Episode 2

Published on:

5th Apr 2021

Tony Tenser, Part 2: The Sorcerer

In part 2 of the Tony Tenser story, Tony rebuilds his career as "Tigon British Films", with the help of a brilliant young film-maker and two icons of horror.




In England, horror runs deep and has a long memory.

In the 17th century, a new terror emerged. An egotistical, vain liar named Matthew Hopkins, a religious zealot with enough legal training to be dangerous, he roamed the south east of England, hunting and killing people accused of witchcraft.

He preyed on the weak and isolated. These were harsh times. War had destroyed the landscape, authority had broken down, crops lay in ruins. Families starved and the uneducated populace looked for someone to blame.

Hopkins was an expert in examining local gossip – about the elderly or the different or the alone. He converted malicious whispers into accusations of devil worship – pulling the frail from their homes, stripping them naked and shaving them. Pricking them, forcing them into stress position, haranguing them and depriving them of sleep until they confessed, hysterical and weeping.

It was well-paid work. Hopkins received payment for every witched hanged at the gibbet. Over the course of two years, Hopkins enriched himself by killing over 200 people. His most prominent victim was a clergyman named Reverend Lowes – but the killing of a vicar proved the undoing of the Witchfinder. He was denounced as a witch himself and…. disappeared. Never to face justice…

ing in Swinging London in the:

It makes for a bloody good exploitation film. That’s how.


ny Tenser had spent the early:

With his business partner Michael Klinger, he’d gone from making cheap nudie movies about women cavorting with beach-balls to making high art films that won awards at the Berlin and Cannes Film Festival in just five years.

n’t an insubstantial sum in:

Soon Tony Tenser’s network of agents, producers, directors, writers and aspiring actors would be put to great use. His uncanny knack in spotting and supporting bold new talent would come to the fore.

In this episode, he’ll meet a temperamental, but brilliant young artist. And together the two men would make one of the most extraordinary films in British horror cinema.

Welcome to part two of the tale of Tony Tenser.

Tony began to rebuild his business modestly. He repackaged old Vincent Price films, which had never been released in the UK. Putting together double bills like “Twice-Told Tales” and “Tower of London” was good for a decent return on his small investment. But Tony was keen to get back into the film-making business.

He was given that opportunity by a producer named Arnold Louis Miller. The two had worked together in the Compton days, when Miller had produced their seedy expose documentaries, “London in the Raw” and “Primitive London”. Miller came to Tenser with a half formed idea about a young man’s sexual adventures around London. Aaaaaand there’s the magic word.

The result was a cheap film called, “Mini Weekend” aka “The Tomcat”. It was cheap by necessity. Tony negotiated a cheap deal on the film stock, and also had to do a bit of the writing because they couldn’t afford a professional. Naturally, Tony ensured that there were some fantasy sequences in there – anything to get women in underwear – onscreen. This alone was more than enough to promote and market the film, to repressed British businessmen.

It was around this time that he took on new business partners and changed the name of his company from “Tony Tenser Films” to “Tigon British Films” – with his logo a cross between a Tiger and a Lion. And as if the Tigon were a symbol of good luck, shortly after the change a producer named Patrick Curtis came to Tony Tenser with both a proposal for another project, with a young director named Michael Reeves.

most of her – she was paid $:

As it turns out, Michael Reeves worked with her for 18 hours that one day.

But Reeves ingenuity and skill was used to great effect. He managed to shoot an additional twenty days of film and weaved it around the Barbara Steele footage to create a silly, but fast-moving, campy and fun horror movie – and all for just £15k.

It was an impressive feat. And Tony Tenser recognised there was something special about Reeves, right from the start.


Reeves was only 23 when he made “The She-Beast”. He was an intense, driven young man, passionate about film. Not just passionate. Obsessive. Enraptured. The movies were a magical world to the young man. And he wanted to be a magician.

He told his mother he wanted to direct movies at the age of eight years old. At the age of eleven, he directed his first amateur film, “Carrion” about a girl in a wheelchair being terrorised by a sadistic convict. It starred an aspiring young actor – a 15 year old named Ian Ogilvy – a friend of a school friend of Reeves. Utilising an 8mm Bolex camera, mounted on a tea-trolley for tracking shots, Reeves learned how to make the camera emulate the effects he so admired from his Hollywood heroes.

ould find him there, agape at:

In 1960, at the age of 17, Michael’s family took him for a holiday in Boston, Massachusetts. At large in the USA, Michael took the opportunity to escape to Hollywood. Booking himself on a flight to Los Angeles and heading straight to the home of his idol, director Don Siegel. Somehow he managed to get Siegel’s home address and knocked politely at the director’s front door, only to be confronted by an angry, sleepy man in his underpants.

Reeves delivered his prepared speech, “I’ve come all the way from England to meet you because you are the greatest director that ever lived,” he said, nervously.

Siegel, in his knickers, looked sourly at the 17 year old.

But, in a bit of Hollywood fairytale magic, the director was won over by the youth’s enthusiasm and charm. He took Michael Reeves on, in a minor capacity, working on Elvis Presley movies. Reeves also continued to cut his teeth on his own projects – including a disturbing short film – a home invasion movie called “Intrusion”, which can be found – although without its soundtrack – on YouTube.


Ian Ogilvy – by this time a struggling young actor – got a call out of the blue. Did he want to star in a movie? Ogilvy was stunned, having lost touch with Reeves by this time. But apparently Reeves had not forgotten him, and he found himself shooting scenes with Barbara Steele just a few weeks later.

Despite the miserly budget, “The She Beast” is a surprisingly fun, quirky little horror film. There are limits to Reeves’ talent. He can’t hide the threadbare budget, the bad dubbing or those aspects of the plot shoehorned in to attract audiences. But still… there’s wit in the script, and the entire film looks way better than £15k.

There’s promise there. Even today, you can see it.


And so it was that Patrick Curtis and Michael Reeves came to an agreement with Tony Tenser. Tenser and his co-producers would raise £50k to produce their first British film. “The Sorcerers”, from a screenplay co-written by Reeves and his friend Tom Baker (no relation to the actor of the same name).

The Sorcerers is a strange tale, completely out of keeping with the output the other two British horror production houses at that time, Hammer and Amicus. There’s no Gothic melodrama here, and no cheeky anthology stories. It’s a strangely contemporary story, set in the back streets and seedy bars of so-called swinging London.

We meet Mike – played again by Ian Ogilvy – he’s an insensitive, callous youth who treats his friends and girlfriend Nicole (played by French actress Estelle Ercy) with casual contempt. Bored, and ditching them at the local groovy disco a-go-go one evening, he is intercepted by Professor Monserrat (Boris Karloff) who induces him back to his dingy flat.

Mike is, of course, sceptical – and becomes even more so when he meets the Professor’s mousey old wife, played by Catherine Lacey, an experienced British character actress who is quite wonderful in the role.

The elderly duo are beaten down and bitter. The Professor had previously been a successful hypnotherapist, but his practice was destroyed by a scandal in the press. Now they’re reduced to living without, mocked by dismissive young people and almost too scared to leave their own flat.

But they’re about to get their revenge on the young… oh my yes…

Mike is escorted into a secret room in the Professor’s house. It is filled with the sort of gadgets that you’d expect Boris Karloff to have behind locked doors. Promised a “trippy” experience, Ogilvy straps himself into some sort of audio-visual sensory device and is subjected to what I can only describe as intense hypnotherapy.


He feels no discernible after-effects… but the old couple can. For it seems that the device has given both the Professor and his wife a direct line into Mike’s psyche. They can experience, feel, everything he feels. But more insidiously, they can use their new powers to take over his mind… and to direct him to do their bidding…

45:45 Harpsichord


Yes, it is a far-fetched premise. But it’s just a vehicle for Michael Reeves to stage scenes that he’s really interested in. Mike, prowling the back streets and bars of 1960’s London. Hooking up with women, going to their bedsits, speeding on a motorcycle and getting into fights – all at the behest of the two elderly energy vampires, eager to start living again through their new puppet…



Made on an extremely modest budget of £50k Michael Reeves’ crew employed classic guerrilla film-making techniques to keep costs down. Shooting as much as possible out of the studio – without permission – setting up as quickly as possible, getting the shot – and moving on as quickly as possible. For this reason, the film has a dynamic, immediate feel. It’s not documentary style exactly, but it does have the sense of lives being lived all around the action, captured in the periphery of the frame – as if Reeves could turn his camera around and find another story, in another direction, at any point.

Of course, guerrilla film-making can go too far. “We blew up a Jaguar in Notting Hill without permission,” said Ian Ogilvy. Apparently their original intent was to use 10 gallons of petrol to create the desired effect.

But would it create a big enough explosion? They had a small budget. And they could only afford to blow it up ONCE.

To be on the safe side, they decided to deploy 50 gallons of petrol.


“The blast shattered windows for blocks around,” recalls Ogilvy.

The police were called. The cast and crew legged it, heading off in nine different directions, agreeing to see each other back at the production offices, and hoping for the best that no-one got arrested.

Just a few days later, Reeves was at it again. Shooting a scene while sitting up in the boot of a car going at 100 miles per hour up the M4. His camera was trained upon Ian Ogilvy and Estelle Ercy, who were also speeding along the motorway at the time. Reeves kept calling for Ogilvy to get closer and closer to the car. Fortunately, the police were unaware of that little stunt.


As for Karloff, he had been approached directly by Michael Reeves to appear in his movie. Boris was unsure at first; late on in his career, he didn’t like the idea of playing yet another mad scientist and villain. Reeves was more than happy to accommodate the horror icon; and his writing partner Tom Baker re-wrote the screenplay to make the character of Professor Monserrat sympathetic, and giving the role of villain to the Professor’s wife, Catherine Lacey. She apparently, had no such issues with playing a baddie and quite honestly laps it up, dominating the latter part of the film with her lip-smacking delight at being truly evil.


Tony Tenser was absolutely delighted to have Boris Karloff on board – not just for the name on the poster, but because Boris was one of the actors who made a huge impression on him as a boy. Karloff, a true gentleman of the cinema, exceeded all of Tony’s expectations. “Boris was always a boyhood hero of mine.” he said, “and he was the most unassuming man you could wish to meet. He couldn’t even understand why people would want his autograph. It was a delight to get the chance to spend time with him.”

Tony, however, was distressed at the failing health of his hero. At 79, Boris was suffering from acute bronchitis, which robbed him of his strength and made movement difficult. The tall man was also in constant pain with arthritis in his back, and had a leg brace fitted which squeaked when he walked. Tony was astonished at Karloff’s level of professionalism, despite the pain.

“You know, he still remembered all his lines and spoke them perfectly. He was old school. Never complained or moaned.”

Well, that’s not entirely true. At one point – a scene where he was made to crawl on the floor, trying to escape through a doorway – the pain became too much for the venerable actor. “Oh I can’t do this!” he snapped, “Where’s the fucking doorway!”

The crew was shocked to hear Karloff, of all people, swear in those formidable tones. But everyone understood.

Another unexpected hero of the production was a very young Raquel Welch, who was producer Patrick Curtis’s then girlfriend (and later his wife). She didn’t appear in the film and was well on her way to becoming a huge star when The Sorcerers was shooting, having just made “One Million Years BC” for Hammer. At that time, she was the girlfriend of one of the co-producers and happily helped out, running errands and helping out with the wardrobe.

Despite this, the film was in danger of running over budget. The biggest problem was the young director’s inexperience. He redoubled his efforts to plan the nightly set-ups all over London, to make the best use of everyone’s time. However, the one area where Reeves never seemed to improve was in his manner with the actors. The perception of the actors who worked with him were that he was cold and aloof, rarely speaking to the actors. The only exception was Karloff, who got along with everybody, and with whom Reeves got along famously.

Some of the crew were also a little disturbed by Reeves’ unstinting depiction of violence. The director firmly believed that the horror of violence should be shown with no compromise. So the scene in which a young woman played by Susan George is murdered was bloody beyond anything they had seen before.

“He went right over the top,” said one crew member, “it was supposed to be a violent scene anyway, with Susan screaming and being stabbed, but Mike was throwing blood everywhere, up the walls, over the crew— gallons of the stuff. It was an obsession with him. Susan was literally drenched red.”

However, the film was completed only a little over budget in the end; and with no significant problems – other than the removal of most of the Susan George scenes, at the censor’s insistence.

But Reeves aloof manner – and his refusal to compromise on violence - would come back to create a major issue on his next film…

The Sorcerers received mixed reviews from the critics – some of whom saw past the low budget and the silly science to what Michael Reeves had really achieved. An exploitation film yes, but one very different from its peers. You can tell this is the film of a young movie-maker with something to prove. It’s radically different from the elegant grandeur of Hammer, or the cosy scares of Amicus. This film explodes with youthful enthusiasm in a nightclub, as the kids groove to a mod band. This film gleefully states a new, young film-maker is on the scene and ready to make a statement. Karloff’s experiment is low-budget, sure – but it also reflects the trippy youth culture of the time, invoking early Pink Floyd concerts and bizarre concept albums.

The low budget also required a near documentary style that Michael Reeves uses to great effect. It’s something that George Romero would perfect with just two years later with his revolutionary horror film, “Night of the Living Dead”. But Reeves did it first – bringing horror out of the studios and soundstages and out onto the streets of real London.

Reeves film won acclaim at the Trieste film festival, with awards going to Catherine Lacey and Boris Karloff. Tony Tenser was delighted. “The Sorcerers” didn’t exactly set the box office alight; even today it is really only known to genre enthusiasts. But it established Michael Reeves as a major talent; and it made its money back.

And Tony Tenser knew that he and Michael Reeves would work together again. There was talk of a five year contract. “That was something which I never thought I would do,” said Tony. “With my tiny little company of only seven employees. Unfortunately, we never got around to the paperwork.”

All the same, Tony knew he wanted to work together with Reeves again – it was just a matter of finding the right property. But first, he had another horror film, ready to begin production…


The Blood Beast Terror bears no relation whatsoever to The Sorcerers. Tony hired old school director Vernon Sewell to direct this faintly ridiculous horror film about a vampire moth starring Peter Cushing and Robert Flemyng. It is clearly another attempt to cash in on the popularity of Hammer films at that time. As Vernon Sewell put it, “Hammer were the masters at this sort of stuff, so if you were going to make it work you had to crib from them.”

The result is a film which barely looks like it was made in the same decade as Michael Reeves’ film.

Robert Flemyng was brought in at the 11th hour, to replace Basil Rathbone who was previously going to appear. Sadly, that wonderful actor, most memorable as Sherlock Holmes, but who was also the “Son of Frankenstein” died of a heart attack just a few days before shooting was to begin. Robert Flemyng, however was of that same acting generation, although somewhat more temperamental than Rathbone. This was illustrated when – during filming, one of his younger assistants angered the elder statesman, who grabbed him by the lapels and threatened to box his ears. “You insolent young puppy!” bellowed Flemyng.

Peter Cushing was far less intemperate on set, and always found himself beloved by the rest of the cast and crew. But he was very unhappy with the role – and the script – which, to put it mildly, is ridiculous from start to end. Cushing had a quiet word with Vernon Sewell, telling him of his disquiet. Robert Flemyng, on the other hand, was more expansive on the subject, “This film is a piece of shit!” he would say to anyone who happened to be passing.

Cushing tried to improve matters; he re-wrote much of the heavy-handed dialogue and improvised moments of comedy into the film, to leaven the leaden storyline. He was aided in this by the casting of British comedian Roy Hudd – and their scene together in a morgue is a rare delight in an otherwise dull tale.


The film opens in Africa, with a British explorer in a very white safari suit and pith helmet being rowed up the Limpopo by a couple of local lads. He doesn’t do any of his own rowing, of course, because colonialism.

Well. I say it is the Limpopo. That is what we are told, although it doesn’t LOOK much like Africa to me. It looks more like an overcast afternoon in Surrey. I felt very sorry for the actors playing the Africans. I’ll bet they were FREEZING.

Whatever the explorer brings back from – air quotes Africa – it turns out to be very nasty indeed. And soon police Inspector Quennell – played by Peter Cushing is on the case of series of bizarre murders wherein each victim appears to have been slashed about the throat – and completely drained of blood.

Meanwhile, Robert Flemyng plays entomologist Dr. Mallinger, who offers scientific advice on the matter. His daughter is played by Wanda Ventham – also known of “mum of Benedict Cumberbatch”.

Poor Wanda sounds like she had a dreadful time on the production. She doubled as the monster – for reasons which make no sense whatsoever. “It could be anyone in that costume,” she complained.

It’s true. The murderous moth of the movie is a suitably hideous construction with large, staring eyes and a vicious looking mouth. Wanda later explained that the moth costume actually had very impressive wings, which we never get to see – apparently the few shots in which they appear were so laughable, Vernon Sewell decided to remove them and cobble together something less revealing instead.

However, Wanda was placed in the costume and then shoved up a tree for one of the film’s climactic moments.

And then they broke for lunch, and left her there.

The film was shot in mid-August, and poor Wanda was eaten alive by biting insects. Truly fed up, and feeling unappreciated, she managed to haul herself down and headed off to the pub, still with her moth costume on. It was only when she glanced into a shop window, she realised she was still a hideous insect. She ripped off her mask and stomped off to get something to eat.

And the next day was bollocked as being “unprofessional” by Tony Tenser.

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But what project would best suit the talents of Michael Reeves. The director himself was toying with a couple of scripts. The first was “Crescendo”, but James Carreras from Hammer got in there first, trying to pull together the financing to make it with Joan Crawford starring. But in the end it would take that studio three more years to get going on the project (without Joan Crawford). Another proposed script was a film called “The Devil’s Discord”, which was intended for Peter Cushing – but that actor was going through a very difficult time, both personally and professionally.

After starring in the deeply distasteful film, “Corruption” which Cushing found very upsetting to make, then followed by his experiences on “The Blood Beast Terror”, Cushing decided to take a sabbatical to look after his wife Helen, who was very ill at the time. And so that project went nowhere.

But back at Tigon, Tony Tenser’s skill at charming people and knowing everybody was about to pay dividends. Typically, the early prints of an upcoming novel do the rounds of the big studios first. But Tony Tenser knew a man who knew a man who owed him a favour. And that’s how he came to find himself reading an unpublished historical novel that would be perfect for Michael Reeves.

“It’s called ‘The Witchfinder General,” said Tenser. “We’ll get Karloff back to play the title role.” Reeves was intrigued.

But Karloff’s failing health – already evident during the making of “The Sorcerers” would prevent him from taking on such an active role, which would require him to ride a horse, amongst other things. Michael Reeves was disappointed, but suggested they hire Donald Pleasence to play Matthew Hopkins, the sadistic and venal witchfinder.

It was how he saw the character, as a failure. A little man. A bitter man, with delusions of grandeur that had come to nothing until he happened upon the opportunity to take advantage of people’s weakness and paranoia.

Tony Tenser like Donald Pleasence and had enjoyed his performance in Polanski’s “Cul de Sac”. Reeves began fleshing out the script, which he saw as a classic tale of injustice as revenge, “a British Western” as he put it.

Michael called his friend and on-screen alter-ego, Ian Ogilvy, to play the heroic Richard Marshall, and Hilary Dwyer to play his fiancée Sara. In the film, the young lovers find themselves targeted, and their lives destroyed by Matthew Hopkins, to satisfy the vile lust of the witchfinder.

Meanwhile, Tony did what he did best; he got on the phone and started making deals to get the money together. This was going to be an expensive movie, and Tigon would not be able to finance it alone.

ror movies to come out of the:

Nicholson and Arkoff were keen to get involved with Tony’s project. They agreed to put up £32k toward the budget… but there was a catch…

Despite the fact that the film had precisely nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe, the two men thought it could be a good opportunity to continue the Poe cycle anyway. They wanted to rename the film for the American market, they said. Sure, it could be released in the UK as “The Witchfinder General”, but for the US market it had to be called, “Edgar Allen Poe’s, The Conqueror Worm”, after one of the master’s poems.

As it turns out, this strategy didn’t really work. Audiences in America thought it was a monster movie, complaining when no giant worm arrived to terrorise English countryside.

“You call it what you like,” agreed Tony. “It’s your money.”

And there was just one other thing, said the men. It was about this Donald Pleasence guy… a good enough actor, but not a name in the states… not like… well, nowhere near as big as…

“Vincent Price?!?” said Michael Reeves. He was FUMING.

Not only was Vincent Price entirely the wrong body-type for the character that Reeves had envisaged… but… but… Vincent Price?

This Vincent Price?


This Vincent Price?


THIS Vincent Price??


Reeves felt like his film had been ruined before he even set up the camera. In his opinion, Price had stopped acting years ago. Now he was just mugging. Playing up to his horror persona, and a parody of his former self. The Witchfinder was supposed to be a terrifying figure. How was anyone supposed to find that capering, snickering, hand-wringing ham scary?

Tony Tenser found himself in the role of diplomat. On the one hand trying to convince his temperamental young genius that no, Vincent Price WASN’T going to ruin his film. That he was a fine actor and he would be every bit as good as Karloff.

And on the other hand, trying to soothe Vincent Price’s ego. Not that Price was some vain egotist. Quite the reverse, Price was loved by those who worked with him, a genial, urbane, generous man by reputation. But that was the thing. He wanted to be loved. He wanted everyone to like him, to enjoy his company, to share in his largesse.

Vincent Price was therefore somewhat disappointed when Reeves failed to meet him when he arrived in England. It was a small, but at that time, traditional act of courtesy between director and star. However, Reeves was like a man possessed when working and claimed he hadn’t the time for niceties. But whether the slight was intended or not, Price’s feelings were hurt. Philip Waddilove the line producer, met Price instead. Price shook his hand and then said, “Take me to see this goddam boy genius”.

And this Michael Reeves… this boy genius… was deeply frustrated by Price as an actor. Price’s first scene was as Hopkins directing a brutal new method of execution. It is a deeply disturbing, horrific scene. But the horror is in the agony of a woman’s torture and murder – and in the pain and devastation on her husband’s face as he watches his wife die so cruelly.

These were the elements Reeves wanted to capture. But someone on set was distracting from the action…

“CUT! VINNIE! Please stop shaking your head about!”

“Stop shaking my head about. Thank you, young man.”

“CUT! Vinnie! Please keep your voice down!”

“Keep my voice down. Thank you, young man.”

“Cut! Vinnie! Please stop waving your arms around!”

“Stop shaking my head. Keep my voice down. Stop waving my arms around. Thank you.”

“CUT! Vinnie! Please!”

Part of Reeve’s frustration were the other factors he had control over. Namely – the English weather – it rained throughout shooting, so a lot of what you see onscreen is what Reeves could grab in between showers. Painfully aware of the effect this was having on the schedule – and with Price’s contracted time on set running out – Tony Tenser took the unusual step of buying “rain insurance” to cover any further unexpected delays due to the weather.

At which point it promptly stopped raining.

Another issue that Reeves had were the constant memos from AIP. Reeves worked well with Tenser – the two understood each other. But AIP didn’t know Reeves. Or care about his previous movies. All they cared about was that the film contain all the elements to pull in the drive in crowd. The forced actors on the director, based purely on the fact that they would do nude scenes. And he received constant memos saying things like, ‘We want more blood. And we want more naked women. And we want more blood ON the naked women.’

Reeves did make some concessions, including a love-making scene between Ian Ogilvy and Hilary Dwyer. Dwyer was nervous. Her mum might watch this film. “I’ll use a blue filter,” Reeves assured her. “You won’t see anything.”

Watching the footage later, Dwyer collared Reeves. “Well it’s blue all right. But I don’t see much of a filter.”

In this context, you can understand Reeve’s irritation with Price. But his manner toward the actor didn’t help. It is possible that a softer touch and greater diplomacy may have served him better when dealing with as gentlemanly an actor as Vincent Price. But Price had certainly picked up a lot of bad habits along the way. For good reason. People loved his schtick. They still do. His manic Medina from “The Pit and the Pendulum”, his sombre Roderick from The House of Usher, his demented sculptor in “House of Wax”. And here he was, being told how to act? By a 24 year old?!

It was while these tribulations and delays were ongoing that AIP came to Tony with a proposal. For ANOTHER Michael Reeves film. Again starring Vincent Price.

Tony bit his tongue. Mike was unlikely to have finished his current production before they started work on this new project, he said, stalling. And anyway, how about Boris Karloff instead of Price?

AIP had decided to move on from the works of Edgar Allen Poe, to HP Lovecraft – a horror writer who dreamlike tales of insinuating madness had been largely ignored in his lifetime, but who had risen to prominence after his death, as a huge influence on a post-war horror writers, including Stephen King.

“The Mikado”. By the late:


They liked the idea of getting Karloff involved, but there was a major issue – the actor’s health. By this stage, his bronchitis had made any sort of exertion almost impossible for the grand old man of horror; he was confined to a wheelchair most of the time and required oxygen in between takes.

Again, they pushed for Vincent Price, but he was by now committed to other projects. Then, Christopher Lee came on board at the 11th hour. All this star-seeking proved somewhat frustrating for Vernon Sewell, whose star (and script) kept changing – it seemed almost daily. And still more changes to the script had to be accommodated when Tony Tenser realised they had paid Karloff whether or not he showed up. As a result, a smaller part was added to the script so that both Lee AND Karloff’s names could now appear on the poster.

This move, in itself, prompted talk of an “all-star” horror film and there was talking of getting Peter Cushing in on the action too. However, Cushing’s recent experiences with Sewell on “The Blood Beast Terror” and with Robert Hartford-David on a film he had particularly disliked called “Corruption” resulted in Cushing temporarily stepping away from film, and back to television. But the production was able to add another horror icon in Barbara Steele, who makes short but memorable appearances as a green-skinned witch named Livinia.

It's this triumvirate of horror icons that makes “The Curse of the Crimson Altar” or “The Crimson Curse” as it is known in the US, of interest to horror fans today. But they are bound to be disappointed by this half-baked effort, which is so much less than the sum of its parts. Neither Steele or Lee are given anything remotely interesting to do. There are attempts to engage with youth culture – by which I mean awful swinging party scenes where even the participants look fed up. The exploitation component of the film is served by means of truly tacky scenes of faux sado-masochism – featuring a man in leather underpants wearing a ridiculous helmet with antlers and the hero of the film – Mark Eden – appears disinterested in his risible lines.

The only bright spot in the film is Boris Karloff – who gives his all to the role and brightens things up whenever he is onscreen.


Yet it is heart-breaking to see him so clearly unwell. Christopher Lee expressed his admiration for Karloff’s courage:


Vernon Sewell echoed this. “He said to me, ‘Look here Vernon, do you think I could walk from here to there. I don’t want the audience to see me in a wheelchair?’ I said, ‘I suppose so’ and he staggered across and when he got there he almost passed out with the effort.”

Shortly after this incident, Boris was admitted to hospital. Late nights shooting in the cold location had brought on a cold and Tony was terrified that it could easily develop into something worse. “I went to see him but the receptionist told me, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t have anyone here called Karloff’

Tenser thought for a moment. “Do you have a Mr. William Pratt?”

It turns out that Boris had checked in under his real name, wanting no fuss. “He was so modest that nobody at the hospital realized that William Pratt was Boris Karloff,” said Tenser.

Of course, Karloff wasn’t the only horror icon, Tony was concerned about.

Back at the “Witchfinder General” shoot, things were coming to a head – with Reeves continuing to remonstrate with his star.

"Vinnie! Stop over-acting! Please, please, please, stop rolling your eyes, and try and look natural for once!” he said.

“Reeves hated me,” said Price later. “He didn’t want me at all. It was one of the only times in my life where the director and I just clashed.”

Reeves put it more bluntly, after a particularly trying day, the director’s patience just ran out and he blurted it out. “I didn’t want you, and I still don’t want you, but I’m stuck with you!”

And so, Vincent Price decided he’d had enough of this young so-called “genius”. He marched over to the director and summoned up every ounce of his remaining dignity.

“Young man. I have made 92 films in my career! How many have you made?” he demanded.

“Two good ones,” muttered Reeves.

In some versions of this tale, Vincent Price laughed uproariously and that was the end of the matter. But not according to Ian Ogilvy. Reeves continued to criticise Price’s performance throughout, leaving the ebullient actor dejected. He fell back on the company of his young co-stars and his comradeship with the crew to get him through the experience.

Tony Tenser tried to cool the on-set tensions by taking Price to lunch. “He never complained to me once. We would sit and chat and he would tell me about his real passion, which was hunting for paintings. He never made any negative comments about Michael. I think he had a bit of a crush on him, and when he was treated indifferently, Vinnie’s feeling were hurt.”

Nevertheless, Vincent remained popular with the rest of the crew. On one occasion, when the catering facilities fell through, it was Price who travelled to a nearby village to organise a grand feast for the rest of the cast and crew – which he helped to cook himself. And he loved hosting the other actors for dinner, so he could regale them with witty stories from his glamorous past.

Actor Nicky Henson who plays one of Ogilvy’s fellow soldiers in the film said, “Vincent was wonderful with us – we had an absolute ball. We were up all night – every night – and he would stay up with us, drinking and telling stories right through the night. And he would go to work the next day and be word perfect.”

Such revelries helped keep Vincent’s spirits up. But it also annoyed Reeves, due to Price’s habit of showing up hungover or still drunk from the previous night’s revels.

Reeves seethed with rage on Price’s last day of shooting. Price, clearly past caring about impressing the young director, showed up clearly still under the influence. Worse still, the location they were in – Oxford Castle – was only available for six more hours before they opened the doors and let the tourists in. Reeves fumed. He had PAGES of material to get on camera.

Reeves stormed over to Ian Ogilvy. “You know that scene where you hit him with the axe?” he hissed. “I want you to REALLY hit him!”

“Are you mad?” said Ogilvy.

“Oh, it’s only a bloody rubber axe, Ian!” said Reeves.

Ogilvy picked up the axe. Rubber or not, it was incredibly heavy, with very little give. “Are you SURE, Mike?” said Ogilvy.

“He won’t even notice! He’s drunk for heavens sake!” snapped Reeves.

Fortunately, one of the line producers, Philip Waddilove, overheard this heated exchange and went running off to find as much foam padding as he could muster. He shoved it frantically under Vincent Price’s cloak, before Reeves noticed, with Price giggling and protesting that no, dear boy, he didn’t need all that…

Strangely enough, all these behind the scenes shenanigans really helped the film. Ogilvy’s ferocious attack on Price is a fittingly disturbing climax to a film full of extreme violence and barbarism. It’s a shocking moment, which wasn’t even supposed to happen. The original ending had Ogilvy confront Price in “…a gypsy camp, or something…” recalls Ogilvy. And Price was supposed to get pushed into hot coals.

But because of over-runs and lack of money, they had to come up with something cheaper. “This is how we finish it, in the castle,” decided Reeves. Ogilvy’s character Richard Marsh, overcome with fury and hatred, murders Hopkins with an axe, venting his white-hot hatred in a hail of axe-blows. The scene was supposed to end with Nicky Henson shooting Ogilvy, to end the assault – and then shooting Hopkins to put him out of his agony. But…

“It’s not a revolver,” explained Nicky Henson to Michael Reeves. “I’d have to stop and reload.”

Reeves had no time. Improvisation was everything that night. “I’ve got it. You won’t shoot Ian. Instead we’ll just have him screaming...”


So there it was, the frenzied axe attack... followed by the madness.

But there was a problem with that climactic scene. Ogilvy’s fury is so incandescent, so convincing, so shocking that the censor went and cut most of it out. Ogilvy and Reeves were devastated.

The irony being that the man who made such wholesale cuts to the film was Reeves’ own cousin – John Trevelyan. To be fair to him, Trevelyan was under extreme pressure, from the snobbery and public school boy mentality which then flourish at the BBFC. “This ape Tenser will continue to be a time-wasting nuisance until the board puts him in his place,” ranted one of Trevelyan’s colleagues.

Most of the axe-blows were therefore cut out and replaced with the reaction shots of one of Ogilvy’s fellow actors, Nicky Henson. Reeves studied the doctored print of the film and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “You know,” he said, “oddly enough it works even better now,” he conceded. “It’s even more awful. It leaves it to your imagination.”

He was not the only one having second thoughts. Vincent Price also watched a rough cut of the film – and was astonished. Robbed of his usual tricks, his dastardly mannerisms, his mock-Shakespearean cadence and his cheeky, conspiratorial winks to the audience, he thought he had been dreadful.

But he felt differently, having seen the film. “Afterwards,” he said, “I realised what he wanted from me was a very low-key, very laid back performance. He did get it, but I was fighting with him almost every step of the way. Had I known what he wanted I would have co-operated. I think it is one of the best performances I’ve ever given.”

It's true. Vincent Price is mesmerising and terrifying in the role. He wasn’t Vincent Price in this film, he was Matthew Hopkins. A morally corrupt, power-mad, mass murderer. And in watching the film that day, Vincent Price – the Prince of Horror - horrified himself.

What’s striking, is that, viewed today the film and Price’s startling performance within it stands up so well. As an actor, Price had spent years being encouraged to go way over the top, by directors wanting him merely to project to the back of the drive-in. But you sense here the relish with which Price embraces the challenge to create a character whose outer veneer of respectability and piety masks a mass of simmering perversion. The Price persona simply drops away, revealing Matthew Hopkins, a scheming, lying, petty thief. A self-satisfied torturer and murderer.

In Price’s own words, “Hopkins was not just a sadist, else I would not have been interested in playing him. He was a human being, with all the usual weaknesses, including a fondness for young women. I saw him as a man who – at first – really believed in the Christian justness of his cause. But when he found a way he could turn it to profit, degenerated into an ogre whose lust for power and greed ran away with him. He became the complete hypocrite – cowardly, as well as demonic.”

And he’s counterbalanced by our hero – Ian Ogilvy as Richard Marshall, relentless in his pursuit of the Witchfinder. And Matthew Reeves tightens his grip on his audience – and on our own desire for revenge on Hopkins – as Marshall closes in, only to find Hopkins has out-manoeuvred him again. The film climaxes in bloody violence, and all we are left with is death and madness and screaming as Marshall is transformed into a monster, his once-beloved, screaming into the dark…

It's a brutal, nihilistic film. Years ahead of its time. It was, of course, loathed by many upon its release. The playwrite Alan Bennett said “There are no laughs in Witchfinder General. It is the most persistently sadistic and morally rotten film I’ve ever seen. It was a degrading experience, by which I mean it made me feel dirty.”

It seems that Bennett didn’t really understand. That was the point of the film. Reeves fought back, and in an open letter stated, “Violence is horrible, degrading and sordid. Insofar as one is going to show it on the screen at all, it should be presented as such – and the more people it shocks into sickening recognition of these facts, the better.”

And the film was championed by other reviewers. The Times stated, “Mr. Reeves is no longer merely promising. He already has real achievements behind him. Not merely good horror films, but good films period.”

All this controversy was music to Tony’s ears. The Tigon publicity machine marshalled behind the film, and when some local councils banned the film, Tony went back to one his favourite gambits from the Compton nudie film days. He ran adverts advising people where they could see the film, “the censor doesn’t want you to see!”

can wave of horror of the mid-:

Even Price understood what Reeves had achieved – he wrote a letter to Reeves, defending the film.

“The contrasts of the superb scenery, and the brutality make for suspense I’ve rarely experienced.”

Following this exchange, the two men seemed to achieve a level of mutual respect. Reeves even expressed a desire to work with Vincent Price again. The pair were considering making more movies together – “Scream and Scream Again” and “The Oblong Box”.

Michael Reeves – as compulsive and passionate as ever – threw himself into these projects. They seemed to consume him. Tony Tenser proposed an Irish gangster film to him – “O’Hooligan’s Mob” and Michael eagerly began preliminary work on it. He also began work on a fourth project, with a young actor, the son of a famous Hollywood star, who was eager to get out from under his father’s shadow. The film, said Reeves to a friend, was the story of young bikers travelling across America. It’s title, he went on, was “Easy Rider” and he hoped that Peter Fonda and he would get to start shooting the film next year.

Looking back at it now, you can see the danger signs. Michael Reeves appears – in retrospect – to be a man running from reality, all too eager to escape into a flickering world of illusion and sorcery…

It was not to be. None of it. Not the Vincent Price collaborations, nor Easy Rider. Reeves worked obsessively on all these projects at once, withdrawing from his friends and closing in on himself. Everything was about film. Nothing else matter. The young film-maker had been suffering from depression for some time. And it was only in the cinema, in those flickering images, or on the pages of a developing screenplay that he could truly lose himself… forget it all…

He drank to get through the in-between times. And to get to sleep. He was trapped in a worsening cycle of alcohol and deepening depression. And that aloofness, that fear of contact that kept him from his actors was invading his private live. Cutting him off and isolating him from the people who loved him most. "He shut right down, maybe three to four months before he died," his friend and collaborator, Tom Baker, remembers.

It was around this time that he began pre-production work on “The Oblong Box” – not for Tigon, but for AIP. This was the project which was to reunite him with both Vincent Price and Hilary Dwyer. But the anti-depressant medication he was on caused vicious mood swings. And, days before shooting, AIP removed him from the project in a hammer blow to Reeves’ confidence.

Following this, he came home one evening, drunk. And tried to work on his screenplays. But the depression caved him in and stopped him from thinking. He took some anti-depressants and washed them down with more drink, and tried to go to sleep.


Upon one thing they all agree; it was a tragedy.

Even Vincent Price mourned. “Mike was very unstable… difficult, but brilliant,” he admitted. And in fact, the two men, had reached a point of reconciliation. Even friendship. Vincent Price’s letter to Reeves contained the following, extraordinary confession:

“My dear Michael, I must confess I was physically and mentally indisposed at that particular moment in my life (both public and private) to work with you. But in spite of the fact that we didn’t get along too well. I do think you have made a very fine picture – and what’s more – I liked what you gave me to do.”

"Yours, Vinnie."

Examining Reeves’ possessions after his tragic death, the police found this letter in Reeves wallet. He kept it with him, always.

As for Tony Tenser; he still had difficulty speaking about Michael Reeves – even years later.

“I was like an uncle to Michael,” he said, sadly. “I had a great liking for Michael, because he was a real film buff. He ate, drank and slept films. That was all he wanted to do with his life.”

And now The brilliant young man whose career he’d had helped was gone, leaving only two films, of which Tenser was very proud. To compound his sadness, Reeves had died only days after another man, whom Tony considered a friend.

nd February:

As for Karloff, he never stopped working, recording tv guest appearances and cameo roles, right up until the end.

His work had defined his life, but his proudest achievements were in the work he had done for children. He was a soft-hearted, kind man, with an endless amount of love for the young. He took special care to introduce himself to his young co-star Marilyn Harris on Frankenstein, so that he didn’t frighten her. He regularly played Santa Claus at children’s hospitals, and he would visit the rest of the year round too, with a fairytale book in his hand to read the children stories in his mellifluous tones.

So when Tony Tenser popped around one afternoon, to see if there was anything he could do for the actor, he should not have been surprised by the response of Boris’s wife Evelyn. “Come in and have a cup of tea, because he’s busy recording.” Said Boris’s wife. Even then he was thinking of children. “He’s in his room, recording children’s stories for the Reader’s Digest”, she told Tenser.

It was the work he loved best. And in his final days, it brought him much happiness.

His passing is still mourned by all those who loved him through his work.

The late:

Tigon would find itself forced out, and sidelined – along with its peers – even the mighty Hammer studios faced a bleak time ahead. And British cinema as a whole would soon be reduced to a memory of what it had been. The wheeler-dealers of Wardour street were about to forced out of business.

But Tony Tenser and Tigon still had a few surprises for audiences. Some late flashes of brilliance, alongside their steady decline into sleaze and obscurity. Join us again next time for our concluding episode on the career of Tony Tenser.

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About the Podcast

The Big Screen Biograph
The Stories Behind The People Behind The Movies
Every three weeks, Val Thomas recounts the stories of the film-makers, the film stars and the drama when the two collide...

In our first season, we'll be looking at British exploitation producer, Tony Tenser, Hollywood legend Shelley Winters, consummate gentleman and raconteur Peter Ustinov, horror maestro and master showman William Castle and that beloved acting duo, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.

Why not join us as we travel through the stories behind the people behind the movies?

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