Legend of the Witches/Secret Rites Review
Secret Rites opens as many a horror film does. With Lee Peters’s stentorian narration on the soundtrack, it’s the dead of night and a Satanic orgy is in progress, writhing naked celebrants on screen. A young woman is dragged screaming into the room but her sacrifice is interrupted by our square-jawed hero, brandishing a crucifix and about to save the day. Cut to Alex Sanders, who tells us to camera that this is all nonsense. And he should know, as he was very much the public face of witchcraft in the UK at the time (1971). Stay in your seat and find out what witchcraft is really like.
Sanders also features in Legend of the Witches, made the previous year and twice as long. The fact that we’re in black and white – a commercially obsolete format now, at least where major studio releases were concerned – gives the material a patina of seriousness, of non-sensationalism. But that isn’t very far away.
These two films are curios from a period when British cinema was in flux. The funding from the USA on which a lot of production in the later 1960s had depended had gone away, and the breakdown of censorship was being seized upon by British filmmakers. As much as the British Board of Film Censors (as it was then called) would allow, they would show you. If you were of an appropriate age, things that bigger-budget, more respectable releases might. You could forget about them turning up on television later and home video didn’t exist. They took inspiration from the “mondo” trend, which had begun in 1962 with Mondo Cane (originally rejected by the BBFC, then passed with some fourteen minutes cut in 1963) and British answers to it like London in the Raw (1964) and Primitive London (1965), both of which were past BFI Flipside releases. Add to that an interest in the occult, which predated Sixties counterculture but had certainly been given a boost by it.
Both films spend much of their running time in recreations of occult rituals. How accurate they are, I’m in no position to say, but they’re clearly staged for the camera – Legend of the Witches was shot in 35mm, and there’s no handheld catch-as-catch-can camerawork here. We see ceremonies of initiation into a coven, divination by means of animal entrails, the casting of a death spell and a Black Mass. We also, in Legend..., take a tour of a witchcraft museum. There is a lot of nudity, including full-frontals of both sexes, which had been something the BBFC was only able to pass in the previous half-decade so quite new as something you could see at your local Odeon or ABC. Another type of film increasingly being made in the UK, taking advantage of the changes in censorship, was the sexploitation film. Both Legends of the Witches and Secret Rites first went out to cinemas on double bills with such films: Do You Want to Remain a Virgin Forever? and Suburban Wives respectively. It was the pounds, shillings and pence in the pockets of dirty macs around the country that these films’ distributors were really after, and if you had an occult frisson along with the more usual titillation, all the better.
Despite the presence of real-life witch Sanders (and his wife Maxine, uncredited), you don’t have to dig very far to reach the point where documentary breaks down. Penny, the hairdressers’ receptionist whose initiation into a coven we follow in Secret Rites, turns out to be Penny Beeching, a model whose short acting career included a recurring role on TV in Up Pompeii! and two appearances on The Morecambe & Wise Show. Some of the naked coven members have been identified as appearing in the very underground world of the hardcore sex films, then illegal in the UK and made for overseas distribution.
Malcolm Leigh, director of Legend of the Witches, had begun his career in 1968 with a short film, and continued to make shorts and documentaries throughout the next decade. His only non-documentary feature was 1971’s Games That Lovers Play, part of the swathe of softcore sex comedies that were much of British cinema’s output of the time. The director of Secret Rites, Derek Ford, had a longer career, starting out as a writer in film and television in the early 1960s. His first film as director, Groupie Girl (1970), sets the tone for much of his output, which include such titles as The Wife Swappers and indeed Suburban Wives, which was the double-bill partner of Secret Rites. Some of his films had additional hardcore footage shot for overseas version. There’s speculation that this might have been the case with Secret Rites, which in the present version is only forty-seven minutes long. Born in 1932, he made his last film in 1989 and died in 1995.
It’s hard to claim that either of these films is a unheralded masterpiece. They were made as commercial fare, riding particular exploitational trends of the time, and once they completed their cinema runs have been little seen since, other than a 2004 DVD release for Legend... which appears to be some thirteen minutes shorter (probably partly but not entirely due to PAL speed-up) than the version here. But that’s what the BFI Flipside range is all about. The films it releases, all with well-curated extras, may not always be good and are sometimes terrible in a fascinating way, but they are certainly of plenty of interest in illuminating British cinema through the ages. This disc is no exception.
Legend of the Witches/Secret Rites is number 39 of the BFI’s Flipside line. It’s a dual-format release, and a checkdisc of the Blu-ray (Region B) was supplied for review. Both films were cut for X certificates for their cinema releases, which in the case of Legend meant sixteen and over. (The X certificate was raised to eighteen and over later the same year, 1970.) Indeed, both transfers begin with the original BBFC certificates. Now, Legend of the Witches is a 15 and Secret Rites an 18, both without cuts (or at least without cuts to what was available to submit). Among the extras, The Witch’s Fiddle has been passed U and The Judgment of Albion PG. The other two extras are documentaries unlikely to be passed higher than PG so have not been submitted to the BBFC.
Legend of the Witches was shot on black and white 35mm and the transfer is derived from a 2K-resolution scan of the original negative. It’s presented in the ratio of 1.37:1, though whatever the director and cinematographer’s intentions were, it wouldn’t have been shown in cinemas in that ratio, The great majority of British cinemas which could still show films in Academy Ratio were arthouses and repertory screens, and it’s fair to say that this film wasn’t an arthouse release. Secret Rites looks like it was shot in 16mm, and the transfer derives from a 2K scan of the only known surviving film element, a 35mm release print held by the BFI National Archive. It is presented in the ratio of 1.66:1. The results are very different, but you do have to make allowances for the sources. Legend of the Witches looks fine: sharp and detailed, with the contrast essential to black and white seemingly right, especially as much of the film takes place at night. Print damage is obvious in places with Secret Rites. Colour fading is too, and that’s clear right from the start as the BBFC certificate is a fetching shade of salmon pink rather than the usual red.
The soundtrack is the original mono in both cases, and clear and well-balanced it is. Hard-of-hearing English subtitles are available for the features but not the extras. I spotted one error: “sensor” instead of “censer” of incense, seventeen minutes into Secret Rites.
The extras begin with a commentary by Flipside founders and curators Vic Pratt and William Fowler on Secret Rites. Given that they only have half a feature film’s worth to talk over, they don’t waste time and pass on a lot of information about director Derek Ford and the onscreen participants, and the film’s context in terms of British cinema and society at the time.
As usual with a BFI release, there are a number of short films related to the main features, if only by theme. They begin with The Witch’s Fiddle (7:03), made in 1924 as the first production of the Cambridge University Kinema Club (as the opening credits proudly say). It’s very rough and ready – and the original materials have clearly seen better days – but it has genuine charm and ends not with “The End” but with “That’s All”. This silent film has a violin-based (naturally) score which plays in surround.
We move on to 1957, and a television documentary made for Associated-Rediffusion’s series Out of Step. In Witchcraft, roving reporter Daniel Farson takes a look at the subject of the title and how it was practised at the time. Interviewees are ninety-two-year-old expert Dr Margaret Murray and witch Gerald Gardner, who had written a book (Witchcraft Today) in 1954, three years after the Witchcraft Act had been repealed.
The Judgment of Albion (26:20) is an essay film, made in 1968 by Robert Wynne-Simmons (who would go on to write Blood on Satan’s Claw). His subject is the poet, artist and visionary William Blake, and the film uses Blake’s poems and paintings to counterpoint views of present-day London, nature versus urban noise and bustle.
Getting It Straight in Notting Hill Gate (24:56) takes us right into the heart of London’s counterculture at a time (1970) when the Sixties dream was souring. Notting Hill might have been home to Mr and Mrs Sanders, but it was also a places where different races, and different sexualities lived side by side. It was also home to Oz Magazine, soon to be busted for obscenity in a famous court case. Interviewees include Caroline Coon, whose company offered free legal aid to those harrassed by the police, and psychedelic artist Larry Smart, living in a squat. Music includes sitar drones on the soundtrack and a performance by the band Quintessence.
Finally on the disc is a self-navigating image gallery (2:13) including stills, press kits and some newspaper cuttings of cinema listings.
The BFI’s booklet (available in the first pressing only) runs to thirty-six pages. It begins with an essay on Legend of the Witches by Dr Christina Oakley Harrington, authority on the subject and director of London’s celebrated occult shop Treadwell’s Books. Next up are a piece by William Fowler on Secret Rites and an overview of witchcraft in popular culture by Vic Pratt. Mark Pilkington profiles Alex and Maxine Sanders and Adrian Smith does the same for Border Films, the company which produced and distributed Legend of the Witches. Rob Young’s article elucidates looks into The Spindle, the little-known band credited with the music score for Secret Rites, a search which involves Young’s own father and his university friend Bryan Walton, who may be part of the band (on very of-the-period Hammond organ) and may even be the “Bryan” who is initiated alongside Penny in the film. No firm conclusions are drawn, but this is fascinating. Also in the booklet are full credits for both films, credits and notes on the extras, a poster for a double-bill pairing of Legend of the Witches with Sex in the Suburbs, and stills.