Written by: Michael Reeves & Tom Baker (screenplay), John Burke (idea)
Directed by: Michael Reeves
Starring: Boris Karloff, Catherine Lacey and Elizabeth Ercy
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
He turns them on, he turns them off...to live...love...die or KILL!
I came across The Sorcerers in a book a few years back; at the time, I read the title and noticed Boris Karloff starred in it without reading further since that sufficiently sold me on it. Since the movie still wasnít out on DVD at the time, it was difficult to pursue, so it continued to languish in personal obscurity. During that time, certain expectations were engendered by the title--after all, this was a late 60s British flick directed by the guy who also directed Witchfinder General, so I assumed it was cut from the same occult cloth of its contemporaries. Had I actually read the synopsis in the book, I would have known better; as it turns out, the sorcery here is of the scientific variety--and itís being perpetrated by a kindly, unassuming elderly couple.
To their credit, Marcus (Boris Karloff) and Estelle Monserrat (Catherine Lacey) donít set out to engage in anything that would be considered wicked. Marcus is in failing health (just as Karloff himself likely was during filming) and has spent much of his adult life concocting and refining a new method of hypnosis that will allow him to fully tap into and control the minds of his subjects. Having finally perfected his theory, he tries it out on Mike Roscoe (Ian Ogilvy), an apathetic young man in the swinging mod scene whoís grown bored with the girls and the culture. He's a perfect subject for Monserrat, who sells his process as a new, mind-bending experience. Mike agrees, and Estelle is enthralled by her and her husbandís newfound ability to live vicariously through the young man, so much so that she begins to push him into committing criminal behavior.
Bizarre as hell, The Sorcerers has a fascinating setup thatís rich in thematic subtext; unfortunately, itís a bit drowned out by a plodding pace. Once shit finally gets real, it comes about an hour into the proceedings, and the filmís generated just enough intrigue to lope to its bloody, fiery finish line. Until that point, though, itís kind of a slow burn that tracks Estelleís descent into sheer lunacy, and much of the movieís effectiveness hinges on how much you can buy such a transformation. Conceptually, itís pretty tragic stuff to watch this sweet old lady twist her husbandís life work into something that ends up horrifying for all involved, but the story never quite resonates on that sort of level. This is the stuff of soapy drama by way of jangling, Saturday matinee pulp, so itís more concerned with Mikeís romantic affairs and his eventual slicing and dicing.
Itís too bad Reeves takes this approach because the unexplored side of The Sorcerers is much more interesting than all of that. In one of his later roles, Karloff brings a genuine empathy and dignity to Monserrat; given his place in the horror canon, you might expect that heíd be the one that goes batty, but Karloff frequently played misunderstood scientist types (making it quite ironic that his most famous role is the victim of such a character in Frankenstein). Possibly due to his health, heís relegated here to sitting at a table and verbally wrestling with his on-screen wife as she keeps pushing the limits of what sheíll drive Michael to do. Somewhat surprisingly, Lacey steals the show from Karloff; while she was often an eccentric presence on the screen, she transforms into a loony old bird by the end of this one. The Monserrats are pretty unlikely horror protagonists (and antagonists as well, I suppose), but Reeves apparently doesnít seem too interested in them as actual people; lip service is given to the moral quandaries the two endure (particularly Marcus, who wrestles with his own enjoyment of the thrills he experiences through Mikeís illicit behavior), but itís cursory stuff at best.
Likewise, the thematic stuff is largely unexplored. Voyeurism is an obvious theme here, as you essentially have a movie where two characters indulge in sex and violence from a safe distance, a clear parallel to what film itself offers. Like the Monserrats, audiences can engage in similar thrills; that the Monserrats are also physically linked to their subject is perhaps an interesting comment on the complicity of voyeurs. The Sorcerers also seems to comment on the emptiness of culture; the elderly have been practically written off as infirm and left to their own devices, while youth is entangled in sex, drugs, and rock and roll, as Michael and his buddy (Victor Henry) unwittingly find themselves at odds over a girl (Elizabeth Ecry) as his body and mind are co-opted by the Monserrats. A delicious layer of irony is also found in youth being destroyed and preyed upon by the old, but Reeves doesnít really pick a side; itís too difficult to take Estelle Monserrat seriously, while Michael himself never makes much of a case that we should lament him as a victim.
This was the second of three films that Reeves directed before committing suicide in 1969; having seen them all, Iíd say his output increased in quality, which lands The Sorcerers right in the middle between She Beast and Witchfinder General. Due to the combined efforts of his final film and the auteur theory, Reeves has become one of the great ďwhat-ifĒ scenarios in film history; only 25 years old at the time of his death and with one genuinely great film under his belt, itís possible that his best work might have been ahead of him. As such, The Sorcerers is a film that Iíd like to find pure brilliance in, but, at best, itís an occasionally cool, thoroughly weird ďhorrorĒ movie where the real horror doesnít show up until the last thirty minutes or so. A slight psychedelic vibe pervades the film and adequately reflects the London mod scene, but one ultimately wishes the film were more a little more psychologically engaging. At any rate, the film is now available on DVD from Warner Archive, so this intriguing little corner of British horror lore can be seen by audiences who may be unfamiliar with it; per usual, there are no extras on the disc, but the widescreen transfer accurately reflects the filmís grungy but colorful look. Enthusiasts who have longed to see it will be satisfied by the presentation and will also find a peculiar entry in the 60s British horror cycle, where it was an old-fashioned science-gone-awry parable in a sea of demons, cults, and vampires. Rent it!
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