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Michael Reeves (17 October 1943 – 11 February 1969) was an English film director and screenwriter. He is best known for the 1968 film Witchfinder General (known in the US as Conqueror Worm). He died at the age of 25 from an accidental alcohol and barbiturate overdose.
Reeves was born in Sutton, Surrey, and grew up in Suffolk, whose landscape made a deep impression on his best known film, Witchfinder General. His father died when he was young, but his mother was a devoted single parent. As a child he began making short films, some of which starred his lifelong friend, the actor Ian Ogilvy. As a boarder at Radley College he obsessively broke bounds to attend the cinema, and was utterly single-minded about his ambition to work in film.
Upon leaving school he turned up on the doorstep of his favourite director, Don Siegel, who promptly employed him as an assistant. Subsequently he worked in Italy, where he was assistant director for Castle of the Living Dead with Christopher Lee. While still in Italy, he directed his first feature film, The She Beast (1965; Italian title La Sorella di Satana or Il Lago di Satana), also called Revenge of the Blood Beast. Like Castle of the Living Dead, The She Beast was made very cheaply. It was remembered for an appearance by horror icon Barbara Steele, of whose time Reeves was given only four days. Back in London in 1966, Reeves made The Sorcerers, starring Boris Karloff, an effective 'swinging London' picture with supernatural overtones. Both films also starred Ian Ogilvy.
It is for his third and final movie, Witchfinder General, that Reeves is best remembered. He was only 24 years old when he co-wrote and directed it, but it is often called one of the greatest horror films that Britain has produced. Made on a very modest budget in East Anglia and adapted from the novel by Ronald Bassett, Witchfinder General tells the story of Matthew Hopkins, the infamous lawyer-turned-witchhunter who blackmails and murders his way across the countryside. Reeves imbues the film with a powerful sense of the impossibility of behaving morally in a society whose conventions have broken down, and though it is by no means free of the conventions of low-budget horror, it stands as a notably powerful and evocative film.
Reeves wanted Donald Pleasence to play the title role, but American International Pictures, the film's co-financiers, insisted on using their resident horror star Vincent Price instead. This caused friction between the veteran actor and the young director. A famous story is told of how Reeves won Price's respect: Reeves was constantly telling Price to tone down his over-acting, and to play the role more seriously. Price eventually cracked, snapping, "Young man, I have made eighty-four films. What have you done?" Reeves replied: "I've made three good ones."
Reeves continued to goad Price into delivering a vicious and brilliant performance, and only upon seeing the finished film did the actor realise what the director was up to, at which point Price took steps to bury the hatchet with Reeves. Witchfinder General was released to mixed reviews, with one notably savage notice by Alan Bennett appearing in The Listener, but was soon reassessed and gained generally favourable reviews.
Michael Reeves died in London a few months after the film's release. After shooting Witchfinder General he was at work on an adaptation of The Oblong Box but had difficulties getting projects off the ground and was suffering from depression and insomnia, for which he took tablets and received a variety of treatments from medical and psychiatric practitioners. On the morning of 11 February 1969, Reeves was found dead in his bedroom, aged 25, in Cadogan Place, Knightsbridge, by his cleaning lady. The coroner's report stated that Reeves's death (from a barbiturate overdose) was accidental, the dosage being too marginal to suggest intention.
- Carrion - c. 1958 director
- Down - c. 1958 / 9 director
- Intrusion - 1961 director
- The Long Ships - 1963 UK / Yugoslavia, assistant director
- Castle of the Living Dead - 1964 Italy / France, 2nd assistant director
- The She Beast / Revenge of the Blood Beast - 1966 UK/Italy/Yugoslavia, director/ producer
- The Sorcerers - 1967 director / producer / screenplay
- Witchfinder General - 1968 director / screenplay
- British film directors: a critical guide By Robert Shail. Southern Illinois University Press. p. 176
- Curti 2015, p. 117.
- "Matthew Hopkins - Witchfinder General | 1968". Britishhorrorfilms.co.uk. Retrieved 2014-05-31.
- Showtimes Sat, Oct 26th at 6:30pm Wed, Oct 30th at 8:30pm. "Witchfinder General". siskelfilmcenter.org. Archived from the original on 31 May 2014. Retrieved 31 May 2014.
- Witchfinder General review
- Curti 2015, p. 114.
- David Pirie, A New Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema, I.B. Tauris, 2008.