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Legend of the Witches and Secret Rites - Legend of the Witches and Secret Rites( Blu Ray & [BFI - 2019]

This rather lovely new Bluray/DVD set has just arrived from the bods at the BFI on their Flipside label, which focuses on largely underappreciated or forgotten material that has previously passed under the radar of other Bluray and DVD and labels. In this instance, we are treated to two classic witchcraft documentary films from the early 1970s that arrived on the scene at a time when the hippy dream was dying but alternative lifestyles and spiritual beliefs were still fuelling the counterculture. Both of our featured titles have been remastered in 2k and are officially released for home consumption for the first time ever.

We’ll start with the longer of the two, the 85 minute long, black and white Legend of the Witches. Originally released in 1970, Legend was purported to be a serious study of witchcraft and Wicca, however, it was released to cinemas as part of a double bill with sex film _____ and was handed an X rating. Whilst the film does feature a great deal of wobbly flesh, it lacks any suggestion of eroticism and I very much doubt it did a great deal to interest the dirty mac brigade who would have seen it playing in London’s Soho cinemas. What it is, is an interesting time capsule, a peek inside the world of the esoteric, and a fascinating introduction to a couple of key figures from the world of witchcraft at the time, Alex and Maxine Sanders, dubbed the King and Queen of the witches.

Anyway, after a slow start the film gradually picks up the pace, eventually reaching peak counterculture with a wild psychedelic ritual that looks like it belongs in one of the more out there giallos of the time, it rivals anything in Sergio Martino’s All the Colours of the Dark or Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in A Woman’s Skin for sheer acid-drenched craziness. Before we reach that point though we are introduced via the narration, undertaken with real gusto by prolific character actor Guy Standeven who introduces us to a number of principle players including Alex and Maxine Sanders, and the founder of the Museum of Witchcraft Cecil Williamson. The museum’s collection is also on display throughout the documentary as they make good use of the exhibits, however, the overarching aim of the piece seems to be an excuse to put naked bodies on the screen in the guise of a documentary film. One interesting scene features Alex Sanders performing a Black Mass while Maxine watches on from the side, before eventually joining in. This has always seemed at odds with the Sanders’ and their beliefs, on the other hand, I have heard Maxine speak about Alex and in her own words she has said Alex would often do things to play up to the cameras, so perhaps this was one of those instances.

Secret Rites (1971) is a shorter, color documentary from exploitation filmmaker Derek Ford. After a fairly ludicrous orgiastic opening, the film promises to dispel such myths about witchcraft and concentrate on the truth of the matter. The documentary follows Alex Sanders and members of his coven as they go about their business. We are shown a young woman (Penny) and we are invited to share in her journey of discovery, culminating in her initiation into the coven via a ritual performed by Alex Sanders on what looks like a film set from Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum. The whole thing is shot in lurid colors and interspersed with interviews with Sanders and his coven members discussing their beliefs and trying to allay those myths alluded to earlier. This one is really interesting for the re-enactments of various rituals including a handfasting and beautifully staged Egyptian based ritual. At only 47 minutes long the film is much shorter than Legend of the Witches and rumors abound that a much longer documentary was filmed, some of which has been lost to time. In fact, both features are rumored to have been truncated at some point with talk of missing footage in both instances, however, no such footage has turned up, so we can only speculate as to its existence.

Both films are made all the more interesting by the presence of Sanders’. They were the foremost couple associated with the craft at the time and Maxine remains a matriarchal figure within the witchcraft community today. As mentioned earlier Alex was prone to playing up for the cameras, so much of what we see on the screen in these documentaries is potentially manufactured for the audience. Alex was deemed a consummate showman, and one definitely gets that impression from watching his performances in the ritual scenes.

The disc also features some fascinating bonus material, the first The Witch’s Fiddle was a short 7-minute film shot in 1924 by the Cambridge Kinema Club that tells the folk tale of a magical instrument. The next Out of Step is a short 1957 documentary featuring journalist Dan Farson looking at witchcraft and includes interesting interviews with both Gerald Gardner and Margaret Murray. The Judgement of Albion (1968) is a work based on the poetry of William Blake, and is shot by Robert Wynne-Simmons who would go on to shoot the 1982 feature The Outcasts about a young woman accused of witchcraft who is aided by a magic fiddler, which interestingly ties it back to The Witch’s Fiddle. The final short is a counterculture documentary about the multicultural melting pot that was Notting Hill Gate in 1970, Getting it Straight in Notting Hill Gate is most notable for some great footage shot in and around the town and the use of some fabulous tripped out music from Vytas and Quintessence.

Overall, this is a wonderful bumper package. I had previously only seen either film in ropey blurry faded prints that didn’t really do either film justice, so it is really nice to finally have these fascinating if exploitative pieces available to view in this way. As well as the two main features the plentiful collection of bonus material is wonderful and really makes this such a worthwhile purchase. If you have any interest in witchcraft or even just the counterculture of the late 60s and early 70s this is an essential purchase. My only slight criticism is that it would have been nice to have had some involvement from Maxine, who’s involvement would have really sent this disc stratospheric.

Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5

Darren Charles
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