Michael Reeves was just 23 when he wrote and directed ‘Witchfinder General‘.  It would prove to be his most critically acclaimed film. It would also be his last.  Reeves died from an accidental overdose months later.  It was a tragic end for a director of such immense talent and originality, who had reinvented the horror genre in three distinct films – ‘Revenge of the Blood Beast‘, ‘The Sorcerers‘ and ‘Witchfinder General‘.

Reeves was a precocious talent, making his first short film at 8.  At school he was introduced to the young actor Ian Ogilvy, who would become Reeves close friend and star of all his films.  Reeves travelled to Hollywood at 16 to meet director Don Siegel.  He became Siegel’s assistant and proved himself to be a natural talent.  From here, he raised the money for his first film ‘Revenge of the Blood Beast’, which starred Ogilvy and horror queen Barbara Steele. The film was highly successful and alerted critics to a young, homegrown talent, who they soon dubbed the Orson Welles of his generation.

Two years later, in 1967, Reeves made the first of his important horror films, ‘The Sorcerers‘, starring horror legend, Boris Karloff. The film’s subtext examined the role of voyeurism and cinema and the obsession with youth. The movie, and especially Karloff’s association with it, propelled Reeves into the top rank of horror film directors – he was just 22.

But it was ‘Witchfinder General’, which was Reeves most important, and original horror film. The film starred Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Hilary Dwyer and Patrick Wymark.

Based on the true events of Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed Witchfinder General who carried out the torture and execution of alleged sorcerers in the 1640s, during the Civil War.  Hopkins was a notorious figure who made a fortune out of his activities, being paid £1 for every soul he saved by hanging, burning or drowning.

Vincent Price was brilliant as Matthew Hopkins, with Reeves coaxing a more measured performance from the usually ‘hammy’ Price.  Annoyed by Reeves continual directions to underplay, Price turned on Reeves and said, ‘I have made 84 movies, how many have you made?’  Reeves replied, ‘Two good ones.’

‘Witchfinder General’ captured the public’s imagination with many viewers seeing the film’s barbarism as a comment on the Vietnam War. Despite criticisms of the film’s brutality, Witchfinder proved to be Reeves biggest commercial success.

Yet after this success, Reeves seemed to lose his way.  He started to drink heavily, and suffered from depression.  In February 1969, Reeves returned home after a night drinking, and swallowed a handful of anti-depressants.  Whether this was intentional or not is open to conjecture.

Reeves died in the early hours of February 11.  His death robbed British film, and the horror world, of one of its most brilliant and original talents.

Advertisements