LEGEND OF THE WITCHES
B&W, 1970, 85 mins. 20 secs.
Directed by Malcolm Leigh
Color, 1971, 46 mins 52 secs.
Directed by Derek Ford
BFI (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL)
The intermittent but absolutely essential BFI Flipside series returns with a Halloween treat courtesy of this double feature of obscure occult mondo pseudo-documentaries produced in Great Britain at the turn of the 1970s. Both were made by sexploitation veterans in the industry, with the documentary formats providing plenty of opportunities for "educational" nudity galore and lots of descriptions of dark practices from the nation's mystical history.
First up is Legend of the Witches, the first feature from Malcolm Leigh before his better known Games That Lovers Play with Joanna Lumley. This one has made the rounds on video in a drastically edited 72-minute version (including a VCI DVD co-feature with City of the Dead for some reason), but this one marks the debut of what appears to be the complete original cut. After some opening narration pontificating on the mythical relationship between Lucifer and the goddess Diana, the fun starts with a nocturnal wiccan initiation ceremony involving a woman leading a blindfolded naked man across a craggy landscape into a cave for some pagan fire worship. Then it's off to a survey of pagan stonework and symbology, chicken sacrifice, an oral history of British rites adapted into modern Christian ceremonies, and a history of the witches' sabbath. You also get a look at witchcraft accoutrements in modern ceremonies, muddled a bit with some quasi-voodoo bits involving sculptures stuck with nails and bottled animal parts. The frequent emphasis on the similarities and overlapping between paganism and Christianity is actually the most startling aspect of the film today, juxtaposing communion and baptism with older rites that share the same philosophy. The emphasis on pastoral English settings is effective as well, making this a strange visual companion of sorts to everything from Night of the Demon to Virgin Witch and the films of Norman J. Warren, even tossing in a bit of paranormal ooga booga material in the last half hour, too. And don't miss that crazy Satanic hyno-wheel at the end!
Then it's time for Secret Rites, made a year later by prolific skin flick provocateur Derek Ford (I Am a Groupie, Diversions). This one starts off in high gear with a "frenzied orgy" at a chateau that feels like a Hammer Films climax on crack -- but that turns out to be a "lot of rubbish" as "Alex Sanders, King of the Witches," refutes the stereotypes of his religion. From there we meet a modern urban coven initiatiate who's nervous since it's like taking exams, but as she explains to Alex at a lunch sitdown, she's very serious about becoming a witch and goes on an appropriate shopping spree. From there we get to witness the ceremony itself involving nudity, blindfolds, candles, the Book of Shadows, swords, and a wrap-up discussion group. As such things must, it all wraps up with a wicca marraige ceremony (complete with a nude dance number presided over by a guy in a giant goat mask) and an Egyptian cleaning ceremony with Alex wearing a huge jackal head. For the record, both Alex and his wife, Maxine, can be seen participating in the ceremonies in Legend as well.
The dual-format Blu-ray and DVD edition of these double feature definitely fits the Flipside aesthetic as it not only serves as a valuable showcase for forgotten cinema but straddles that line between daring experimentation and unrepentant sleaze. Both films are in mint condition here (apart from some minor and easily overlooked fading on the second feature) and make for a great visual showcase. Legends is presented at 1.33:1 and, given the avalanche of female and male frontal nudity on display at the bottom of the frame (as well as some magical disappearing and reappearing underwear), it seems likely this was framed for matted projection somewhere around 1.66:1 or tighter -- but thank you BFI for leaving it exposed in all its glory. Secret Rites is 1.66:1 and very colorful, with lots of stylzied pink and purple lighting erupting during the ceremony sequences. The LPCM English mono tracks for both features are in excellent shape as well (with optional English SDH subtitles, which come in handy for a few muffled lines). Secret Rites also comes with an entertaining new audio commentary by Flipside founders Vic Pratt and William Fowler, authors of The Bodies Beneath, who cover Sanders, Ford, sexploitation at the time, indie British filmmaking, and amusing observations like "Look at all that tinfoil there!" during the Egyptian sequence. Also included is 1924s The Witch's Fiddle (7m3s), touted as "possibly the first student film ever made" courtesy of the Cambridge University Kinema Club, about a bewitching supernatural fiddle and its effect on an lovesick youth in the countryside. Then 1968's The Judgment of Albion (26m20s) from writer Robert Wynne Simmons (Blood on Satan's Claw) is a fiery interpretation of the writings of William Blake, with solmen narration unfolding over images of modern blight and ancient counterculture expressed through art and sculpture. 1957's jazzy doc series Out of Step is represented with an episode about "Witchcraft" (13m28s) with host Dan Farson interviewing an elderly expert on witchcraft and meeting a modern practitioner explaining the process of magic achieved through teamwork. Finally, "Getting it Straight in Notting Hill Gate" (24m56s) from 1970 offers a snapshot of the cultural scene around Notting Hill including its diverse cultures, underground movements, and social challenges including economic strife and police persecution. Finally an image gallery (2m13s) features promotional stills, press notes and coverage, and a bit of Sanders ephemera as well. The first pressing also comes with an essential insert booklet featuring liner notes by Christina Oakley Harrington, Mark Pilkington, Dr. Adrian Smith, Rob Young, and Pratt and Fowler, shedding considerable light on the occult topics touched on in the films as well as the back stories behind the bonus features.