Friday, 25 October 2019

October Horrors # 12:
A Flipside Halloween with ‘Legend of
the Witches’ (1970), ‘Secret Rites’ (1971) & More.

Back in the halcyon days of 2009-11ish, I was a regular attendee at the monthly ‘Flipside’ screenings which took place at the National Film Theatre / BFI Southbank here in London, organised in support of the BFI’s then flourishing DVD/Blu-Ray imprint of the same name. Bearing witness to the assorted oddities unearthed from the archives by curators Vic Pratt and William Fowler was always a joy and a privilege, to the extent that I pretty much bought my tickets blind, confident that whatever they came up with would prove both surprising and rewarding, even if it was something I would never have voluntarily signed up for in any other circumstances (a Q&A with the late Michael Winner springs to mind).

Naturally, I was sad to see the ‘Flipside’ slot gradually muscled out of the BFI’s schedule, presumably to make way for no-doubt-more-lucrative extra screenings of whichever restored Kubrick epic was currently doing the rounds (or, perhaps it was the decision, apropos of nothing, to screen the largely unheralded 1982 post-apocalyptic movie ‘Battle Truck’ with the director in attendance which proved the final straw for the accounts department, who knows).

The absolute highlight on the Flipside calendar of course was the programmes of shorts, TV episodes and documentaries which Pratt & Fowler used to pull together for Halloween (you can read my thoughts on the 2010 Halloween special here) and it has been a joy and a privilege this month to be able to relive the spirit of those strange evenings in my own home, as the Flipside label has risen from its slumber and produced a shiny new release which pretty much exemplifies the kind of thing which used to pop up at those October screenings.

Beginning with our feature presentation for the evening, Malcolm Leigh’s 1970 documentary Legend of the Witches opens in surprisingly meditative fashion, with a near ten minute sequence of uninterrupted nature footage. In what certainly seems like a boldly experimental gambit for a film which saw its only theatrical exhibition as a supporting feature for ‘Not Tonight, Darling’ aka ‘Sex in the Suburbs’ (Anthony Sloman, 1971), we see seaweed ebbing and flowing on the tide in a manner that I’d be tempted to tag as a tribute to Tarkovsky but for the fact that he had not actually made ‘Solaris’ yet at this point, reeds and branches swaying in the breeze, and a sunrise presented in real time.

(For some reason, Leigh and “lighting cameraman” Robert Webb seem to have had a particular yen for this kind of ambient / landscape footage, inserting seascapes, cliff faces and foliage throughout the film. Even when visiting a haunted house, the camera seems more concerned with the peacocks in the garden and the grain of wood on the staircase than the supposedly spooky goings-on.) (1)

Over this opening footage, our stentorian-yet-faintly-ironic narrator Guy Standeven intones what purports to be the “creation myth of the witches”, involving a tryst between the moon goddess Diana and Lucifer the light-bringer, representing a union between the feminine/lunar and masculine/solar ideals. (2)

Under the circumstances, this yarn does a pretty good job of sounding authentically old-as-the-hills, supporting the film’s contention that modern witchcraft has risen organically from the natural world and the impossibly ancient worship thereof. In reality however, this “creation myth” was likely knocked up from scratch by the film’s ostensible star, self-styled ‘King of the Witches’ Alex Sanders, and the references to the Greco-Roman Diana and the Christian figure of Lucifer will no doubt have already made the blood of any Wiccan purists in the audience start to boil.

We’re on safer ground though as we join Sanders’ skyclad coven (or at least, the younger and more photogenic members thereof, I suspect) as they circle their ceremonial fire in some suitably remote and inaccessible deep forest clearing, undertaking a series of elemental initiation rites for a new member.

Chances are, if you’re familiar with Sanders’ name, you probably know him in his capacity as a media / showbiz fixture, a relentless self-promoter and, arguably, an out-right charlatan. Here at least though, Leigh & Webb’s striking, high contrast black & white photography and solemn, naturalistic pacing succeeds in imbuing Sanders’ rites with a degree of dignity and gravitas, framing the coven’s matter-of-fact nudity in a way that often seems closer to Francis Bacon-style anatomical expressionism than yr common-or-garden exploitation.

After quite a lot of this, we veer into slightly more routine paranormal documentary territory, as Standeven essentially delivers a lecture on the early Christian church’s tendency to incorporate pagan tradition into their architecture and practice, and a sympathetic, Margaret Murray-ish take on the subsequent persecution of ‘the old religion’, all illustrated with visits to some churches and standing stones, medieval woodcuts, an examination of the weirder goings-on in the Bayeux Tapestry, and so forth.

This all leads up to a second staged ritual, which will no doubt have those hypothetical Wiccans spitting horse feathers, as Sanders and his wife Maxine are seen conducting a quote-unquote ‘black mass’, complete with full Xtian paraphernalia – looming crucifix, altar boys, sacred host and ecclesiastical music on the soundtrack. Presumably dreamed up in order to add a frisson of blasphemy to proceedings, this sequence ends like some Ken Russell wet dream, with Alex apparently instigating a menage-a-trois with two naked ladies inside the magic(k) circle. Good heavens.

Next up, we get an intriguing tour of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, on the north coast of Cornwall. It’s still there today, and I have long wished to pay it a visit, although my failure to persuade anyone to drive me there has thus far stymied that ambition. I mean, I’m sure they must have changed things around a bit in the past half century, but on the basis of what we see here, it looks pretty amazing.

This transitions into another staged ritual, in which – extraordinarily, given that they were supposedly aiming to popularise and win respect for their beliefs – we see Sanders and his followers demonstrating the rites through which a coven might place a death curse on an enemy. This also incorporates a strong sexual element, as Alex and Maxine again put on a bit of a show for the camera, enacting the simulated conception and “birth” of the curse object.

Thus far, ‘Legend of the Witches’ has served up an odd mixture of sombre, moody atmospherics and increasingly questionable content, but happily, the film’s final stretch is by far the most entertaining, committing fully to the cause of wonderful, silly-ass nonsense.

For no particular reason, we ditch witchcraft for a while, and instead visit a haunted house (I’m currently unable to identify which one). Here, a mod-ishly dressed young lady is left alone to shiver in “the most haunted room” whilst – in a development guaranteed to produce rapturous excitement for those of us with a fetish for vintage audio equipment and/or The Stone Tape – a team of paranormal investigators begin hauling their elaborate electronic gear up the stairs!

I’m pretty sure this stuff was all staged for the film (the ‘psychic’ girl in the haunted room re-appears in later scenes, still wearing the same outfit), but it’s still great fun.

Rather than waiting for a conclusion to this paranormal stake-out, the film soon changes course again to take in psychic phenomena and, uh, electronically-induced hypnotism? Yes, there are whirring oscillators, “stroboscopes” and a big ol’ hypno-wheel on the wall, as we are invited to note the similarities between “traditional “and “modern” means of generating a trance state, leading us directly into the film’s big finale, in which all pretence of documentary realism is merrily discarded in favour of a wild, studio-bound happening (ostensibly the preparation for a scrying ritual) which feels like a cross between an early Velvet Underground photo-shoot, an outtake from ‘The Devil Rides Out’ and a Jess Franco night club scene.

Everything but the kitchen sink is thrown in here, as we get a giant hypno-wheel projection, a guy wearing a goat mask, several naked girls, Alex Sanders (I think) turning up in an owl mask, ceremonial whipping and light bondage, clouds of incense, strobe lighting, and even a soundtrack of ragin’ sitar music (because there’s no better way to get your psychedelic witchcraft party started than with some totally random cultural misappropriation). Speaking with what I hope is the authority befitting a connoisseur of this sort of thing, I declare it to be absolutely amazing. Wow.

Moving on the Flipside disc’s second billed attraction, we find Secret Rites, a 50-minute item directed by sometime horror scriptwriter and notorious sexploitation maverick Derek Ford. Originally released as a supporting feature for Ford’s ‘Suburban Wives’ in 1972, we find ourselves presented here with a case study in how two films dealing with exactly the same topic, made at roughly the same time, with the same central participants, can be entirely different from each other.

Once again, Alex Sanders takes centre stage, but he and his coven seem to have left the neo-primitive rural environs depicted in ‘Legend of the Witches’ far behind, instead heading straight for the heart of London’s swingin’ scene and the urban sprawl of Notting Hill Gate. Their rituals are now a riot of tinfoil, black candles, theatrical make up, big moth-eaten goat heads and costumes from the psychedelic dressing up box, and are now staged in what looks like a cramped subterranean night club done up to resemble a faux-medieval dungeon, all captured by Ford’s camera in blazing, over-saturated faux-technicolor.

A queasy mixture of ‘fact’ and fiction, the flimsy narrative around which ‘Secret Rites’ is constructed concerns Penny Beecham, a real life model and actress who went on to become a regular on ‘70s TV, appearing in ‘dollybird’ roles in ‘Up Pompeii’ and ‘The Morecombe & Wise Show’. Confusingly, Beecham uses her real name in the film, despite the fact that she seems to be playing the role of a fictional trainee hairdresser who, having “always been fascinated by the occult,” has decided to get herself hitched up to the nearest witch cult.

(Note the poster for Harry Kumel’s ‘Daughters of Darkness’ visible on the tube station wall in the screen-grab above.)

Venturing into the patchouli-drenched bohemian hinterland of Notting Hill, Penny meets Alex and Maxine Sanders down the pub to discuss the possibility of her initiation into their order.

It’s the little details that can make a big impression in things like this, and, whilst Alex was droning on in his drowsy Mancunian tones about how much hard work it is learning to be a witch (lots of reading, lots of study, he keeps stressing, they don’t just spend all their time horsing around in the nude, he’ll have you know), I couldn’t help noticing that the couple both seem to have been enjoying half pints of a rather tasty-looking ale served in stemmed glasses, whilst Alex has his fags and his wallet set out on the table in front of him, like a seasoned man-about-town. Somehow, I found myself entranced by this curious mixture of pious new age esotericism and down to earth ‘70s masculinity (and Maxine’s paisley-patterned dress is a knock-out too).

After this, most of the rest of the film consists of kinky rites in the groovy day-glo cellar, in which the remnants of respectably sincere pagan practice (the ‘hand-fasting’ marriage ceremony for instance) find themselves napalmed by a retina-scorching aesthetic of fancy dress pop-porno psychedelic excess, culminating in the “rarely witnessed and never before photographed” Invocation of Ra, whose gold-foil bedecked explosion of high camp Egyptology must be seen to be believed.

Sanders, during his interminable invocations, even makes reference at one point to “the Terrible Domain of the Dread Lords of the Outer Spaces”, which seems pretty way out there, even by his standards. Perhaps some of those Ladbroke Grove Hawkwind/Moorcock type vibes had been rubbing off on him whilst he was down the pub?

Those in a position to know about such things have noted that Sanders’ “coven” seems to have had its numbers boosted on this occasion by at least some performers who also appeared in the harder sex films and illicit porno loops which Ford was producing during this period, and indeed, rumours persist that a ‘harder’ cut of ‘Secret Rites’ may have been prepared for the export market (perhaps explaining the awkward 50 minute running time of the version which made it into UK cinemas). No one involved in the BFI release seems to have been able to verify the truth of this however, so who knows.

Also of note in ‘Secret Rites’ is the soundtrack, which, perfectly in keeping with the film’s visuals, comprises a way-out smorgasbord of ominous, effects-drenched psychedelic jamming, credited to an otherwise unknown outfit identified as ‘The Spindle’. No one seems to have been able to ascertain the provenance of this music, or to identify any of the players involved, but writer Rob Young puts forward a pretty intriguing theory in the booklet accompanying the BFI disc.

And…. that’s about all I can think to say about ‘Secret Rites’, really. Suffice to say, it is essential viewing for… well, I mean, I hesitate to say everyone, but if you’re still reading this post by this point, then suffice to say, you’ve found a perfect little number to project onto the wall during your next occult-themed drug orgy, at the very least.

This being a Flipside release of course, the fun doesn’t end there, and my top pick from additional shorts included on this disc is – joy of joys – another episode of Out of Step, a series of short programmes which essentially seem to function as a more stridently judgemental 1950s version of a Louis Theroux type thing, in which presenter Dan Farson – yes, the same nephew of Bram Stoker and “charismatic Soho bon vivant” who later turned up in the wonderful BBC documentary The Dracula Business in 1974, no less! – tracks down some quote-unquote “oddballs” and basically bothers them about their unusual beliefs.

Farson’s witchcraft episode – broadcast in 1957 -may not achieve quite the same level of hilarity as his UFO one (which I briefly wrote about here), but he certainly managed to assemble an impressive line-up of interviewees, speaking first to the 92-year-old Dr Margaret Murray, whose 1921 book ‘The Witch-Cult in Western Europe’ played a pivotal role in establishing the more sympathetic narrative surrounding historical witchcraft which developed through the 20th century.

(Brilliantly, a note in the booklet accompanying this set reports that Farson had to re-shoot his ‘question shots’ for this segment of the programme in the studio, because he’d been involved in a drunken brawl the night before the Murray interview took place, and was nursing a black eye.)

Still an alert and engaging speaker at her advanced age, Dr Murray’s responses to Farson’s demand to know whether witches “actually have special powers” are non-committal, but he gets a far firmer statement of belief from Gerald Gardner, the man who essentially established modern Wiccan practice in the UK during the 1950s.

Definitely a card-carrying oddball, Gardner was living at the time in an abandoned mill in Castletown on the Isle of Man, surrounded by crudely carved magical effigies. Worryingly, he regales Farson with a tale about how he and his fellow witches successfully placed a curse on an unscrupulous property developer, and he also begins cackling devilishly when Farson broaches the subject of nudity. Let’s just say that I’d advise any residents of the Isle of Man who happen to be reading in the 1950s to keep their daughters well away from that there old mill.

Farson’s final guest meanwhile is Louis Wilkinson, an intimate friend and literary executor of Aleister Crowley. Unhelpfully from the point of view of a witchcraft documentary, Wilkinson claims that he was chiefly interested in Crowley’s talents as a wit and raconteur, and largely ignored all that magickal hoo-doo he got up to (which strikes me as being rather like claiming that you were friends with Joseph Goebbels because you liked his cooking and his singing voice, but never really paid attention to all that political stuff - but whatever).

Nonetheless, Wilkinson comes through with some great anecdotes about the control Crowley exercised over his disciples, and about the conduct of his followers during his memorial service – and, as with just about all stories concerning Crowley’s extraordinary life and conduct, it’s interesting stuff to say the least.

Next up, I turned my attention to another of the disc’s extras - Getting it Straight in Notting Hill Gate, a rather hap-hazard but still fascinating short film which takes a look at the same West London counter-cultural milieu from which ‘Secret Rites’ arose, presumably shot and directed by some proud denizens thereof.

I’ll skip over this one quickly, as it’s a bit off-message re: our Halloween/horror theme, but it should certainly prove enthralling viewing for anyone familiar with the Notting Hill area, as rambling, handheld street footage takes us through the Portobello / Ladbroke Grove area in all its post-psychedelic squalor and post-windrush finery, wringing a few moments of “Oh, it’s THAT place” type excitement even from me, and I barely ever visit that part of town.

Highlights include Caroline Coon of the influential legal rights organisation ‘Release’ interviewed (next door to the offices of Oz magazine, no less) by a young hipster going by the unlikely handle of Felix Scorpio, a visit to the flat of psychedelic artist Larry Smart (whose work looks genuinely mind-blowing – definitely worthy of further investigation), and a lengthy jam session from the band Quintessence, who we see laying down some seriously funky flute and guitar-led gear in their practice space in All Saints Church, improvising around the local anthem which gave this film it’s name. Oh, and there’s a bloke playing a sitar on a rooftop too. Top stuff.

All that, and this Flipside release still has more to offer; there’s a cine-poetic tribute to William Blake based around footage of contemporary London, directed by Robert Wynne Simmons, who wrote the script for ‘Blood On Satan’s Claw’, and a 1924 silent short entitled ‘The Witch’s Fiddle’, produced by the Cambridge University Kinema Club and utilising the talents of a bunch of keen young chaps who seemingly all went on to live lives which sound like the plots of Eric Ambler novels.

I haven’t even had a chance to watch those at the time of writing…. too much, man. Needless to say, we’re looking here at a wonderfully researched, beautifully restored and incredibly generous package of tantalising glimpses into the stranger and more marginal corners of British cinema, fascinating cross-cultural connections sparking off each of them like some out-of-control generator. Fantastic work from all concerned, and here’s hoping it opens the metaphorical floodgates for more collections of shorts, documentaries and suchlike under the Flipside banner.


(1) Unfortunately, IMDB credits for the Robert Webb who worked on ‘Legend of the Witches’ seem to have been garbled with those of the American director of the same name, but I’m assuming THIS Robert Webb was probably the one who worked on music hall documentary ‘A Little of What You Fancy’ (1968) – co-directing with Michael Winner, funnily enough – and directed a short film entitled ‘Dancing Shoes’ (1969), before dropping out of sight..?

(2)Though it seems he rarely had the chance to give his voice much of a work out on-screen, Guy Standeven is notable for appearing uncredited in the background in just about every film ever made. Nice work if you can get it!

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