BFI Flipside: ‘Legend of the Witches/Secret Rites’ reviewed

❉ We are occult for the latest BFI Flipside presentation – it’s got hex appeal!

“Sanders and his rent-a-crowd of nubiles figure heavily in both movies, coupled together on the latest BFI Flipside release, allowing devotees of the darker, dafter side of retro pop culture to get a good glimpse of the man who was to pentacles what James Corden is to nauseating mugging with A-list celebrities.”

In the late ‘60s and early- to mid-1970s, the length and breadth of Britain was taken hold by a strange fascination quite at odds the country’s post-war Brutalist Utopia makeover of ultra-modernity and aspiration – and yet this craze aggressively permeated every aspect of popular culture, from newspaper colour supplements and tawdry mass-market paperbacks, to both ends of the pop & rock spectrum and even the previously benign, stentorian world of childrens’ television…

Yep, that’s right, kids. Draw a protective chalk circle, salt the ground and tap the table, we’re talking witchcraft… black magic… The occult. And it was everywhere. It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly where the occult craze first sprang from, but a number of factors certainly contributed to its newfound, modish visibility.

Firstly, the abolition of the Witchcraft act in 1951 and the publication of Gerard Gardner’s Witchcraft Today three years later triggered a resurgence of interest in ‘the craft’. This itself would appear to have led Britain’s then-burgeoning horror film industry to add witchcraft to its collection of tropes with the likes of Night of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur, 1957), The Witches (Cyril Frankel, 1966) and The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1968) capturing the imagination of the thrill-seeking cinemagoer.

The Devil Rides Out’s popularity saw the works of Dennis Wheatley enjoy a renewed lease of life, inspiring a prolific explosion of fiction and non-fiction paperbacks from pop-meets-esoterica stables like New English Library and Panther, complete with titillating covers (invariably featuring young women in various states of undress) destined for the sweaty palms of prurient schoolkids.

There was also a dovetailing with the dying embers of the Summer of Love, with tarot cards and divination providing off-the-peg exoticism for wannabe Suzy Creamcheeses; and the emerging hard rock genre spearheaded by a trio of bands populated with former hippies who each had at least one occult enthusiast in their ranks – Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin.

Perhaps the last and most significant factor was the emergence of self-styled ‘King of the Witches’, Alex Sanders, who appeared from nowhere to become one of the biggest personalities of 1969, establishing himself as a keen self-publicist with June Johns’ hagiography, King of the Witches, and whose theatrical, skyclad rituals provided much column fodder for features in the tabloid press and Dad’s mag Titbits keen for a flimsy excuse to splash naked bodies across their pages and stoke up a bit of controversy to get Middle England chattering.

The publicity-friendly Sanders (and his attractive spouse, Maxine) soon became a staple for not just colour supplements but also the roving researchers of small-screen ‘human interest’ documentarians (The Power of the Witch, BBC) alongside sensation-seeking ‘Mondo’ filmmakers (Witchcraft 70, Luigi Scattini).

Two such films of this genre have now been summoned from the celluloid ether to cast their spells once again to a new audience, whose number will include fortysomething Britons currently surfing the folk horror revival wave and whose early childhoods were ‘scarred for life’ by the likes of HTV’s fantasy output, Words And Pictures’ oft-repeated Halloween episode and one of the most tangible artefacts of the Wyrd 1970s, Usborne’s The World of the Unknown: Ghosts – currently enjoying a highly publicised reprint with a new foreword by Reece Shearsmith of The League of Gentlemen, who arguably opened the door for the whole revival in the first place.

These films are 1969/1970’s moodily monochrome offering Legend of the Witches, produced by the notorious Border Films, and the bite-sized 1971 psuedo-documentary Secret Rites, put together by exploitation film maker and screenwriter Derek Ford whose credits include 1970’s Groupie Girl, Jose Larraz’s Scream…And Die (1973) and uber-sleazy Diversions aka Sex Express (1976). Sanders and his rent-a-crowd of nubiles figure heavily in both movies, coupled together on the latest BFI Flipside release, allowing devotees of the darker, dafter side of retro pop culture to get a good glimpse of the man who was to pentacles what James Corden is to nauseating mugging with A-list celebrities.

Legend of the Witches is a difficult film to assess objectively, as its appeal is highly dependent on your tolerance threshold for slow moving, dourly narrated documentaries, as a quick glance at reviews on the likes of IMDb indicate. Fortunately, objectivity isn’t really We Are Cult’s house style, and your editor (c’est moi) is happy to openly disclose that he has a lot of affection for this strangely enchanting film. For anyone who knows my cultural inclinations, a documentary that kicks off with a piece of stock music recognisable from Monty Python’s ‘Science Fiction Sketch’ over footage of a mist-laden Avebury (the setting in all but name of HTV’s Children Of The Stones) and boasts tasteful nudity of the male and female variety is well within this scribe’s wheelhouse. Its ultimate seal of We Are Cult approval is that it was produced by Border Films, the Soho-based company run by the Negus-Fancey stable, who lensed writer Michael Armstrong and starman David Bowie’s joint film debut in The Image (1969) and distributed a number of European sex films and Italian giallos under much more lurid English language titles (Ewidge Fenich vehicle The Case of the Bloody Iris was rebranded as the less baroque but equally unhelpfully titled Erotic Blue).

What we have here is a film that, not unlike the nudist colony films of Harrison Marks, approaches its topic with a reserved, detached anthropological approach, via a solemn voiceover providing a narrative – some of which may even have a slight grounding in factual research(!) – of occult and witchcraft practises, traditions and artefacts from folklore and the middle ages to the present day, which provides the opportunity to stage twilight initiation rites in a sequence which is, it has to be said, beautifully photographed throughout and has a dreamlike quality that’s quite enchanting in the right frame of mind. Elsewhere, we see another Sanders-led ritual, this time indoors and less compelling but with a similar acreage of bare flesh and soporific narration, in a sequence which may be familiar to BFI aficionados from its use in 2018’s tone poem, Arcadia.

Due to its presentation, Legend of the Witches has a hard-to-describe feeling that takes the viewer out of time, and it’s likely that it led to the dirty mac brigade scratching their bonce more often than fiddling with their nethers as it proceeds at its calm, measured, glacial pace, but for this viewer it’s a strangely relaxing experience, the hauntological equivalent of whalesong.

The same cannot be said for Derek Ford’s Secret Rites, which is very much the supporting feature on this disc despite sharing equal billing. Fortunately, it’s short. From Legend of the Witches’ arty monochrome visuals of Stonehenge, lapping tides and slow panning shots of artefacts from the shelves of the Museum of Witchcraft, Secret Rites whisks us away to the hustle and bustle of early 1970s Notting Hill, via an opening scene straight out of the ‘have your cake and eat it’ school of exploitation cinema, with a deliberately fake, Hammer-esque “frenzied orgy” of “blasphemous rituals” straight out of Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter or Twins of Evil to present the ‘fiction’ of  occult practice as imagined by the tabloid press, before cutting to Alex Sanders (for it is he) pronouncing, “That is a load of rubbish.”

Folllowing this preamble, Secret Rites follows glamorous secretary and occult novice Penny as she takes her first, tentative steps into Alexandrian disciplines for the benefit of the viewer, in a series of not at all stylised and stilted encounters with Mr and Mrs Sanders and their coven members as she progresses through her initiation. The discerning viewer and total idiot alike would be correct in surmising that Secret Rites is not a realist documentary and that viewer identification figure Penny is not a genuine neophyte, but model and sometime TV ‘glamour stooge’ Penny Beeching whose handful of TV credits includes episodes of The Morecambe & Wise Show and Up Pompeii!

But it’s all highly entertaining in a daft as a brush sort of way, and the highlight of the film has to be the opportunity to catch Sanders in sound and vision, unlike Legend of the Witches where he’s seen but not heard, and in the cinema verité sequences of him holding forth with his acolytes, he cuts a surprisingly underwhelming figure for all his notoriety. With his receding pate, dour, Midlands-inflected monotone and stilted demeanour, one hardly feels in the presence of a tabloid folk devil du jour. An altogether more imposing figure is his wife, Maxine, as we see her wordlessly measuring up Penny’s suitability in a corner of a busy Notting Hill pub, looking out balefully from under her platinum blonde hair and sixteen tons of mascara with a Yootha Joyce-esque, piercing stare, nursing a G and T and with a tab parked in the corner of her mouth.

In the garishly staged initiation rituals that occupy the second half of Secret Rites’ running time, however, we get to see Alex Sanders in action, practising his stage craft – for there is no other word for it – and here the self proclaimed King of the Witches appears much more in his domain than in the stilted scenes of him in conversation. Fans of Dracula AD 1972’s black mass will relish these sequences, as Sanders whirls like a dervish around his initiates and disciples, with what feels like as many costume and make-up changes as the first reel of D.A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture, set to a pounding soundtrack by The Spindle, whose stylings recall at times Brazil’s Os Mutantes and Saucerful-era Floyd, to an overall effect that is not dissimilar to the orgy scene from Jose Larraz’s Deviation (1971). “Dig the music, kids!”

It’s a trip, although hardly worthy of an X-rated tag, unless saggy bottoms and flaccid penii are your kink. BFI Flipside have done it once again, offering a safe haven from the intangible world of streaming, with actual hard copy of once-ephemeral films (in DVD and Blu-Ray – vive the dual format!) to amuse and appal retro pulp culture junkies; and the package comes with a bunch of extras that offer an intense amount of good value that would leave only the most tight-fisted of consumers feeling fleeced: The two films look as good as they could ever hope to be in this restoration, Will Fowler and Vic Pratt’s commentary on Secret Rites is dependably entertaining and informative, and as with many a Flipside release, the disc is packed with short period features relevant to the time that are worth a watch in their own right (Getting It Straight In Notting Hill is a real time capsule!) and would otherwise be languishing in a dusty vault until the heat death of the Universe.

Special features

❉ Both films newly remastered in 2K
❉ Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
❉ Newly recorded audio commentary on Secret Rites by BFI Flipside founders Vic Pratt and William Fowler
❉ The Witch’s Fiddle (1924, 7 mins): a silent film version of the eerie folk tale
❉ Out of Step: Witchcraft (1957, 14 mins): investigative journalist Dan Farson interviews the ‘father of Wicca’ Gerald Gardner in this rare TV documentary
❉ The Judgement of Albion (1968, 26 mins): bold Blakeian imagery populates this ode to resistance by the writer of Blood on Satan’s Claw
❉ Getting It Straight in Notting Hill Gate (1970, 25 mins): spaced-out sitars, Blue Beat 45s and the prog-rock grooves of Quintessence soundtrack this up-close flashback to Notting Hill Gate in 1970

❉ Image gallery: rare memorabilia and newspaper cuttings relating to the films, salvaged from the spooky ‘70s
❉ Newly commissioned sleeve artwork by renowned illustrator Graham Humphreys
❉ Illustrated booklet (first pressing only) with new essays by Christina Oakley Harrington, William Fowler, Vic Pratt, Mark Pilkington, Adrian Smith and Rob Young, notes on the special features and full film credits

❉ ‘Legend of the Witches & Secret Rites’ (Flipside 039) (Dual Format Edition) wasreleased on 14 October 2019. Cert 18. RRP: £19.99. UK / 1970 and 1971 / black and white, colour / 85 mins + 47 mins / English language with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles / original aspect ratio 1.33:1 / BD50: 1080p, 24fps, LPCM 1.0 mono audio (48kHz/24-bit) DVD9: PAL, 25fps, Dolby Digital mono audio (192kbps).

❉ James Gent is editor of We Are Cult, and co-editor with Jon Arnold of Me And The Starman.

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