Cult Movie: 1970s favourite The Legend Of The Witches has a cult following

Legend of the Witches is a visual exploration into the origins of witchcraft in the UK
Ralph McLean

The Legend of The Witches

FOR something that appeared to be aimed squarely at the dirty raincoat brigade when it was released in 1970 The Legend Of The Witches has developed a seriously impressive cult reputation in recent years.

A brand new Blu-ray release from the BFI, the latest in their ineffably brilliant Flipside imprint that continues to shine a light on the dustiest corners of British cinema history, looks set to further enhance that standing although the film itself is a tad flaccid.

When it first controversially appeared on cinema screens at the fag end of the so called swinging 60s it came with its X certificate brazenly emblazoned on all its publicity material.

“Their secret rituals exposed!” boasted the poster proudly and with Films In London suggesting that it had “more exposed flesh and genitalia per square foot than virtually anything in the sex film genre” it’s reasonable to assume that those looking for a little titillation with their cinematic experience must have been rubbing their sweaty little mitts together with glee.

Watching it today, in all its cold monochrome starkness, it’s easy to see how disappointed those salivating cinema goers must have been when they finally saw it.

Despite the endless nudity there’s nothing genuinely “sexy” about Malcolm Leigh’s documentary at all.

In reality it’s a dry and rather serious minded study of witchcraft in Britain and while the nipple count may be high the thrill quota is decidedly low. It also features self titled “King of the witches” Alex Sanders, more of whom we’ll hear in a moment.

There’s an odd, mesmerising beauty to some of the location filming here and a propulsive soundtrack that builds up a mood of eeriness at times but it’s impossible to shake the feeling that the whole thing is really just an excuse for a casting room of nubile beauties to get naked for the camera while the film makers pretend to explore the wonderful world of Wicca.

Much more honest about its motivations is the second offering in this weird BFI double bill. Secret Rites, from 1971, is a straight ahead slice of garish sexploitation. Shot in colour it runs to a skimpy 48 minutes in length but manages to cram more de-clothed models, and the always publicity hungry Alex Sanders again, into its minimal plot about witchy goings on in 70s Notting Hill. Cheap and cheerful it offers a sleazier take on similar subjects and together with all the tasty extras that the Flipside team have added it makes for an attractive, if offbeat, little package.

Of course both films have more than their fair share of yawn inducing sequences. The monotone voice over in Witches has all the sonic appeal of a particularly bored supermarket attendant reading out this week’s special offers and much of the supposedly saucy moments of nudity in Secrets are shot with the kind of detached disinterest that suggests the film makers may well have locked of their cameras and nipped out for a smoke while the participants wobbled their Wicca bits.

Witchy wonder doesn't come much weirder though.

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