowed his fine work here. What's interesting is that The
Sorcerers casts Karloff against type; he spends most of the film
horrified by his wife's transformation and weakly attempts to rein her in.
She's played with blissful immorality by Catherine Lacey, who had a long
career stretching back to at least the late-1930s, when she assayed the role
of the creepy nun in Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938). In later
years Lacey was wasted in such trifles as Hammer's The Mummy's Shroud
where she cackled maniacally in the role of an old Gypsy-hag.
In The Sorcerers, though, the two veteran actors really get to show
their stuff. They appear to have rehearsed pretty intensely judging by the
impressive intimacy in their performances. Part of that effectiveness is
also expressed through their environment, depressingly realized through
Reeves's probing camera. Karloff isn't working out of some Expressionistic
castle in Vasaria, but rather out of a run-down, dilapidated flat with
laboratory equipment that looks like it was purchased at the corner flea
market. In this sense, the picture's ridiculously low budget, reportedly
somewhere between $62,000 - $125,000, inadvertently helps convey the
Monserrats' desperation. That's equally true of the actors themselves.
Karloff, who by 1967 could barely walk and appears pretty frail, and Lacey,
looking wrinkled and haggard, play characters living on borrowed time with
one foot in the nursing home. Karloff naívely hopes to bring relief to his
aged generation with his magical invention that can transmit youthful
pleasures to their weary bodies. But neither he nor this wife had realized
just how liberating and intoxicating the experience could be or, in
Estelle's case, how the many years of poverty and withering health had
instilled a repressed rage against no one in particular. Screw the rest of
the world, she seems to be saying, and at once begins making up for lost
In one sense, who can blame her? She may be no better than the
mini-skirt mob tripping on LSD at the disco, but life hasn't sucked the
youth out of them like it has her. Lacey gives the character a horrifying
arc from sympathetic senior to one of frightening wickedness and sadism.
When her addiction to the mind control becomes so powerful she stands ready
to kill her husband without the least hesitation, she is truly horrifying. It's
one of the most overlooked performances in the history of horror cinema.
Ian Ogilvy is the nominal hero, but once his character stumbles upon what
Estelle promises as "ecstasy with no consequences," his character is really
little more than a pawn for Karloff and Lacey's mischief, and the
character's inability to remember any of his increasingly brutal crimes
sidesteps a further layer of complexity that might have made The
Sorcerers a genuine classic of the genre.
Of the younger cast members,
Victor Henry stands out most as Alan, a well-drawn best friend to Ogilvy's
Mike and simultaneously if timidly in love with Mike's sometime girlfriend
Nicole (Elizabeth Ercy). Torn between loyalty to his friend while wanting to
seize upon Mike's inexplicably unpleasant behavior and catch Nicole on the
rebound, Henry paints a complex character with a natural uneasy intensity.
He might have been a major talent had he not suffered a fate even more
tragic than Reeves's. After making just one more film Henry was reportedly
in a vegetative state for 17 years before finally dying in 1985.
The Sorcerers was originally released in the United States by Allied
Artists, but I have no idea who, if anyone, has home video rights now
(possibly Warner Bros., who split much of the AA library with MGM). While
MGM readies its much-anticipated DVD release of Witchfinder General,
one can only hope that The Sorcerers might someday get the attention
it deserves, too.
Video & Audio
The Sorcerers was released in the United Kingdom under the Prism
label, which also has put out a restored British cut of Witchfinder
General. The Sorcerers is in 16:9 format with adequate Dolby
Digital mono sound and no subtitles. The transfer is a mixed bag - the
transfer itself is generally fine, but the material used appears to have
been an original print, complete with reel change cues and wear-related
splices and speckles. However, the color is good for a 35-year-old element,
and the image is sharp. Like the movie itself, this was obviously done on
the cheap, but also with affectionate care. For myself, the dirt and splices
didn't bother me at all. The movie didn't seem to be missing more than a
frame or two of footage, and it was nice to watch a DVD that constantly
reminded me I was watching a film and not something digitally
sterilized into videodom. (This is quite different from the junky DVDs from
uncaring labels that release public domain titles using poor elements that
are sloppily transferred and authored.)
Shot in 1.66 format, the opening
titles appear cut off slightly at the top, at least on my widescreen
projection set (which presumably overscans a bit), and the first reel or so
likewise appears framed too tightly, with not enough headroom, rather like
the oft-criticized Hammer DVDs released by Warner Bros. This seems to go
away after a while, though, and is only a minor distraction.
Even those who might be disappointed with the transfer will want The
Sorcerers for its generous extras. First are 16:9 trailers of both
The Sorcerers and Matthew Hopkins - Witchfinder General. The
latter trailer is especially interesting; quite unlike AIP's American
release, Tigon attempts to sell the film as a prestigious historical drama
that meticulously recreates both the beauty and horror of Olde England. Next
is a 23-minute documentary, also 16:9, Blood Beast: The Films of Michael
Reeves, produced in 1999. It offers a nice overview of the director's
career featuring interviews with (a well-preserved) Ian Ogilvy, Tigon head
Tony Tenser, screenwriter Tom Baker, producer Paul Maslansky, and Hilary
Dwyer, the actress-turned-producer who co-starred in Witchfinder
General. Kim Newman, who also appears in the documentary, contributes
thoughtful and informative production notes. Filmographies and a gallery
round out this nice set of supplements.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Sorcerers rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good Transfer, Old Print
Extras: see above
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 5, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson