The Magnificent Obsession of Michael Reeves

Director: Dima Ballin

Writers: Kat Ellinger

Cast: Ian Ogilvy, Tom Baker, Kat Ellinger, Benjamin Halligan

Cert: 15 (TBC)

Producers: Dima Ballin, Kat Ellinger

Editor: Dima Ballin

Cinematographers: Jim Kunz, Constantine Nasr, Jon Robertson

Running time: 86mins

Year: 2019

What’s the story: A documentary recounting the short, eventful life of British director Michael Reeves.

What’s the verdict: For most who have even heard of Michael Reeves, it is likely their knowledge extends to him directing Witchfinder General, dying young and delivering one of film history’s great put-downs. Namely to Vincent Price, when the tetchy Witchfinder General star said to the director, “I have made 84 films, what have you done?” to which Reeves replied, “I have made two good ones.”

The manic-depressive Reeves died aged 25 of an accidental overdose in 1969 and Witchfinder General is now 51-years-old. Diabolique magazine founder Dima Ballin’s excellent documentary is therefore a welcome arrival to preserve the memory of this important light in British cinema.

Running a traditional birth-to-death story arc, Ballin populates his film with Reeves’ friends and colleagues, including childhood pal Ian Ogilvy and frequent Reeves scriptwriter Tom Baker. Experts, including the documentary’s writer Kat Ellinger and Reeves biographer Benjamin Halligan, place Reeves’ work into context of the times and other filmmakers.  

Declaring his ambition to be a director at age 8, Reeves’ career in the film industry is depicted as running for the decade between his mid-teens and mid-twenties. In love with Hollywood spectacle, he wanted his films to carry the polish of those blockbusters. Yet, he was not afraid to clash with money men: he fought for Donald Pleasance as the Witchfinder General over Vincent Price, but lost the battle to the producers at American International Pictures.

Reeves’ strengths were his confidence, talent, independent wealth, and a hugely supportive mother, compromised by the manic depression he shared with his father, who died when Reeves was a boy. The film details how these attributes would get the teenage Reeves a summer job working with his idol Don Siegel when holidaying in the US, but made him unemployable in the final year of his life.

Collaborators recall how everything was subservient to the film being made, including off-screen comforts or on-screen safety. Seeking permission to shoot on motorways or detonate cars on derelict building sites was for wimps.

Ballin’s movie is also a valuable snapshot of the late 60s British film industry, riding the line of respectability and opportunism. A place where producers such as Tony Tenser (who would later found Tigon) were funding production companies from the profits off porn cinemas. Something of a shock to Roman Polanski when he arrived in town to make Repulsion for Tenser.

Space is provided to discuss Reeves’ first film, the horror quickie Revenge of the Blood Beast (aka She Beast, The She Beast, Satan’s Sister, Sister of Satan), but the lion’s share goes to The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General, the two movies that cemented his reputation.

A phenomenon in Europe and America, Witchfinder General is shown to have inspired Euro cash-ins (chiefly, Mark of the Devil with Herbert Lom and The Bloody Judge with Christopher Lee) and Sam Peckinpah in the US, who would use that film’s cinematographer, John Coquillon, on four films including Straw Dogs.

With Reeves’ work being too low budget for behind-the-scenes footage, Ballin employs rostrum shots of movie stills, photographs and posters, alongside talking heads, to bring a kinetic energy to his film.  

The result is one of those great documentaries that does not require you to have seen the movies discussed, and leaves you wondering what might British cinema have looked like in the 1970s if Reeves had lived?

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel
iTunes Podcast: The Electric Shadows Podcast

2 thoughts on “The Magnificent Obsession of Michael Reeves”

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