FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Sorcerers and Villain
Reviewed by Robert Cashill
Produced by Patrick Curtis and Tony Tenser; directed by Michael Reeves; written by Michael Reeves and Tom Baker; cinematography by Stanley A. Long; edited by Susan Michie and David Woodward; music by Paul Ferris; starring Boris Karloff, Catherine Lacey, and Ian Ogilvy. Color, 86 min.,1967. A Warner Archive release.
Produced by Jay Kanter, Alan Ladd, Jr., and Elliott Kastner; directed by Michael Tuchner; written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais; cinematography by Christopher Challis; edited by Ralph Sheldon; music by Jonathan Hodge; starring Richard Burton, Ian McShane, Nigel Davenport, Donald Sinden, Fiona Lewis, T.P. McKenna, Joss Ackland, and Cathleen Nesbitt. Color, 98 min.,1946. A Warner Archive release.
Call this joint review “London Falling”—here we have two dissimilar films, from the same era, that poke and prod beneath the candied pop surfaces of Carnaby Street, the Beatles, and James Bond. Both have received quality, no-frills transfers. One is exceptional.
The other is Villain, a movie I had long wanted to see. Richard Burton playing a character based on gangster Ronnie Kray seemed irresistible—the “angry young man” as unrepentant thug—but the film is both crude and tentative, and lacks the lurid vigor that pulses through the same year’s Get Carter. Overdoing (when he remembers to do it) the Cockney accent that comes naturally to that film’s Michael Caine, Burton is Vic Dakin, who rules the London underworld with an iron fist, a straight razor, and copious sexual blackmail of politicians. Supplying him with whores is his second-in-command, Wolfe (Ian McShane), who even pimps out his own girlfriend (Fiona Lewis, later to make a bigger, blood-splattered splash in The Fury) for the cause. A hard-nosed police inspector (Nigel Davenport) bends a few rules to trap Dakin, who plans a big score by teaming with a rival to rob a plastics company’s payroll.
The elements are in place for a filthy muckraker. Yet Villain congeals, and a movie I thought would be a corker put me to sleep at least twice. Maybe it was Burton’s monotonous performance, the lethargic pace under director Michael Tuchner, who would go on to make more notable TV movies in America, or the heavy-handed screenplay by veterans Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. (They would bring more finesse to 2008’s The Bank Job, which was based on an actual London robbery in 1971.) Maybe MGM, the distributor, got nervous; the executive suite is said to have blunted its most controversial element. Dakin and Wolfe share a sadomasochistic relationship, with the husband of Elizabeth Taylor throwing the future star of Deadwood onto a waterbed draped in purple velvet sheets in one scene. Maybe it was all that horrid Seventies décor.
We get the drift—Kray’s sexual issues were well-rumored at the time—but either cuts or timidity prevent the subject from sinking in. (Maybe Burton, having gone down the gay-themed Staircase with Rex Harrison three years earlier, wanted to go no further.) We’re left hanging. How has Dakin’s criminality been shaped by his sexuality? (Or vice versa?) What about his relationship with his Ovaltine-sipping mum, a sweet old dear played by Cathleen Nesbitt? (When he takes her to the seaside we’re reminded of 1947’s Brighton Rock, whose killer had similar sadistic propensities.) Nor do we hear much from Wolfe, who in McShane’s muffled performance submits like a good soldier to Dakin’s demands. When he taunts his boss toward the end, shouting, “You blew it, you blew it!” (a reference to Easy Rider’s “We blew it”?) we don’t know why he cares about the threatened loss of Dakin’s tinpot empire, as his stake in it is unclear. Villain is ugly without illuminating its ugliness.
The same cannot be said for The Sorcerers, a movie whose bleak and rigorous point of view is all the more impressive coming from a twenty-three-year-old writer-director, Michael Reeves. Looking every one of his seventy-nine years, Boris Karloff plays Monserrat, a hypnotherapist whose unorthodox theories have condemned him and his wife, Estelle (Cathleen Lacey), to a threadbare existence in a shabby flat. Monserrat invents a machine that allows users to tap into the sensations of others—what he lacks is a test subject. Figuring a “bored boy looking for new experiences” will fit the bill, he trolls the fringes of the club district, where he finds the feckless Mike (Ian Ogilvy, who also costarred in Reeves’s first film, 1966’s The She Beast). Mike figures the professor for a “blue movie peddler,” but is intrigued enough to follow him back to his apartment, where in a swirl of flashing lights, buzzing noises, and zoom lenses the deed is done. Monserrat and Estelle can now feel everything that Mike feels, and live vicariously through him.
The professor thinks that his machine can be used for the benefit of mankind, allowing the young to infuse the elderly and the frail with their good vibrations. The horror comes not from the great horror star (who, physical infirmities aside, is clearly invigorated by the challenging part) but from the embittered Estelle, who immediately seizes control of Mike’s mind and uses him to steal her a fur coat before graduating to more sensational crimes. “We all want to do things deep down inside ourselves and now we have the means to enjoy these things without consequences!” she hisses at her husband, who, up to a point, agrees.
When we see Nesbitt in Villain we’re reminded of her much more conflicted scenes “mothering” a helplessly strung-out Gene Hackman in 1975’s French Connection II. In a terrific performance, the unsung Lacey (the “nun with high heels” in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes) dispenses with maternal instincts—Mike is a “good boy” only when indulging her murderous fantasies. We expect her to see the error of her ways, and for Mike to realize that the Monserrats are the source of his mental blackouts. Neither happens, as the movie departs from traditional horror scenarios in intriguing ways. (One consequence of the mind melding is that any physical damage sustained by the subjects is relayed back to the users, a touch that anticipates David Cronenberg.)
Set in a London as despondent as that in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (the films share a producer, Tony Tenser), The Sorcerers states that the generation gap is unbridgeable. Mike, who works in an antiques shop named The Glory Hole (appropriate for a movie about the anonymous fulfillment of illicit desires), isn’t terribly sympathetic despite his predicament, and is on the wrong path before he meets the Monserrats. The film is equally unsparing about our senior years, a condition that can only be escaped from. Youth is wasted on the young, and the old waste the young.
Ogilvy, who skillfully underplays Mike, was Reeves’s close friend. Having worked with Karloff and Barbara Steele (in The She Beast), he costarred opposite another genre icon, Vincent Price, in the filmmaker’s boldest and most accomplished work, Witchfinder General (1968). It was his final credit. Reeves died of a barbiturate overdose the following year, at age twenty-five. A great loss.
Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Associate and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.
Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1