Somewhere in the archives at Princeton, there is a tattered sheet of paper, half-filled with scrawled sentences. This is the final page of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, and its blank half-page has a touch of magic. It teases us with the idea that, if he had lived, Fitzgerald might have come up with another novel as glimmering as The Great Gatsby.
Similar landscapes of possibility are opened up by truncated film careers. In a British context, these are especially powerful, because there have been few directors to rival the European and American masters, either in quality or quantity; British film was, and is, an unstable business, a matter of boom and bust. It is hardly surprising, then, that Brits like Robert Hamer and Seth Holt, directors who died prematurely and who left behind only the odd, glittering fragment, also possess the magic of blankness. If they had survived, the general feeling goes, then maybe, just maybe, British film might have been a more glorious affair than it turned out to be.
Michael Reeves was the youngest of these might-have-beens, a Chatterton who suddenly dazzled and just as swiftly fizzled out. When he died of a drug overdose in 1969, he was only twenty-five, but he had already managed to make three low budget feature films, the final one, Witchfinder General (1968, US: The Conquering Worm), being the reason for his reputation as a doomed master. For Benjamin Halligan, that reputation is rooted in the fact that Reeves' work was "entirely personal, entirely felt"; in Witchfinder, "the scenes he created were intrinsic to his whole being, only to be communicated through the very act of filming". It goes without saying, perhaps, that this biography-cum-critical study tells the story of what happens when art and some hungry inner need become fused too closely.
His background had a lot to do with it. Reeves was an example of that great British archetype, the private school rebel, poised between privilege (he had a private income) and deprivation (his father died when he was eight). This volatile brew supplied both the psychological impetus to achievement and the economic means to get ahead of the game. At school, Reeves created some innovative amateur films, and later he managed to make it to the lower rungs of the profession, helped, no doubt, by a posh, Byronic charisma. Halligan tells the story of how the aspiring filmmaker pursued the actor Stanley Baker in a kind of automotive version of doorstepping, and managed to persuade the star to help him get his union card. This seems to have been typical of the young man's approach to work and life. He had the manic, high-octane energy of what was about to become Swinging London.
Thanks to this drive, success came early.
The mid-Sixties marked a time when the "sexploitation" horror film was at its height: after making Revenge of the Blood Beast (1966) in Italy, Reeves fell in with a tough Soho huckster called Tony Tenser, and directed The Sorcerers (1967), a tale of psychedelic mind control starring the elderly Boris Karloff. Halligan believes that this film marked the beginning of Reeves' Faustian bargain with his craft: "Mike had placed himself in The Sorcerers and allowed the film to access himself....the film had controlled and lived vicariously through him, drawing on his experiences to make it real...There was no going back." On the contrary, the director went deeper into the heart of darkness, and came up with his masterpiece.
Halligan paints a vivid picture of the genesis, and fraught production, of Witchfinder General. Set during the English Civil War, the film is, ostensibly, a Corman-like shocker with Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, an obsessed sadist who tortures, hangs and sometimes burns any Suffolk villager whom he suspects of practicing the forbidden arts. Yet, as Halligan shows, Witchfinder is a more complex and provocative film than its "sexploitation" surfaces suggest. It is, he believes, an investigation into the corrupting tendencies inherent in idealism, and into the violence that it can produce.
The detailed analysis of the film is one of the book's strengths, but the account of the production itself is the most fun. The shoot seems to have been a combination of haste, improvisation, less than respectable behaviour, and Vincent Price camping to excess. Halligan suggests that the master of menace may have accepted the leading role because he hoped for some bedroom pleasure with his director; Reeves' rejection did not help their relationship, nor did the young tyro's declaration that he had not wanted Price in the first place. The result was coolness, though Reeves was still able to coax his star into giving one of the best performances of his career. It cannot have been easy. For example, seeing a young actor on horseback, the man who became Doctor Phibes is said to have cried out: "Oh my God! Look at her! She's so damned pretty! She rides that damn horse so well! I hate her!" It is no wonder that Reeves felt the strain.
Despite these difficulties, and the inevitable tussles with the censors over the violence, the film was a critical and commercial success, but now depression set in. Reeves withdrew from another Price project, The Oblong Box, because he could not invest the script with his personal concerns; drink, drugs and psychiatry took hold of his life; the situation became so desperate that he underwent electroconvulsive therapy. Although Halligan proves that the director died accidentally, and did not commit suicide as some writers have claimed (Price among them), it is clear [End Page 90] that Reeves' gift for films was an essential part of his self-consuming quality as a man. This engaging book captures that human problem as well as offering thoughtful assessments of the work, and evoking the texture of those wild Sixties times. If he had lived, would Reeves have broken the British cycle of boom and bust, as Halligan implies? It is impossible to say. Besides, the fragmented career, like the incomplete page at Princeton, is the ultimate work of art. It promises everything, but wisely does not deliver too much.