Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sixties Sorcery

THE SORCERERS (1967)
CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (1968)

"You enjoyed it, didn't you?" In an allegory for the thrills of cinema itself, THE SORCERERS tells of an old couple who invent a machine to live vicariously through a young man.

MICHAEL Reeves was a true cineaste and perhaps the greatest lost talent of the British film industry. Although he only directed three pictures, the Sutton-born Reeves increasingly became frustrated about the difficulty of getting projects off the ground. Suffering from depression and insomnia, on the 11th of February 1969 he died at the age of twenty-five from an alcohol and barbiturate overdose which many - including lifelong friend Ian Ogilvy - believe to have been purely accidental (indeed, the coroner's report stated that the level of barbiturate dosage was too marginal to suggest any dark intention). There is nothing critics like more than to mythologise an untimely artistic death (Brian Jones would follow five months later), but there is no mistaking that Reeves was a precocious talent. This is a man who travelled to Hollywood at the age of sixteen, sought out the address of his favourite director - Don Siegel - and subsequently gained employment. But after the critical and commercial success of WITCHFINDER GENERAL in 1968, Reeves seemingly lost his way. Starting to drink heavily, the boy wonder was also taking uppers and downers, and those close offered a variety of reasons: the development hells, the strain of his on-set clashes with Vincent Price, a failed romance, and an underlying nihilism.

There is much to enjoy in Reeves' second feature under consideration here, which followed the British/Italian REVENGE OF THE BLOOD BEAST shot in 1966. THE SORCERERS is a trippy slasher movie made as the 1960s neared its dizzying end. Retired and discredited hypnotist Professor Marcus Monserrat (Boris Karloff) and wife Estelle (Catherine Lacey) are an elderly couple who, through hypnosis, can "live" through young people and feel their emotions. Marcus picks up a bored youth - Mike Roscoe (Ogilvy) - at a Wimpy bar, who partakes in a ground-breaking experiment at the Monserrat household. When the pensioners choose to 'tune in' their fun begins mundane enough - Estelle instructs Roscoe to steal a fur coat - but soon she becomes hooked on the strength of her manipulative powers, forcing the hipster into carrying out a series of increasingly gruesome acts (such as a scissor murder of Audrey (Susan George)). As Marcus becomes mentally and physically overpowered by his wife, the husband manages to break the spell by causing Mike to die in a fireball of a car crash; the film ends on the image of the Monserrat's charred remains miles away at their home.

"... as though Boris Karloff's going to pop up at any moment." Barbara Steele's only home-grown horror - and Boris Karloff's last - CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR also wastes the talents of a bored Christopher Lee, who wears his own tweed jacket throughout.

By 1967 exploitation guru Tony Tenser had left Compton-Tekli and formed Tony Tenser Films, which would soon be renamed Tigon. THE SORCERERS was a co-production with the American company Curtwel - run by the husband-and-wife team of Patrick Curtis and Raquel Welch - and it is an effectively edited and lively lensed film which confronts cinema's inherent voyeurism. It also deftly contrasts gyrating youth culture with the dreary existence and tired home d├ęcor of the older generation; quieter sequences are governed by the sound of a ticking clock, as if to signify the both the passing joy of youth and the beginning of the end. Reeves makes the most of a derisory budget (£11,000 of the total £50,000 went to Karloff), though Monserrat's laboratory set is achingly threadbare. Karloff - sporting a pinstripe suit and goatee - gives a strong performance in his twilight years, still managing to sustain a erudite presence but also very much under the shadow of past glories. But it is Lacey who is the star, her demented wide-eyed enjoyment of Roscoe's building mania made even more disturbing by the fact that it is portrayed through violence rather than sexual yearning.

If Karloff was fading here, Tigon nearly finished the star off totally during Vernon Sewell's CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR, where Boris contracted pneumonia during night scenes filmed in freezing rain. Based uncredited on H.P. Lovecraft's The Dreams in the Witch House, Robert Manning (Mark Eden) goes in search of his brother, who was last known to have visited Craxted Lodge, Greymarsh. Manning is invited to stay by Eve (Virginia Wetherell) - the niece of Lodge owner Morley (Christopher Lee) - but is haunted by nightmares. When wheelchair-bound Professor Marshe (Karloff) informs Manning about a cult based around Lavinia Morley (Barbara Steele), and Robert discovers that he is descended from Lavinia's chief accuser, Craxted Lodge is burned to the ground, and Morley - exposed as the head of the followers - is consumed in flames. Starting with a written extract about hallucinatory drugs, the film descends into an unintentionally hilarious attic ritual, where Lavinia is aided by a man wearing an antlers head cap and leather underpants, and a woman with nipple-patches and horsewhip. The camp continues at a swinging party at the Lodge, which includes an exotic dancer pouring champagne over her breasts, but this is where the fun ends. Eden and Wetherell are functional at best, and the climactic notion that Morley and Lavinia are the same person - which would have made sense under the shooting title THE REINCARNATION - is left unexplored.