How many Michael Reeves fans have seen Jeremy Thomas’ All the Little Animals (1998), starring Christian Bale and John Hurt, adapted from the novel by Walker Hamilton? It’s as important a part of the short-lived auteur’s might-have-been legacy as The Oblong Box and Crescendo – in that he developed the project, but didn’t get round to directing it. In the history of genre cinema, Reeves’ early death enshrines him as a cult figure – his friend and regular star/possible alter ego Ian Ogilvy points out that dying at twenty-five is almost a guarantee of cult immortality – while raising the spectre of what he might (or might not) have gone on to do. Having signed off on Revenge of the Blood Beast/The She Creature, The Sorcerers and Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder General/The Conqueror Worm, Reeves secured his niche in horror history, but he was as unlikely to stick with horror as, say, Peter Bogdanovich after Targets or Oliver Stone after Seizure. Any speculation as to how his career would have turned out has to be in accordance with what was possible for a British film director of his era? Could he have become J. Lee Thompson or Nicolas Roeg or John Hough or Peter Collinson or Ken Russell or Piers Haggard – or was he so unusual in his particular film interests that he could only ever be Mike Reeves, with all the possibilities and limitations that came with his background and ambition.
Dima Ballin’s documentary, scripted by Kat Ellinger (who also appears as an interviewee), includes a handy ‘further reading’ list in its credits, and builds on the valuable work of biographer Benjamin Halligan in mapping out Reeves’ short life and premature death. Halligan traces the myth of Reeves’ suicide – the coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death – to waspish interviews given by Vincent Price, who had a famously up and down relationship with Reeves, bigging up the tragic loss but also getting a last word. Christopher Wicking told me that he had a dreadful sense of deja vu when he read the obituaries of Heath Ledger, who died in almost exactly the same way as Reeves. The sketch portrait here is of a privileged young man who talked his way into a notoriously impenetrable industry, and made canny decisions about the films he made – then hit a slow patch either caused by or exacerbating his depression and wasn’t lucky enough to get through to the other side. All the interviewees stress how young Reeves was, though his associates still can’t get their heads round his passing – when he talks about working on The Sorcerers, Ogilvy reminisces about how frail and elderly and near death Boris Karloff was, forgetting for a moment that the star outlived the director by some months. A few associates who appear in the 1999 Eurotika! TV documentary about Reeves (The Blood Beast: The Films of Michael Reeves) are absent here – actress Hilary Dwyer, producers Tony Tenser, Patrick Curtis and Paul Maslansky – so that remains a useful add-on to this more in-depth account, though writer Tom Baker and Ogilvy get to elaborate on what they said last time and ruminate from the perspective of twenty more years on the loss and the achievements.
Steve Haberman talks about the specific influence of Witchfinder General on Sam Peckinpah – who recruited Reeves’ cinematographer Johnny Coquillion for Straw Dogs – and others make a link with the now burgeoning ‘folk horror’ movement (which is, appropriately, an academic cottage industry), though The Sorcereres and Witchfinder General remain fascinating because of how unlike even the films they influenced are. Witchfinder, for all its tortures and Vincent Price, is an attempt to use British history and landscape the way Westerns use America – if there’s a patient zero for folk horror, it’s Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw, influenced by Witchfinder but literally clawing Reeves’ ideas into the horror genre. Magnificent Obsession makes sparing, effective use of illustrative clips, but quite properly runs a lot of Paul Ferris’ music for all three of Reeves’ films.