Director Michael Reeves* is best known for Witchfinder General, one of those legendary films which comes to the viewer ready wrapped in myth, infamy and a big pile of anecdotes. In places, Witchfinder is as disturbing and brilliant as its reputation suggests. In others, it’s a tad hokey.
Anyway, that’s Witchfinder General. But also worthy of note is Reeves’s earlier film The Sorcerers (1967), a weird and fascinating horror/sci-fi tale weaving in and out of Swinging 60s London. The story concerns an elderly couple who happen to be ‘brilliant’ hypnotists: Professor Morris Monserrat (Boris Karloff) and his wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey). Morris has built a mind control machine and they’re looking for a test subject. After unsuccessfully advertising in a newsagent’s window, Estelle suggests that they try and persuade one of the young people they’re seen swaggering around town. They can offer it as ‘an experience’ she says. Something new.
Meanwhile, in a dingy nightclub, we find Mike** (Ian Oglivy – a childhood friend of Reeves who also starred in Witchfinder General) with his beautiful girlfriend Nicole and awkward Dad-dancing buddy, Alan. Mike is restless. ‘How long do you think all this can last?’ he asks.
A bit later, Mike abandons his friends for a solo wander through the dark streets. Morris (on a groovy young person hunt) spots him and follows him into a Wimpy Bar. The London of this film is full of grubby cafes, dingy alleyways and shadowy interiors. A grimy, lonely place.
Mike is sceptical about Monserrat’s offer of mind-bending groovy funtimes, but agrees to come along and give it a go anyway. And so he’s taken to their flowery wallpapered home and escorted into the laboratory. Which looks like some kind of stark pop-arty recording studio, a mass of dials and wires against white walls.
Monserrat’s marvellous mind control machine is pretty lo-fi – just a chair and some headphones. Somehow, it’s powered by Morris and Estelle’s thought waves. Plus a swirly lightshow. The couple are thrilled to discover that their experiment has worked. Mike is completely in their control and they can both feel what he feels. He’s somewhat befuddled but they send him on his way, to find out if their powers still work at a distance. It turns out that they do and Mike finds Nicole and takes her for a beautifully photographed late night swim in a hotel pool.
The Monserrats discuss how they are going to use their power. Morris wants to ‘help people’ but Estelle has other ideas. Their lives have been hard, she reasons, so why not have a bit of fun getting Mike to do things on their behalf? The things they’ve never been able to do.
What follows could be described as an interesting meditation on power and responsibility. Or a Frankenstein style tale about science and morality. Or, as someone on IMDB puts it, ‘a film in which Ian Oglivy listens to Cliff Richard*** and stabs Susan George with a pair of scissors.’ Whatever approach suits, it’s certainly an unusual tale which avoids camp silliness for the most part. The performances are relatively naturalistic. Karloff brings gravitas. Lacey is extraordinarily scary and tragic.
Estelle is frighteningly happy about getting Mike to speed madly on Alan’s motorbike. Her pleasure increases as she gets him to steal, fight and eventually kill. Morris is terrified, but he can’t stop her.
Their psychic powers give the Monserrats a chance to hang around the youth-centric world of the nightclub, an experience from which would people of their age would normally be excluded. This makes it sound a bit like ‘one way Freaky Friday, plus spooky murders’, but honestly – it’s better than that.
Would things have been different if they’d chosen a young woman instead of a young man for their experiment? A lot of the ladies in this film wear gorgeous mini-dresses without hosiery, so presumably the film would have involved Karloff constantly saying things like, ‘My knees – they are so cold.’
Morris wants to stop Estelle from sending Mike out on a crime spree, but find that he is unable to do so. She smashes up the machine (so Mike can never be ‘deprogrammed’) and her hypnotic powers beat down her husband’s. ‘My will is stronger,’ she proclaims triumphantly.
It is her ‘will’ which makes Mike commit violent acts. He’s a young man callously killing young women, because an old woman made him do it. Is this because she resents their youth or because she’s doing it just because she can? A bit of both, possibly. And it’s either misogynistic (women despise other women) or a bit feminist (the women Mike kills are seen as disposable, Estelle is limited in her choices and relishes the chance to take on a male role).
You could view The Sorcerers as a meditation on the nature of cinema and violence, dressed up in a funky sixties sci-fi/horror cape. Whether the films motives really run this deep or whether it’s simply (as my Dad would say) ‘a good yarn’, it’s certainly 81 minutes of fascinating oddness.
*Tragically, the extremely talented Mr Reeves passed away in 1969 when he was just 25. Witchfinder General was his last film.
**Hmm – Reeves co-wrote this (with someone called Tom Baker. No, not that Tom Baker) Was he getting his friend to do an impression of him?
***’Go Wild in the Country’ is on the soundtrack.