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The Sorcerers

The Sorcerers(1967)

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teaser The Sorcerers (1967)

The Sorcerers (1967) stars 79 year-old horror icon Boris Karloff in one of his last fully ambulatory roles; while shooting Peter Bogdanovich's Targets (1968) later that same year, the actor was significantly more limited in his movements and by The Crimson Cult (US: Curse of the Crimson Alter, 1968) he was confined to the wheelchair in which he ended his lengthy and laudable career. The second feature film by British up-and-comer Michael Reeves, The Sorcerers marks a return to Karloff's genre roots as a brilliant, misunderstood and ultimately misguided scientist years ahead of the curve, but with an emphasis on sexual frankness and violence that was light years beyond his classic assignments for Universal, Columbia, and RKO Radio Pictures. A precursor to the virtual reality thrillers of the New Millennium (yet with a backward glance at Michael Powell's controversial 1960 shocker Peeping Tom), The Sorcerers finds Karloff and sickly wife Catherine Lacey living vicariously through the decadence of bachelor guinea pig Ian Ogilvy, whom Lacey (in full-on Lady Macbeth mode) pushes towards escalating cruelties that culminate in serial murder and a fiery climax. Michael Reeve's next film was the equally grim Witchfinder General (US: The Conqueror Worm, 1968), with Ogilvy and Vincent Price but his cinematic ascendancy stopped cold at age 25; Reeves' death by accidental barbiturate overdose in February 1969 came only a week after Karloff's passing from natural causes at age 82.

By Richard Harland Smith

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teaser The Sorcerers (1967)

No other career in horror films is quite like that of Michael Reeves, an uncompromising and ferocious young filmmaker whose death at the young age of 25 left a brief but powerful legacy of classic films. The most legendary of his three credited feature films remains the Vincent Price historical shocker Witchfinder General (1968), which was first released in the United States by AIP as The Conqueror Worm, while the oddest is certainly the uneven and shaggy supernatural oddity, She Beast (1966).

Sandwiched in between them is The Sorcerers (1967), a particularly venomous take on the tensions in the late '60s between the establishment and the politically conscious youths being branded at the time as "troublemakers" and "upstarts." It's quite clear which side Reeves is on here as his most consistent leading man, Ian Ogilvy, is cast as Mike Roscoe, a young shop owner who briefly parts company with his girlfriend, Nicole (Elizabeth Ercy), and thanks to a fateful pub visit, ends up befriending the elderly hypnotism specialist Professor Marcus Monserrat (Boris Karloff) and his wife, Estelle (Catherine Lacey). As it turns out, the professor has engineered a revolutionary new method of imposing mind control and experiencing the sensations of other people, a process he decides to test out on Mike. Unfortunately Estelle becomes addicted to this real-life mind games and resorts to increasingly sadistic measures to get her thrills.

Shot at West London Studios and in numerous real-life street locations around the city, The Sorcerers managed to predate the first so-called "modern" horror film Night of the Living Dead (1968) by one year with its harrowing but psychedelic study of urban tensions and the dark side of human nature's quest for constant stimulation. The film was released in the United Kingdom by Tigon, at the time a very new exploitation outfit known for its heavy dollops of sex and violence with later titles like The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971), Virgin Witch (1972), The Flesh and Blood Show (1972), and The Coming of Sin (1978). The company was founded in 1966 by Tony Tenser, and in fact, this film marked its first completely original homegrown production with Tenser stepping in as producer after successfully producing Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-sac (1966). Tenser's career would prove to be short-lived due to personal and health reasons, with an early retirement after Pete Walker's Frightmare (1974) but with a lengthy roster of films to his credit along the way including The Blood Beast Terror and Curse of the Crimson Altar (both 1968).

The film's story was originally conceived under the title Terror for Kicks by John Burke, a horror and sci-fi publications editor (including the Hammer Horror Omnibus series) and occasional writer of movie tie-in novelizations like A Hard Day's Night and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. However, the final screenplay ended up as the work of Reeves and Tom Baker, a longtime friend of the director (no relation to the Doctor Who actor) who had appeared and shot some of Reeves' early short films and would go on to pen the screenplay for Witchfinder General. (Burke's original, substantially different screenplay was eventually published along with several legal letters and other odds and ends in 2013.) The film's release by Allied Artists in the United States proved to be a bit more problematic due to the film's portrayal of sensual pleasure through violence, with a request to the Production Code for a "Suggested for Mature Audiences" rating on the poster eventually rescinded. The film was instead issued without any kind of rating, with the usual kid-friendly audiences for other Karloff films denied the chance to see this due to its pairing with other titles more suitable for adult viewers.

As for Karloff, the actor himself requested that his character be toned down and made more sympathetic than his original cold-blooded portrayal in Burke's script; he's certainly shown in a more humane light here at the end than the Estelle character by a wide margin. Karloff had actually come off a two-year break from horror films, focusing instead on TV roles and kid-friendly offerings like Mad Monster Party? (1967) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). His status as a grand elder statesman of the genre had given him a great deal of gravitas by this point, with this role followed quickly by an impressive showcase in Peter Bogdanovich's Targets (1968) and, confined to a wheelchair, a supporting role in Tenser's Curse of the Crimson Altar and a quintet of scrappy but well-remembered Mexican horror productions mostly seen after his death in 1969: House of Evil: (1968), Fear Chamber (1968), Cauldron of Blood (1970), Snake People (1971), and Alien Terror (1971). Critics and fans often derided Karloff's final years, but time has been kind to his twilight years on film with this effort for Reeves now proudly standing at the front of the pack.

by Nathaniel Thompson

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