Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Michael Reeves and Witchfinder General


             Michael Reeves had a short career and in my mind will always be known as the brilliant director of Witchfinder General, in this entry I've decided to take a look at his career, suicide and discuss mainly that influential landmark film. In the Deep Red catalog all of his films are referenced and available to watch (now they are on various online channels), titles such as The She Beast, Castle of The Living Dead (not to be confused with Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism), The Sorcerers, but Witchfinder is his best known film. He was supposed to have directed The Oblong Box with Vincent Price but unfortunately died. These four films are all we have left of someone with a lot of potential that influenced one of my favorite genres, the witch burning films like: The Bloody Judge (by Jess Franco), The Devils (by Ken Russell) and Inquisition (Paul Naschy) and many other religious hypocrisy films. Witchfinder General made a huge impact on those aforementioned films.
            Benjamin Halligan mentions in his book about Reeves in reference to his suicide, “ In this way, Reeves could join the Syd Barretts, Brian Epsteins (also perceived to have had an ‘ambiguous’ end, also via barbiturates)”. Michael Reeves was severely depressed and after a handful of films, he killed himself with a lethal mixture of pills and alcohol, dead at the age of 25 in 1969. This was his fourth suicide attempt and he was clinically depressed, another sad testament to the primitive nature of the doping of America or the UK, without any concrete results or help from the Mental Health industry, other than hurling pills at people. The problem can only be controlled by mood altering drugs and in my mind Reeves is another victim of that vicious mental health cycle, being put on one drug after the next without any real results or in some cases a personality prone to self abuse and over medication, no one however is beyond help and for the system to give up on someone, it’s an awful shame. Only the person can with support, turn his life around and find solace away from drug and alchohol dependency, there are other avenues and methods. After his fourth attempt, he surely had a death wish, his doctors felt he was cured or didn’t want to deal with his unstable behavior and even Price witnessed his erratic behavior during The Oblong Box and knew that after his girlfriend broke up with him, at that point only Reeves could turn his life around but it was too late.   
            Halligan pigeonholes the baby boomer generation as part of the problem, putting him in the same category as the fallen psychedelic heroes of that counter culture, they all had more potential then self-confidence and their own insecurities sealed their fates. That party animal existence is a stigma that Reeves will have to live with among others dependent on heavy drug use. Barrett actually lived a long life out of the scrutiny of the public eye and had become a drug casualty and misanthrope by his own design, his shadow was forever cast over the remaining successful members of Pink Floyd who always paid tribute to him and devoted their careers to his memory, even though he was still alive, his mind died along time ago. Death is the great equalizer, it puts things into perspective and immortalizes a legacy because great things that were meant to happen later never occurred, because of a dumb mistake of mixing pills and booze. 
           Chas Balun included all of Reeves work in his catalog because like Peter Walker, these are rare British filmmakers making a statement through the cult genre and deserve more credit and attention then they got in their native land.
            For the role of Matthew Hopkins, Reeves wanted to cast Donald Pleasence and when Price assumed the role, Reeves only gave him animosity and a very unprofessional way of direction, they locked horns and Price was brilliant regardless, according to the Halligan book,  he felt sorry for Reeves because he was so troubled. He hated Price and it was a mutual hostility, but it translated to the screen effectively. Certain directors use this accidental method to their advantage (other examples are William Friedkin, Cronenberg and many of the Italian Gore directors like Umberto Lenzi). They torture their actors and they get results, it’s an insanity that makes me question the integrity of a director. I mean if they are physically putting the actors in harms way to achieve their own artistic product and it all works to their benefit I guess its worth it. In the case for Reeves he only verbal abused his actors (unlike Friedkin or Cronenberg who slapped around their talent). Lenzi and Deodato teeter to the utmost criminal lengths, rejecting unions and murdering innocent animals to get their twisted results. Reeves never did any of this, he just self medicated alittle too much, to his credit he comes off more professional. Price mentions how unhinged Reeves was and the self-loathing just increased, but as a filmmaker he admired his work ethic and dedication, they just didn’t really get along.
            According to Nathaniel Thompson of TCM, Reeves was a devoted fan of Don Seigel and worked at a breakneck pace on Castle Of The living Dead, he wrote the script and was responsible for most of the footage shot toward the finally. He half directed the production and was supposed to be one of the next important standout directors of the AIP circuit, but it all came to a grinding halt after his untimely suicide and was a bitter shame.
            According to Peter Hutchings book entitled Hammer and Beyond, a critic named Alan Bennett mentions that Witchfinder General was so sadistic and humorless that it made him feel dirty, in response, Reeves wrote him back and said that he “Wished he could have witnessed Mr. Bennett attempting to wash away the ‘dirty’ feeling my film, because its proof that Witchfinder worked as intended”.

            Nothing however is as vile and atrocious as the original story of Matthew Hopkins. In the 1600’s a renegade self appointed prosecutor of witches serving in the guise that his authority was mandated by Parliament and Oliver Cromwell to perform torture tests on helpless victims. During this time a Medieval epidemic of innocent women and children being tortured in the name of religious hypocrisy was seared into the fabric of society and no one could escape it, once caught by these inept maniacs in charge. The Michael Reeves film in 1968 was the first of the witch burning films to depict this time period and would influence all others to come. In the film version Vincent Price is hacked up with an axe and justice felt like it had been served in the fictional version, but in reality Hopkins lived until 1647 and died of Tuberculosis. 
            In a Western Civilization class I took, one of teachers mentioned that she thought the poor were condemned as witches because they had no means to defend themselves and to slaughter and accuse them of necromancy was a way of condemning the poor, who had no lawyers to defend them or any human rights. If they had powers of sorcery wouldn’t they have destroyed the ones hiding behind religious authority using that hierarchy and power to murder innocent people living in filth? The hypocrisy of condemning a certain group in the name of religious authority is a trend that will unfortunately never die out and has been upheld again and again even in modern society, this is one of the reasons I love the horror genre so much, because you can convey this message in the most truthfully honest graphic way possible and no one will challenge it. Critics can easily disregard it as exploitive nonsense and laugh it off as ridiculous, but horror films illustrate the hardest bits of reality that most of the public would like to erase and escape from. The darkest parts of history are not pleasant, good and evil become intertwined and sometimes cannot be deciphered into easy cookie cutter historical categories. Later on, I plan on reviewing more witch burning films and The works of Michael Reeves, stay tuned....


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