Wednesday, August 28, 2019


Premiering this past weekend at FrightFest in the UK was THE MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION OF MICHAEL REEVES, the first stand-alone documentary feature produced by Diabolique Films, under the direction of DIABOLIQUE publisher Dima Ballin. Ballin previously collaborated with his co-producer, DIABOLIQUE editor Kat Ellinger, on some similarly ambitious documentary extras included on the German Blu-ray releases of Hammer's DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE and TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA; this new work is their first to focus on the entire career of an individual filmmaker within a feature-length (86m) framework.

Two particular challenges arise from making director Michael Reeves (1943-1969) the subject of such a film: his legacy really consists of only three completed films - THE SHE BEAST (1966), THE SORCERERS (1967), and WITCHFINDER GENERAL (aka THE CONQUEROR WORM, 1968), each wildly unlike the others in terms of competence and technique; and this modest, irregular output demands assessment through the lens of Reeves' most likely accidental death at the age of only 25. CINEFANTASTIQUE once called him "The James Dean of Horror," but it might be fairer to call him Horror's Christopher Marlowe. His filmography dies screaming. It's impossible to watch his three films, each one representing a leap in quality, without reflecting on his loss, his potential, and feeling so bereft of unmade work that we start looking at the completed work for more than actually resides there.

Wretchedly shot in 16mm, with second unit comedy relief material shot by Corman cohorts Charles B. Griffith and Mel Welles, THE SHE BEAST anticipates WITCHFINDER GENERAL with a savage witch-dunking sequence but doesn't offer a great deal else. It stars Barbara Steele, who was hired for one day and worked all twenty-four hours of it. The underrated THE SORCERERS (paid special attention here, rightly so) is one of the genre's earliest meta-scenarios but may well owe its complex substance to screenwriter John Burke, not to mention the fine performances of Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey. WITCHFINDER GENERAL is a legitimate masterpiece, though realistically a minor one, which few people point out was not the film Reeves envisioned; it was cast against his wishes and he fought on set with its star Vincent Price every single day. People credit him rather than Price with the performance the actor finally gave, but it's really nothing that Price hadn't previously done in Roger Corman's THE HAUNTED PALACE. If there's one thing we know about Michael Reeves as a director, from on-set testimony, it's that he had no idea how to direct actors toward a preconceived performance. Make no mistake, it's remarkable that anyone could die at 25 having already made three internationally distributed features, but it's the film he made in spite of his vision that makes the whole of his achievement seem almost preternaturally significant; the films he didn't make that make those he did rise in stature.

The lionizing of Reeves began with a remarkable chapter in David Pirie's landmark study A HERITAGE OF HORROR: THE ENGLISH GOTHIC CINEMA 1946-1972, continued with a well-researched CINEFANTASTIQUE cover story by the late Bill Kelley, and continued with two substantial biographies written by John B. Murphy and Benjamin Halligan, respectively. In contrast to these painstaking literary studies, this well-organized assortment of interviews with various colleagues and genre commentators is not exactly the "definitive history" promised; it recovers (and to some effect, refreshes) the ground these others first ploughed. There is no faulting the contributors, who include personal friends and collaborators Ian Ogilvy, Tom Baker, and Ingrid Cranfield, biographer Ben Halligan, and genre authorities Kat Ellinger, Steve Haberman, David Huckvale, and Gavin Baddely, but there is an impersonal feeling about the whole suggesting that its own vision was shaped by the content of its interviews, rather than vice versa. In other words, while it's technically a documentary, it's ultimately more of an appreciation composed of archival photos, film clips, and a neat set of bracing, upbeat and sometimes wistful insights and annotations. It's the kind of smart, illustrated programming one would wish for as the prime extra in a Reeves box set. In the days when magazines ruled, we called these in-depth articles.

The ideal audience for THE MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION OF MICHAEL REEVES would be those viewers who have seen one or two of his films and want to know more about who made them. A younger viewership seems specifically entreated, in that there's a concerted effort toward the end to give Reeves some contemporary relevance by identifying WITCHFINDER GENERAL as a forerunner of "folk horror." This is a stretch. Set in the 17th Century, it has a rural setting but its implied machinations extend to the most civilized seats of power extant at that time; in its way, it's really no more "folk" than ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. Like Ken Russell's THE DEVILS, WITCHFINDER's greatest horror is that it's based on actual historical accounts and shows us in chilling detail the extremes of which ambition, whether political or sexual, is capable. At the time it was made, it was clearly seen as a film addressing its own times, when Church and State were becoming more brazen in collusion, and rich old men were packing young men off to die in a war whose ultimate purpose was unknown to them. 

Perhaps because his premature death was initially reported as a likely suicide (subsequently discounted), Reeves has endured as precisely the kind of brooding Romantic figure that we see on the poster above. Though this film omits some personal detail best left to the books, Ballin's film is to be commended for establishing a more practical, less romanticized reading of Reeves' troubled character (he seems to have had all the advantages and fragilities of a wealthy background) and his personal investment in the horror genre. There is a consensus of opinion here that - had Reeves lived - he probably would have abandoned the horror genre to embrace the kind of big action movies that were made by his mentor, Don Siegel. Who knows? Given a few more years, Reeves' magnificent obsession might have been to direct MAGNUM FORCE.

(c) 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.