Director: Malcolm Leigh / Derek Ford
Screenplay: Malcolm Leigh / Derek Ford
Starring: Alex Sanders, Maxine Sanders, Penny Beeching
Year: 1970 / 1971
Duration: 85 min / 47 min
BBFC Certification: 18
Legend of the Witches, 1970
I have to say, Legend of the Witches 1970, is not what I expected. Directed and written by Malcolm Leigh, this film, sold as a documentary, does seem to depict with some authenticity Wiccan rites and ceremonies. Although quite slow with a typically 1970s droning voice over, the film has some beautiful shots of moonlit countryside and crashing waves, set against a fitting, somewhat mesmerising soundtrack.
Having had an almost obsessive interest in witchcraft as an early teenager, it is not surprising that I was keen to watch this film. Expecting a biased, blood thirsty and erotic account of an ancient religion condemned by the church, I was pleasantly surprised. However, there is no doubt in Leigh’s real intentions for making this film (he followed this with British Sex film, Games that Lovers Play, 1971 starring Joanna Lumney). Beautiful young girls with pert breasts and slim attractive bodies; all of them witches. Really? In doing this Leigh somewhat cheapens what could be an informative piece of cinema about Witchcraft.
The film starts with the Wiccan creation story of Dianna the moon looking for her soul mate Lucifer the sun. Similarly, to other creation stories, it tells of how life on earth began with the smallest of fish and birds, to the creation of animals and man. This is a beautiful start to the film, and the story itself has definite roots in the Wiccan creation story of ‘Our Lady of Infinite Love’, who goes by many names, including that of Dianna.
Next, we see a dramatized version of an initiation into the witches’ circle. Followed by the introduction of Catholicism, where we are given information regarding the integration of Catholicism and old Pagan teachings. This is a lovely section that displays images of old churches adorned with pagan deities and information on how Pagan Sabbats were ‘magpied’ by the Christians to support the populations transition to Christianity.
There then follows quite a lengthy look at the Bayeux Tapestry and its intertwined pagan images, before we are transported to Cornwall and a small museum, housing relics from the grave of a known witch. Although nice to see, it is difficult for the director to fully encapsulate the significance of these objects on film and the shot is simply a scan over objects as the narrator goes on to talk about spells and the doll effigies with pins stuck into them.
Throughout the film, we return to images of naked dancing around campfires and shots of waves on a beach until finally we get to the section most people are wanting to view, ritual mass’s involving provocative images of beautiful woman laid out on the floor or altar and the notorious ‘Black Mass’, performed by modern Wiccan husband and wife duo, Alex and Maxine Sanders.
This remastered version of the film is of good quality which makes the most of Leigh’s beautiful cinematography of the countryside both in daylight and under moonlight. Images of sea, sunrises and deer are eloquently focussed to aid the films relaxing atmosphere, and even the sacrifice of a chicken appears less harrowing than it might. The extra quality also allows for some detailing to be seen clearer during the performance of each mass and ritual.
All of the images and film stock are knitted together by the narration by Guy Standeven and a soundtrack which changes intensity throughout the film. Sadly, I felt that the narration by Standeven often added to what is in most part, a slow film with a few interesting highs. Standeven’s approach is much like that of a person narrating an old-fashioned information film about walking to the shop and back. It lacks deviation in expression so that one sentence often moves into another without much consequence. As a result, at times I could feel my eyes close. Maybe this hypnotic affect was exactly what Leigh intended. It did almost put you into a trance like state. However, I suspect it is simply the style of the time, particularly for educational films which often resemble the ramblings of an old professor, deep in thought with no real acknowledgement of an audience.
One of the things I can commend Malcolm Leigh on, is his relatively non-judgemental and realistic view on witchcraft. For the majority of film, recreations of rites and rituals are kept tasteful, giving the whole film a sense of educational value. The accuracy of the content is in some places, debateable. In particular, the scene where a candidate is initiated into the circle by the high priestess calling him on a long journey across moonlit landscapes of rocks and caves, blindfolded and tied, has never appeared in any witchcraft books I have read. The use of cord to tie up members and the sword to cut these cords, is however, significant in modern witchcraft, and other depictions of events in the performance of the mass’, seem accurate as far as I can tell. With the new popularity of witchcraft in its modern form, it is probably impossible to be completely accurate because of the different deviations dependent on which practising witch you speak to, so it would be unfair to criticise Leigh for this.
The biggest let down for this film is the casting. Ok, so the view of the old, wart covered hag are also perhaps a bit stereotypical, but I am certain that even with the newly released interest in witchcraft in the 1970s, not all witches were young beautiful maidens with flowing golden hair. Like all religions, members come in all shapes and sizes. Casting beautiful model like, nude woman somewhat discredits this film as an educational documentary, endorsing a more voyeuristic motive by the director.
As someone with a hobbyist interest in witchcraft and old religions, this film is an interesting look at Wicca in the modern age. Like all documentaries, you have to be diligent when assessing what the director/writer is showing you to be accurate, as we know, documentaries are not always shot without bias. If it is hard evidence of modern witchcraft practises you are looking for, this is probably not your best bet, although it does give some insight. Similarly, if it is titillation and nudity you are after, you might be slightly disappointed.
Overall, the film is generally shot and executed in good taste even where some of the depictions and scenes take a little too much artistic licence. It gives a little insight into modern witchcraft practises and a little background to pagan religion and its evolution through the ages. Worth a watch if you have an interest in the subject matter. Probably not for your average horror fan looking for a sensationalised look at witchcraft.
Secret Rites, 1971
Directed by Derek Ford and staring High Priest Alex Sanders (Legend of the Witches, 1970), Secret Rites, 1970, is a pseudo-documentary about a young girl being initiated into a witches’ circle. Out of the two films on this box set, this is probably the most enjoyable for the average viewer. It is also more reliable in terms of accurate representation of rites and rituals within a witches’ coven. This said, like Legend of the Witches, it isn’t totally clear what the intentions of the director truly are, with some shots of nudity lingering just that little bit longer than necessary.
The film starts by staging the typical orgy of beautiful women and men in a witches’ coven. Naked breasts, dancing and sex dominate this party of lust in the grand hall of a beautiful castle. Out comes the sacrificial virgin, spread eagle across the altar. The proceedings are then infiltrated by a priest with a cross, set on bringing down the evil goings on. The dark, evil witches recoil from the gleaming symbol of Christ, and are forced to suffer for their evil doings. Switch to Alex Sanders, a Notting Hill witch, ready to demystify the controversy surrounding witchcraft and break down some of the stereotypical images.
After a little insight from Sanders, the film focusses on Penny, a hairstylist living and working in Notting Hill in the 1970s and her journey from being an occult enthusiast, to joining Alex Sanders coven. We find out how her letter to Alex, instigates her meeting with a fellow witch, how covens determine a person is right for initiation into a coven, and more about what is expected of a witch.
As the film progresses, we are given first-hand experience of the initiation of two witches into the coven, one of which is Penny. We are a fly on the wall for the next series of rituals carried out by Sanders and the High Priestess. Once the two candidates are initiated, we are given more opportunities to watch the filming of certain Wiccan rituals, including a marriage and those associated with the ancient Egyptian Gods.
Although not very long, this film gives a good picture of modern witchcraft and its advancement and resurgence in 1970s Britain. Unlike Legend of the Witches, the pace is much quicker and because the lighting is better and it is shot in colour, it is clearer for the audience to see exactly what is happening with the tying of the three coloured cords and the ritualistic kissing of the five points.
The soundtrack for the film was performed by mystery band, The Spindle. Providing a very 70s psychedelic sound, the music fits brilliantly with the performance of the rituals within the film. Although clearly not the music of choice by the coven, (at times you here low-level snippets of the actual ritual music) it draws in an audience, who might otherwise have dismissed the film entirely.
In the main, this film comes across as a documentary with some accuracy. The biggest let down is the drafting in of actress Penny Beeching as the hairdresser with an interest in the Occult. Although a lesser known actress staring in Up Pompei, 1969 and The Morecambe and Wise Show, 1968, Penny’s playing to the camera with pouting looks and stylised standing often give her away.
Overall, this is an interesting and insightful look at Witchcraft practises in 1970s Notting Hill and does go some way to dispel the myth surrounding orgies, virgin sacrifice and roots in evil. If you have some interest in Witchcraft in the modern world, this could be a film for you.
This set is a lovely collection of two films about Witchcraft in the 1970s. It comes with a collection of extras that will predominantly appeal to scholars in the field of cultural history or people with an interest in cultural history and witchcraft.
The small short, The Witches’ Fiddle is a silent film from 1924 based on an old folk tale. It follows the tale of a young man given a fiddle by an old hag, and how his magical music enchants the people he meets. Very of its time, but quite compelling to watch.
Getting it Straight in Notting Hill Gate, 1970, is an interesting cultural insight into life in Notting Hill Gate in 1970. With no connection to Witchcraft, I can only imagine this was added to the set because of the Alex Sanders connection to Notting Hill. It is however and interesting look at life and times in a poorer suburb of London. If you grew up in the 1970s this may well appeal to you.
Other extras include an interview with ‘father of Wicca’ Gerald Gardner from TV documentary Out of Step, 1957 in which he attempts to dispel the blackened view of witchcraft with reluctance from its interviewer, journalist Dan Farson. There is also a short film, The Judgement of Albion, 1968, with bold Blakeian imagery in this ode to resistance by the writer of Blood on Satan’s Claw. Finally, there is a collection of images from the film Legend of the Witches and of rare memorabilia and newspaper clippings related to the spooky 70s.
Legend of the Witches and Secret Rites is released on Blu-ray and DVD by BFI Film Flipside and includes the following extras:
• 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
• Judgement of Albion (1968, 26 mins): bold, Blakeeian 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 cutings relating to the films, salvaged from the spooky ’70s
• Newly commissioned sleeve artwork by renowned illustrator Graham Humphreys
• **FIRST PRESSING ONLY** fully illustrated booklet with essays by Christina Oakley Hrrington, publisher and expert on the occult Mark Pilkington, film lecturer Dr Adrian Smith, writer Rob Young and authors of The Bodies Beneath, Vic Pratt and William Fowler