January 2, 2017

Legend of the Witches (1970)

“THE BODY OF CHRIST”. “THE BODY OF CHRIST”. “THE BLOOD OF CHRIST”. “THE BODY OF CHRIST”. “THE BLOOD OF CHRIST”. Talk about labouring the point!! And so runs one of the best-known sections of this near-legendary Britsploitation documentary; that is among the small yet fervent circle of people who have actually seen it. Even though it has now been broadcast on cable TV and is freely available on DVD in roadside garages, Malcolm Leigh’s documentary Legend Of The Witches remains one of those films so ephemeral and so synonymous with the very concept of ‘collectable’ that you sometimes wonder if people are refusing to buy it or maybe even refusing to acknowledge its availability in order to preserve the legend.

Filmed in late summer 1969 but not released until early 1970 (hence its inclusion in the bible of all 70s Brit horror collectors, Harvey Fenton’s Ten Years of Terror) Legend is undoubtedly a film of its time. Which is fine, of course, because those of us who like this sort of thing prefer our cinema as dated and authentic as possible? But the film (or, given its occult nature, should that be “thee film?”) does tend to walk a fine line between eerie and kitsch and occasionally end up coming out on the wrong side.

Film stillThe opening few minutes are as good a display of this as any – it has been noted elsewhere online that it’s highly unlikely that so many female coven members would have looked as much like Mary Hopkin as half the cast here seem to, and knowing full well that the majority of practising Wiccans like to keep their activities secret and well hidden from the prying eyes of the media, it’s doubtful that any members of the cast were genuine initiates. So, as we watch such an example of pulchritude (looking suspiciously like Flesh and Blood Show actress Jane Cardew) blindfold her latest male conquest and then lead him over a cliff top via the skilful premise of shouting ‘Michael’ at him several times – which would be fine were it not for the fact that his name is probably Dave – we can be forgiven for not being entirely convinced! There is also a mildly humorous segment involving placing knives in cups (“as the knife is to man, so is the cup to woman, now let them be joined”) which makes Hitchcock’s ‘trains and tunnels’ symbolism in North By Northwest seem almost subtle by comparison, yet none of this is in no way to the film’s detriment- even after repeated viewings, it still makes for a highly enjoyable 75 minutes.

The narrator (whose name does not seem to appear on the credits, and who employs the quintessentially polite, Ealing-trained yet slightly foreboding tone of voice so beloved of most contemporaneous documentaries, not too dissimilar to the camp voiceover that links the tracks on the equally-legendary 666 album by Greek prog-rockers Aphrodite’s Child) delivers several pieces of information which, although maybe not entirely grounded in fact, seem well-informed and at least blessed with a certain degree of enthusiasm for the subject. It’s never clear which side of the fence Leigh stands on, other than that of an exploitation director looking for another marketable use of onscreen nudity and explicit sex for the delectation of the dirty mac brigade – who must have been disappointed by the relative lack of any steamy antics within, not to mention the fact that male buttocks are often on far more prominent display than female breasts – but the dialogue pulls no punches in explaining how Christianity not only appropriated much of its iconography and ritual from witchcraft, but also committed vile acts of persecution against those involved – or indeed anyone interested in “something other than the dogmas of Christianity” This contradicts most of what appears in the recently published tome The Kirk, Salem And Satan: A History Of The Witches Of Renfrewshire (written by a Christian) but then again, it would, one supposes. Either way, If Julian Cope hasn’t seen this already, then he’s bound to love it.

Mixed with the live footage are several sequences detailing ancient paintings and tapestries of occult scenes, which again must have either bored or confused its intended market in the Soho sex cinemas where it played but provide endless fascination for the more esoterically minded, during which it is revealed (once again controversially) that ritual magic in history did not include orgiastic sex acts. That said, there soon follows an extremely lengthy scene in which a man and woman tie themselves together naked in a circle and simulate the act of conception, apparently a very important symbol. It should be stressed here that my personal knowledge of “witchy things” is very limited: I have known (and on two occasions dated) several individuals who claimed to be fully- paid up adepts, but always found the imagery and paraphernalia more interesting than the actual subject, most of which bores me to tears. Ah well, they do say ‘do what thou wilt shall be the Whole of the Law’, and I guess it was my will to collect obscure films rather than study magic!! Which (no pun intended), some might say is a form of sigilistic behaviour in itself.

Film stillWhether it is or it isn’t, one can’t deny that the atmosphere engendered by the film is a powerfully persuasive one, in no small part due to the way Leigh’s camerawork uses mood and lighting (even if there is a tendency toward the occasional cheesy close-up). Sure, several shots do look exactly how someone who hadn’t seen the film would expect it to look (lots of churchyards, candlelight, windy trees and the type of chanting best described onomatopoeically as “armineminuming” involved) but come on, it’s a British film about the occult from the late 1960s – I mean, what else would you expect? Apart, that is, from some amusing inserts of people engaging in “modern-day” superstition (which of course looks just as quaint now as the mediaeval sections) such as not walking under ladders, looking sorely feared at the number 13 on their calendar, or wearing ‘End Of The World’ sandwich boards.

But is it horror? Well, by association of course. Anything concerned with a supernatural subject tends to be filed under that heading (unless leaning towards the more gratuitous ‘mondo’ excesses of Jacobetti and Prosperi, which ironically contain far more horrible subject matter than you’ll see here) but there is very little in the way of blood and gore, favouring subtlety over the lowest common denominator. Not that there’s anything wrong with gore at all, but it would seem incongruous here, except maybe for one scene depicting a Cornish museum filled with various sacrificial objects (set to the sound of some brilliantly Amicusesque incidental organ music and the unforgettable exclamation of “HATE!! HATE!! HATE!! – OK Malc, we get the idea) that hones in on a close-up of a squashed bird inside someone’s shoe. Yuk!! Pictures of pestle and mortar, knitted dollies, needles and all form of sinister bric-a-brac follow at this point, which, coupled with some skeletal remains of burnt witches filmed in that same slightly sad, decaying manner that seems to prevail throughout Jack The Ripper documentaries, provide the film’s only truly scary moments.

One can’t help but wonder if it’s really that easy to construct some kind of artefact with which to avenge one’s enemies, (and if so, where can I get the materials?) but the fear of some kind of karma coming back toward you (a la the Tom Baker segment in Vault Of Horror) always tends to discourage anyone before they’ve even begun. On the other hand, maybe that’s just what they want us to believe..or maybe not, as after a VERY elongated sequence involving a Black Mass that turns the tables by using various supposedly Christian elements, not quite as clichéd as anything involving inverted crosses but more a reversal of accepted roles, the narrator pulls us back to rationale without so much as a by-your-leave by simply asking, “but do these rituals have any power in reality other than in the mind?” Just as everything was getting interesting (if a shade on the terse side), we’re back to earth with a bump.

Or are we? In the final sequence, which to my mind is the essential one in terms of the film’s continued relevance, Leigh almost single handedly predicts the forthcoming forty years of popular culture by demonstrating how rhythm, sound and the shamanistic nature of repetitive music can be used to induce a trance-like state. As a woman sits in a room listening to what sounds like Delia Derbyshire’s pioneering electronic drone, with a disc depicting what appears to be the Vertigo record label swirling and whirling in front of her eyes, one can’t help but question exactly how many people saw this film the first time round who just might have gone on to become major movers and shakers in both musical and cinematic fields!! Even Top of the Pops seemed more interesting visually post-1970….coincidence? Whether or not there’s anything in this at all, it’s undoubtedly a very forward thinking concept. And it doesn’t just end there. Strobes!! Pyrotechnics!! The underlying basis of live performance to come? Who knows? Ironically, several bands have used the film in recent years as a back-projection, so maybe we’ve come full circle. And maybe, just maybe, Leigh has answered his own question concerning the power of magic in the real world.

Film stillAfter all, it’s pretty safe to assume that the majority of the people who own this film now on DVD or have sought it out at any time during the last twenty years are people concerned with the acquisition of what could be loosely termed ‘psychotropic’ cinema, which tends to run hand in hand with an appreciation of similar music- in this case the works of Black Widow, Coven, Current 93, Comus and their ilk. A marked difference from the men in macs filling out Soho picture houses in 1970, or the aesthetes who dubbed themselves “art cinema lovers” and also flocked to see the likes of I Am Curious, Blue- but if we are to be totally honest, all three groups are just as interested in glimpsing supple female flesh. Only these days, some females want to see it too…

 Leigh is a capable filmmaker, as his later efforts in both ‘doccos’ and feature films would show – it’s a shame that he appeared to stop working completely after 1980 and that little is known of his whereabouts or even if he still lives. His most well-known work, and the only one that seems to have received widespread distribution, is the transgender-themed sex comedy Games That Lovers Play, starring Joanna Lumley and another great where-are-they-now of the era, Penny Brahms- and even that’s difficult to see these days. Equally obscure are the rest of the cast and crew- if the girl who shouts ‘Michael!’ repeatedly is Jane Cardew, that’s not saying much, as hers is a name largely unknown outside avid collector circles. The nefarious and dubious activities of the film’s producers Negus-Fancey, however- now that’s the stuff of legend for you.

Despite its slight risibility (maybe inevitable given the passing of time) and undoubted status as a Britsploitation flick, designed purely to cash in on a fad which seemed to be sweeping the nation (which thus would fit the criteria of being “ripped from yesterday’s headlines”) and having as much to do with ‘educational filmmaking’ as The Wife Swappers or Primitive London did (i.e. not much), it is impossible to dislike Legend Of The Witches. OK, maybe the word ‘legend’ is misleading, but it does deliver with a certain degree of sobriety and sincerity often missing from such efforts- witness the hysterical tone of F For Fake, William Shatner’s Mysteries Of The Gods or indeed any of the numerous US-produced documentaries on witchcraft that proliferated throughout the coming decade.

  It also eschews the slight tone of pretentiousness which tends to mar one’s complete enjoyment of Peter Whitehead’s work such as Tonite Let’s All Make Love In London or Charlie Is My Darling. And its very subject matter has allowed it more longevity than many of its contemporaries- after all, in the words of the Stones themselves, “Who wants yesterday’s papers?” Except, that is, for those of us who collect and thrive on the detritus of the past…

In those terms, it is a successful film and has captured the spirit of what its obvious influence, Benjamin Christensen’s Haxan (1922) also achieved- although it should be recognised that the name ‘Satan’ (as opposed to Lucifer, ‘bringer of light’) is not mentioned once throughout, which belies a tastefulness and understanding of the occult not often found in the genre.  It also ends on a quite beautiful note, as a sun slowly rises into focus opposite a rural cliff top – a possible influence in itself, one might venture, on the camerawork employed by Harry Waxman and Mike Drew in the closing scene of that veritable Brithorror behemoth, The Wicker Man? Who knows for sure?

One thing is for certain though – this is yet another film which should be viewed at least once, alongside Night After Night After Night, I Start Counting and Goodbye Gemini, as an example of how the two decades did not so much end and begin as lapse seamlessly into each other with a marked change of approach. Now, all we need is for its counterparts to receive a latter-day release. Derek Ford’s Secret Rites, where are you?

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About Drewe Shimon

Drewe Shimon has written 61 post in this blog.