Witchfinders and Sorcerers: Sorcery and counter-culture in the work of Michael Reeves

In this conference paper, I examine the sorcery theme that runs through Michael Reeves’s work in relation to key countercultural ideas and place it in the context of other witch films of the period. I discuss how under the cool, liberated, thrill-seeking, free-love, anti-authoritarian surface of the 1960s Reeves sees the dark side of the cultural revolution and reveals mankind’s eternal propensity for violence.

Best known for his savage tale of religious persecution Witchfinder General (1968), director Michael Reeves only completed three feature films in his short life. Despite this, he remains a hugely influential figure of 1960s British cinema, and a singular voice in the countercultural context of the time. Through his three films, Reeves offered a unique and contrary take on the dominant themes of the period, notably freedom and rebellion, which he strikingly framed, in all three cases, within stories of sorcery.

Indebted to Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) and sharing its female star, Barbara Steele, Reeves’s first feature film, Revenge of the Blood Beast (1966), drops a hip young English couple into an Eastern European backwater steeped in legend and superstition. His following film, The Sorcerers (1967), locates witchery in contemporary London and connects it with the nascent psychedelic scene. With its tale of a young couple tormented by a spiteful witch hunter, Witchfinder General is no less permeated by contemporary concerns with generational conflict, oppressive authority and individual revolt, despite the fact that it is set in the 17th century.

Paper delivered as part of the conference ‘From Profumo to Performance: New Perspectives on 1960s British Cinema’, University of York, September 2017.

Picture credit: Witchfinder General (Dir. Michael Reeves, 1968).

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