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The Sorcerers (DVD)

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Genre: Horror / Theatrical Release: 1967 / Director: Michael Reeves / Actors: Boris Karloff, Elizabeth Ercy ... / DVD released 06 December, 2004 at Prism Leisure Corporation / Features of the DVD: PAL

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    1 Review
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      05.03.2008 09:28
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      Probably the best Swinging London horror film

      A review of the DVD.

      This is a fantastic horror film made in 1967 by doomed wunderkind Michael Reeves. It's Boris Karloff's second last good film, and was made by Tigon, an inspired low-budget production company that made some of the best of all British horror films.

      A geriatric hypnotist, Professor Monserrat, has created a machine that allows him to control people's actions over great distances; it has an unexpected side effect of allowing him to experience whatever the subject of his control experiences. He tries it out on a bored young hipster, Mike, with great success - but then the Professor's frustrated wife gains mental control over Mike and starts making him commit crimes for the sheer thrill of it.

      The premise is silly, of course, but it's treated with enough conviction that it works very well. Mike, under the influence of the old folks, starts out with relatively small stuff - breaking into swimming pools, stealing fur coats - but soon graduates to fisticuffs with his friends and ultimately murdering lustrously beautiful dolly birds. The violence isn't explicit - the film has a 15 certificate - but it is effective, and the film makes scenes like the fur robbery really tense even though they're clichéd.

      As in Michael Reeves' masterpiece, Witchfinder General, there's a real nasty streak running through the story. The Monserrats have not been treated kindly by life, as their shabby little flat shows. The professor only wants to help mankind, but his invention is perverted by his bitter, frustrated wife. Mike is a likeable enough person who's turned into a monster simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His friends don't deserve their ill-treatment at his hands and his murder victims are presented as real and likeable. It never hits the nihilistic heights of Witchfinder General, but it's still pretty grim.

      It's acted to perfection, with one exception. Karloff had played so many benevolent mad scientists that he could easily have played Monserrat in his sleep, but he makes the character his own. He allows his own (real) physical frailty to be used as a plot point, something a lot of old-school film stars would have balked at. His wife is played brilliantly by Catherine Lacey, turning convincingly from desperation to gleeful nastiness. Mike is played by Ian Ogilvy, before he was famous (he and Reeves were friends, and Ogilvy's the juvenile lead in all his films). He's also very good, a man whose pose of coolness is obviously hiding some kind of inner turmoil, and who handles the shifts to blank-eyed psychosis very well. (The one bad performance comes from Mike's pretty girlfriend, Nicole, who can't speak English well enough to seem anything other than wooden).

      There's some great Swinging London footage. The nightclub the characters frequent is wonderful, full of miniskirt chicks and men in ties dancing in ridiculous 60s style to generic rock. And everyone there drinks Coke. Monserrat's hypnosis device involves projecting psychedelic lightshows onto Mike's face, and everything is as groovy as can be, at least until people start dying. There are enough nice little details to make it all seem real enough to matter, such as the briefly-glimpsed decorations on the walls of Mike's flat.

      The incidental music is pretty great, with some nicely sardonic harpsichord stuff as Monserrat wanders around London by night looking for a young man. There are a few hilarious sinister musical stings early on that accompany absolutely nothing important happening, but I'll assume they're meant to be funny.

      This is a pretty good DVD, especially considering how cheap it is (about £5 on amazon). The picture quality could be a lot better - it isn't as sharp as you'd hope, it's a bit scratched, and the colours have deteriorated noticeably, but it's still easily watchable and much better than VHS. There's a decent enough trailer (and also a trailer for Witchfinder General). The image gallery is livened up by having crazy acid rock playing in the background. There are production notes written by the always-excellent Kim Newman (although the text is rather too small). There are also filmographies for Ogilvy, Karloff and Reeves. These are just big lists of films, and start with the most recent, which leads me to suspect someone just copied and pasted them from the IMDB.

      There's also a half-hour documentary about Reeves, which I think was originally shown on Channel 4 as part of its 'Eurotika' series. It's good stuff, with Reeves' old friends and colleagues (including Ogilvy, Tigon boss Tony Tenser, and author Iain Sinclair) reminiscing about him. There are clips from all three of his films, along with the usual anecdotes (exploding cars and being rude to Vincent Price). It's a nice tribute to a man who should have gone on to be one of the great British directors (he sadly died shortly after completing Witchfinder General).

      The Sorcerers is a great little film. It presents a counterpoint to the touristy version of 60s London shown in films like Michael Winner's The Jokers, and looks forward to the grim suburban horrors of Pete Walker. It doesn't tend to get shown on TV, but at such a low price you could do a lot worse on the DVD front.

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    • Product Details

      The Sorcerers, the second film directed by the lost "wunderkind" of British cinema Michael Reeves, may not have the scope and visceral impact of his masterpiece, Witchfinder General (1968), but there's enough fierce originality here to show what a tragic loss it was when he died from a drugs overdose aged only 24. The film also shows the effective use he made of minimal resources, working here on a derisory budget of less than £50,000--of which £11,000 went to the film's sole "named" star, Boris Karloff. Karloff plays an elderly scientist living with his devoted wife in shabby poverty in London, dreaming of the brilliant breakthrough in hypnotic technique that will restore him to fame and fortune. Seeking a guinea-pig, he hits on Mike, a disaffected young man-about-town (Ian Ogilvy, who starred in all three of Reeves' films). But the technique has an unlooked-for side effect--not only can he and his wife make Mike do their bidding, they can vicariously experience everything that he feels. At which point, it turns out that the wife has urges and desires that her husband never suspected. Karloff, then almost at the end of his long career, brings a melancholy dignity to his role; but the revelation is the veteran actress Catherine Lacey as the seemingly sweet old lady, turning terrifyingly avid and venomous as she realises her power. The portrayal of Swinging London, with its mini-skirted dollybirds thronging nightclubs where the strongest stimulant seems to be Coke rather than coke, has an almost touching innocence, but Reeves invests it with a dream-like quality, extending it into scenes of violent death in labyrinthine dark alleys. By this stage, some ten years after it started, the British horror cycle was winding down in lazy self-parody. Reeves had the exceptional talent and vision to revive it, had he only lived. On the DVD: The Sorcerers DVD has original trailers for both this film and Witchfinder General (both woefully clumsy); filmographies for Reeves, Karloff and Ogilvy; an "image gallery" (a grab-bag of posters, stills and lobby cards); detailed written production notes by horror-movie expert Kim Newman; and an excellent 25-minute documentary on Reeves, "Blood Beast", dating from 1999. The transfer is letterboxed full-width, with acceptable sound. --Philip Kemp