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Michael Reeves
Benjamin Halligan
Manchester University Press paperback £11.99

review by Paul Higson

Manchester University Press' British Film Makers series launched in earnest at the start of the decade and books on Jack Clayton, Terence Fisher and Lance Comfort had already been released when in 2003 Benjamin Halligan's biography on Michael Reeves was published. It is a fantastically detailed book, too, though the author did have the unfortunate advantage of a subject who died at the age of 25 with only three feature films completed as a director. Halligan is thorough, interviewing many people involved in both those few movies and in Reeves short life. The book takes us from his schooling at King's Mead at age eight through to that untimely end in 1969. Halligan scotches the general belief that Reeves death was a suicide. Reeves was a troubled individual and aggressive pill popper, he tells us, who simply awoke fuzzily one night and misjudged an additional intake of knockout tablets. Halligan's intrinsic research throughout persuades you that this is the case when the death must eventually be discussed.

La Sorellas di Satana (aka: Revenge Of The Blood Beast, 1966) is covered entertainingly in ten pages and The Sorcerers (1970) over 40 more. Witchfinder General (1968) is granted the greater importance with almost 100 pages of coverage, though of course a page count should be no measure of the significance of one film over another, and The Sorcerers is held in equally deserving regard for many. We learn that Revenge Of The Blood Beast was originally set up with the shooting title of Ruini Etrusci ('Etruscan Ruins') for tax purposes, as documentary films were cheaper to finance. The authorities would be keener to lend a hand providing the production with locations. The film was made on a budget of �13,000 and Barbara Steele taking �1,000 of that for two days work. Reeves drove her hard for the fee though as he would anyone no matter how high their star.

In three films Reeves would work with Ian Ogilvy, coupling him with at least one horror film legend in each. It was Boris Karloff for The Sorcerers. Reeves gave every consideration to the films and none to the actors. Forget risk assessments. Karloff's age was not allotted any special favours and he would eventually lose his rag and cuss the young director down for making him crawl repeatedly for one shot. Likewise, the pyrotechnics got out of hand for the finale. Not only was the car destroyed in an explosion, as planned, but also windows were blown in after Reeves insisted on a bigger bang without permits or a thought to crew or residents. Crew were shaken, even a little singed, and several of them were arrested when unable to abandon the location quickly enough. The more fleet-footed Reeves was not among them.

Witchfinder General takes up several chapters, Reeves childishly resenting having Vincent Price forced upon him to play Matthew Hopkins when he himself craved Donald Pleasance in the role. Reeves suspected Price would like to force himself too upon his young person, in a book that wades in on Price's sexuality. Following the production Price wrote to Reeves admitting that he had been mistaken, and that the film he had addressed as crap while filming was in truth a masterpiece, and he was proud to be a part of it. The childish Reeves merely took it as vindication without return accolade.

The book closes with the projects Reeves was set to continue with, the directors who took the scripts and subjects over, and the films spawned under Reeves' influence, in particular, by Witchfinder General. Nothing is necessarily the last word on anything, but whatever else one might care to add to this fantastic read could be done with a few press cuttings between the leaves. Halligan connects themes, trends, ideas, emotions and imagery across the man's life work, school amateur and exploitation professional, and draws on parallels with the contemporary world, from strict origins to the exploding cultural phenomenon that was the late 1960s. This is the only book on Reeves you will need.
Michael Reeves biography

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