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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "The Sorcerers" (Reeves, 1967)

This post is for Bill R., proprieter of The Kind of Face You Hate.
"La vecchiaia e carogna" is a very old and mercilessly pitched Italian adage meaning "old age is carrion." The opening minutes of Michael Reeves' 1967 film The Sorcerers aim to put this observation across with full force, as a hand-held camera tracks a shambling Boris Karloff on a gray London afternoon, complaining at the newsagent's about his paltry little advertisement having been taken down, then returning to an apartment that looks as if it smells of nothing but medicine and old teabags. Karloff plays "Professor" Marcus Monserrat, a master of hypnotism; the rather magnificently broken-down Catherine Lacey plays Estelle, his wife. And soon after Reeves' film opens, we learn that they have reason to be excited. At the same time the picture begins somewhat inextricably cross-cutting between the Monserrat home and a nightclub where the somewhat caddish-seeming young man Mike Roscoe (Ian Ogilvy) is complaining about going out too often.
Soon we learn that the Monserrats are so excited because Marcus appears to have perfected a device that will allow them to do something extraordinary. But before they can do it, they require a subject. That subject will be the jaded Mike, whom Marcus lures to the apartment with promises of trippy delights. This is, after all, Swinging London as it were.
What Marcus has perfected is a hypnotic device that will not only place their subject under their mental control, but allow both of the Monserrat's to feel the sensations of the subject at all times. Just how this works, precisely...or even vaguely, is never even hinted at. Depending on the viewer, this factor could be one of The Sorcerers' biggest flaws or smallest charms. There is the requisite scene depicting Mike's "treatment," which, as the top screen grab depicts, seems to involve projecting a psychedelic light show on his face. Whatever works. And in any case, this does.
And this, of course, is where The Sorcerers gets very interesting. Marcus at first enjoys the heightened sensations of "living" in a young man's body, but it's Estelle, rebelling now not just against age and infirmity but against years of repressed desires, who really relishes the power...not just of being in a younger body, but in a younger male body. The film's sexual politics are largely implicit, but Reeves and Tom Baker's script, along with Lacey's one-of-a-kind performance, make it clear that what's happening here is far more than a simple (and, truth to tell, genre-appropriate) case of an evil old harridan running amok. At first Estelle's appetites seem relatively harmless—so she wants that fur she and/or Marcus were never able to afford, what's the big deal? But as situations ramp up, Estelle's methods become more and more ruthless, and we begin to sense that she is enacting an elaborate revenge for every slight she's ever received in her life. And so the viewers' sympathies shift to poor Mike—one doesn't care for him all that much at first, but Estelle forces him into such atrocities that one is sure he'll emerge as a saint if he can ever get out from the Montserrats' control alive.
It is not, I believe, a spoiler to say that the whole thing ends up rather badly. This is, after all, a British horror picture from the 60s and is hence completely expected to be thoroughly bleak. Reeves went on to direct a yet-bleaker and perhaps even more socially pertinent film, The Witchfinder General, which recently saw DVD release in its intended form for the very first time. The Region 2 UK Prism release of The Sorcerers features a decent transfer of a slightly faded, splicy print. Among its extras are a brief, informative documentary on Reeves, who died, at age 25, in 1969 from an accidental overdose of medication. The one-two punch of this film and general make a strong case that his loss is still worth mourning.
I’m really glad you liked this, Glenn (and thanks for the plug). Your take on Estelle (I think Catherine Lacey plays Estelle Monserrat, by the way, and Estelle Ercy plays…someone else named Nicole) is interesting. I saw her character as someone who never really understood what she was capable of enjoying until the opportunity presented itself, like Martin Amis’s line about how you should be careful with pornography, in case you find yourself liking things you wish you didn’t. But you could be on to something. Her glee does seem to be mixed with a kind of rage, and even relief at times. In any case, Lacey is outstanding. I always wanted to see this film because of Karloff and Reeves, but it’s Lacey’s show. She gives an incredibly chilling performance.
I love this film. It’s one of those great early seventies British horror films with lots of passion for the genre and the world. As well as the excellent Witchfinder General there’s another terrific film in this period named Demons Of the Mind. It was written by Chris Wicking (who died recently) and is about science and psychology appearing in the 19th century world, acting against superstition of the uneducated to create modern myths such as the werewolf from forms of mental illness. The film is very well directed, has beautiful use of colour. Just a beautiful film. This entire period fo film-making is very well covered within Kim Newman’s excellent Nightmare Movies.
Double oops on that error, Bill. It’ll be corrected.
Reeves. Ah well, don’t get me drunk and mention his name. How would British cinema – world cinema – have been different had he lived?
We’ve got this prgrammed on a double bill with Wild Strawberrys as part of the upcoming programme for the cinema club/society that we run out of the basement of a pub here in Exeter – I’ll have to get the co-conspirator who’s genius paring it was to comment here. In the mean time, I’ll let you ponder. I must agree with Peter about demons Of The Mind too – one of Hammer’s last great films. It really is worth seeking out.
Well, genius, I don’t know (modest cough). But the Sorcerors and Wild Strawberries do share the theme of age meeting youth and drawing strength from the encounter. In one case this is a benevolent exchange, in the other a vicariously exploitative exercise of power. They both involve collaborations between older actors and younger, impulsive directors. Victor Sjostrom and Boris Karloff both to some extent temper the visions of Bergman and Reeves. Sjostrom softens the character of Isak Borg, making us finally genuinely moved by the outcome of his journey, whilst Karloff apparently argued for his character to be given a morally redemptive soul, his sacrifice saving the film from plunging wholly into bleak nihilism. It’s interesting to pair films from such wildly disparate backgrounds, Wild Strawberries being archetypal European arthouse fare, The Sorcerors emerging from the grubby underworld of exploitation cinema. It’ll be intriguing to see how they play together. Yes, Demons of the Mind is great. It’s a very self-reflexive film. Hammer with the supernatural elements recast for a world drained of magic, the moral authority of the religious figure reduced to ranting madness, and the scientific perspective revealed to be a shoddy construct of coloured lights and mystifying hokum. A very appropriate vision for the grim dawn of 70s Britain.

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