On the evidence of his best-known film, Witchfinder General, the early death of Michael Reeves at the age of twenty-five robbed the cinema of a potential major talent. He was born in London in 1944 and after an English public school education he worked in various minor capacities, first for Don Siegel, then on American-backed European films such as The Long Ships (UK/Yugoslavia, d. Jack Cardiff, 1963) and Genghis Khan (UK/West Germany/Yugoslavia/US, d. Henry Levin, 1965). His break came when he went to work in Italy for producer Paul Maslansky, first on Il Castello dei Morti Vivi (1964), then as director and co-writer of La Sorella di Satana (UK/Italy, 1966). Though hampered by budgetary constraints, La Sorella di Satana does contain some notable moments, such as the witch hunt at the beginning which looks like a sketch for the opening of Witchfinder General.
His second feature, The Sorcerers (1967), was made back in Britain for Tigon, a small exploitation films company. Despite its low budget, Reeves was able to draw on fine performances from Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey as old people who become obsessed with the violent sexual possibilities created by the permissive society, and Ian Ogilvy as the young man who becomes their unwitting tool. Its theme of controlling subjects at a distance and vicariously experiencing their sensations can be seen as a reflexive commentary on the cinema experience.
Witchfinder General, though set during the English Civil War, ignores conflicts between Cavaliers and Roundheads to dwell on the seedy lawlessness sown by the war. Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), the so-called Witchfinder General, arrives in an idyllic English village and proceeds to spread terror and degradation. Reeves coaxes a chillingly subtle performance from Vincent Price, and the rest of the cast (Ian Ogilvy, Hilary Dwyer, Rupert Davies, even Robert Russell and Nicky Henson) play their parts with an inspired conviction they fail to evince elsewhere. John Coquillon's cinematography, Paul Ferris's score, and the veteran Jim Morahan's art direction combine to create an atmosphere of terror, all the more disturbing for being set against the tranquil beauty of the English countryside, but it is Reeves who holds things together.
Reeves' next film was to be a Victorian melodrama, The Oblong Box, for American International Pictures (which had part-funded Witchfinder General). However, during pre-production he died of a barbiturate overdose on 11 February 1969; Gordon Hessler took over as director. Reeves left a tantalising cinematic legacy and much speculation about the impact he would have had on British cinema had he lived.
Fischer, Dennis, Horror Film Directors, 1931-1990 (Jefferson, N. Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, 1991)
Halligan, Benjamin, Michael Reeves (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003)
Hutchings, Peter, Hammer and Beyond: the British Horror Film (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993)
Murray, John B. The Remarkable Michael Reeves: His Short and Tragic Life (London: Cinematics Publishing, 2002)
Pirie, David, A Heritage of Horror (London: Gordon Fraser, 1973)
Rigby, Jonathan, English Gothic (London: Reynolds and Hearn, 2000)
Wood, Robin, 'In Memoriam Michael Reeves', Movie n. 17, Winter 1969-70, pp. 2-6
Tom Ryall, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors