Michael Reeves was just twenty-four when he wrote and directed Witchfinder General. It would prove to be his most critically acclaimed and successful film, and would also be his last. For Reeves died not long after the film’s release from an accidental overdose - a tragic demise for a director of such immense talent, who had proven himself with three distinct horror films: Revenge of the Blood Beast, The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm).
Reeves’ precocious talent and early death led to a mythologizing of his life. The film writer David Pirie likened him to the Romantic poets Shelley, Byron and Keats, and as his death came at the end of the sixties, there was the inevitable twinning with the untimely deaths of troubled rock musicians, such as Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. Add to this the belief that Reeves may have killed himself, then we have the beginning of a cinematic legend - which is all good copy, but sadly removes the man from his art.
Reeves was precocious, he made his first film at the age of 8. Whether the resulting home-movie was good or bad is irrelevant, for what is important here is the realization of Reeves’ youthful ambition. At school he met and became friends with Ian Ogilvy, who went on to become an actor and star of all his films. From school, Reeves traveled to Hollywood at 16, where he door-stepped Don Siegel, director of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Siegel was Reeves’ favorite director, and let’s be frank, it takes balls to turn up at someone’s door and convince them, then and there, that they need to employ you. Siegel was convinced and gave Reeves a job as his assistant - now, there’s a lesson here we all can learn from. Working for Siegel gave Reeves the opportunity to make the contacts and raise the cash for his own first feature film, Revenge of the Blood Beast, which starred Ogilvy and horror queen Barbara Steele. The film was well regarded and if not exactly brilliant, it marked the arrival of a new and original cinematic vision, and as with all young film-makers, there was soon the predictable murmur of Reeves being the next Orson Welles. Nice thought, but not exactly correct.
Two years later, in 1967, Reeves made his first important horror film, The Sorcerers, a trippy slasher which starred Ogilvy and film legend, Boris Karloff, who was at a stage of making many strange and often dreadful films, but had this time, as he did later with Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets, made a wise choice by agreeing to star in Reeves’ film. While Post-Modernism has made it easy to intellectualize anything, it is fair to say that in this case there is enough meat on this film’s bones to justify a more rigorous examination. The Sorcerers is more than a horror film, it has a subtext about voyeurism and cinema, and questions the cultural obsession with youth. The movie, and especially Karloff’s association with it, propelled Reeves into the top rank of British film directors, which saw him listed as the-man-most-likely-to, alongside the older and more experienced film-makers Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson and Ken Loach. Don’t forget, at this point, Reeves was just 23.
But it is Witchfinder General that is Reeves most important and best film, a grisly horror that starred Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Hilary Dwyer and Patrick Wymark.
The film had depth as it was based on the true story of Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed Witchfinder General, who carried out the torture and execution of alleged sorcerers/witches during the English Civil War, in the 1640s. Hopkins was a notorious figure who made a fortune out of his activities, being paid roughly two bucks for every soul he saved by hanging, burning or drowning.
Vincent Price was brilliant as Matthew Hopkins, for Reeves had coaxed a more measured performance from the usually “camp and hammy” film star. The story goes Price was so annoyed by Reeves continual directions to underplay that one day he turned on Reeves and said, “I have made 84 movies, how many have you made?” To which Reeves replied, “Two good ones.” Price laughed, and thereafter, did as he was told. Of course, this may be apocryphal for, as years later, Price talked about his unhappiness in working with Reeves:
Well he hated me. He didn’t want me at all for the part. He wanted some other actor, and he got me and that was it. I didn’t like him, either, and it was one of the first times in my life that I’ve been in a picture where really the director and I just clashed [twists his hands], like that. He didn’t know how to talk to actors, he hadn’t had the experience, or talked to enough of them, so all the actors on the picture had a very bad time. I knew though, that in a funny, uneducated sort of way, he was right in his desire for me to approach the part in a certain way. He wanted it very serious and straight, and he was right, but he just didn’t know how to communicate with actors.
Hindsight is a great thing, and Price has the upperhand here, able to score points after the director’s dead and the film has been highly praised. Whatever the disagreements between the two on set, Reeves got Price to deliver one of his best cinematic performances.
The film’s release captured the public’s imagination, as many saw Witchfinder General‘s barbarism as a damning comment on the Vietnam War. Despite criticisms of the film’s shocking, documentary-like violence, Witchfinder proved to be Reeves biggest commercial success.
Yet after it, Reeves seemed to lose his way. He became unraveled, started to drink heavily, medicated himself with uppers and downers, and started a slow spiral into depression. Those who were witness to this give different accounts: some, the strain of working with Vincent Price; others, a failed romance; others still, Reeves’ nihilism. When visiting the composer Paul Ferris in hospital, where Ferris was recuperating from his own failed suicide attempt, Reeves joked, which between the two would be first to succeed in killing himself?
In February 1969, Reeves returned home after a night’s drinking, and swallowed a handful of anti-depressants. Whether intentionally or not is open to conjecture, but what’s known is Reeves died in the early hours of the 11th February from an overdose of barbiturates - his death robbed British film, and the horror world, of one of its most brilliant and original talents.