Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers (1967), starring Boris Karloff, became a barely noticeable cult film in a cinematically innovative era. A few prominent, hip critics took note of Reeves, and, in some quarters, predictions were made that he could become a horror director of the caliber of James Whale, Tod Browning, Jacques Tourneur, or Terence Fisher.
Reeves’ had only made one previous film, the low budget The She Beast (1966) starring horror icon Barbara Steele, but it was imitative of Mario Bava‘s work and received scant notice. In contrast, The Sorcerers was stylish, quirky, and unique, although it was also low budget and barely made a profit. Still, it resulted in Reeves’ being given a larger bankroll to work with in his third film: the critical and box office hit Witchfinder General (1968) starring Vincent Price.
Reeves’ death of a drug overdose at twenty-five, shortly before the release of Witchfinder General, affected that film’s reputation. Reeves was hailed as a tragic auteur in the James Dean mold. Since then, Witchfinder General has long been lauded as one of Price’s finest films. Its was considerably helped by the actor/star himself, who listed it as one of his two personal favorites, along with Theater of Blood (1973). Having a historical subject, Witchfinder General defies its period, is highly esteemed, frequently revived, and has been readily available throughout the video age.
In light of Witchfunder General’ s reputation, The Sorcerers was considered a lesser, obscure effort, partly because it seemed more dated and did not have a vital star to promote it (Karloff died a mere week before Reeves). Nor did the actor’s fans promote it. Instead, of Karloff’s late films, they waxed sentimental about Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), feeling that film was a truer coda for the “King of Horror.” It was only this year that The Sorcerers was finally made available on DVD as part of the Warner Archive collection.
The aged and poverty stricken Professor Marcus Monserrat (Karloff) is a long publicly disgraced hypnotist who invents a machine (cue sci-fi mumbo jumbo) which allows him and his wife Estelle (the delightfully vile Catherine Lacey) to project their consciousness into the minds of others. The Monserrats live in a dilapidated London flat during the swinging 60s (cue sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll), and Estelle is corrupted from bitterness due to her husband’s fall from grace. The couple find a willing guinea pig for their gizmo in stud Michael (Ian Ogilvy). Michael, bored with sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, agrees to be strapped into the Professor’s mind-altering gizmo (cue psychedelia). Although clearly a product of the 60’s, The Sorcerers is imbued with a stylish, compact, contemporary impudence that transcends mere period novelty.
Once the couple psyche into Mike’s experiences, Estelle begins making up for lost years. She quickly becomes addicted to the experience, which causes her to become increasingly imbalanced. After she forces Mike into hedonism, theft, and murder, a battle of wills between Estelle and her husband leads into Being John Malkovich (1999) and Scanners (1981) territory.
The Sorcerers stands out as a respite from Karloff’s humiliating last years. Although seriously ill, the actor gives an admirably subdued performance that rises to a crescendo in the final showdown with his wife. As good as Karloff and Ogilvy are, it is Lacey who steals the film.
The lower budget trappings actually enhance the grittiness of a film that seems to be saying something about the jaded nihilism of the “I, me, mine” culture (well, at least it noticed it).