Malcolm Leigh and Derek Ford (director)
BFI Flipside (studio)
14 October 2019 (released)
16 October 2019
This intriguing exploration of the Occult, in particular occult practices in 1970’s England, is bound to open minds (and eyes) in more ways than just one!
The highly informative (and occasionally disturbing) documentary LEGEND OF THE WITCHES (1970) depicts pagan rituals and Wiccan spells as they were supposed to be practised a long time ago – however, if this film is anything to go by then much of these apparent rituals are as much about showmanship then they are about ‘the Craft’ – in particular were English occultist and High Priest Alex Sanders is concerned. Sanders, who died in 1988 and went under the name Verbius, was the founder of the Alexandrian Wicca movement in the 1960’s. We follow him and his coven during certain rituals such as initiations, drawing down the moon, hand-fasting and so on, all carried out ‘sky-clad’ (naked). We even witness a black mass and the casting of a ‘death spell’ (which is rather reminiscent of Voodoo). These footages are interspersed with educational and often illustrated examples of how Wicca magic came about. We learn that in pagan belief Diana – goddess of the moon and the hunt – divided both darkness and light, keeping darkness of creation for herself and creating her brother Lucifer, bringer of light. Their incestuous unity resulted in the birth of a daughter named Aradia – leader and teacher of the witches on this earth. Other interesting aspects include the comparison between the pagan and the later Christian religion and how the persecution of witches by the Church was often considerably more barbaric then so-called Black Mass rituals. Wise Women (witches) were persecuted just for being knowledgeable in their use of herbal remedies or observing the cycles of nature in a different manner than the Christian doctrine dictated. Particularly fascinating is a visit to Boscastle’s famous Museum of Witchcraft, including magical artefacts and the remains of Britain’s last executed witch.
The 1971 semi-docu SECRET RITES once more features high priest Alex Sanders prominently, this time initiating a blonde hairstylist called Penny who expresses her eagerness in joining his coven. Not only is the initial ‘interview’ somewhat baffling as he doesn’t seem to ask her any relevant questions such as how much she actually knows about Wicca but after making it clear that she needs to demonstrate absolute loyalty and join the coven’s twice-weekly workshops for intense studies, her rather shy reply that she will do all of this without qualms seems enough for him to give the lass a chance. In a strangely decorated place (which may or may not be his basement of cellar) the initiation ceremony begins – as ever all the witches (male and female) are stark naked and an increasingly nervous Penny will soon be too. What really stands out here is that Sander’s disciples all seem to be young and quite attractive – surely members of a Wiccan coven (yes, they still exist to this day) come in all shapes and sizes (not to mention age groups)? Perhaps it was precisely this display of open publicity that later would incur the wrath of some Gardnerian witches (followers of a Wicca religion founded by Gerald Gardner, aka Scire) - a religion in which Sanders was initiated before he founded his own Alexandrian movement. Later still we witness a hand-fasting-marriage ceremony (watched over by the ‘Horned God’) and the symbolic transformation of Sanders into an ancient Egyptian deity he connects with. It has to be said the costumes and paraphernalia are impressive though to non-believers it must come across as little more than fabulously staged hocus-pocus.
Psychedelic band The Spindle provide the soundtrack and remind us that all this is truly a product of the hallucinogenic 60s and 70s.
The Special Features here are of particular interest: first up we have a silent film from 1924 called THE WITCH’S FIDDLE based on the eerie folktale, though this seven minute short is more whimsical then eerie, concerning a young musician walking along a country road who comes to the aid of a woman (a witch) struggling with carrying firewood. As a ‘thank you’ he walks away with a fiddle that, when played by him, prompts people to dance for as long as he plays and in the process the musician helps a loved-up young couple escape and run away from the girl’s stern father.
THE JUDGEMENT OF ALBION is an impressive montage on film – mainly urban images narrated by the actors Donald Sinden and Anthony Quayle, reading the poetry of William Blake. In contrast stands GETTING IT STRAIGHT IN NOTTING HILL, a peep into how live was in this trendy London area in 1970… long before Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts fell in love in a Notting Hill book store. Indeed, the Notting Hill of 1970 may have been an ethnical melting pot and a creative hub for aspiring artists and musicians (such as local prog-rock band ‘Quintessence’) but it had its share of social problems too, namely poor housing conditions, racial tensions, not enough playgrounds for kids and an increasing drug problem. Quite how witchcraft comes into it this reviewer has no idea but hey, it’s an interesting documentary about life in 70s Notting Hill. Hold on, Led Zep’s Jimmy Page used to own an occult bookstore in nearby Holland Street…