This weekend I finally tracked down not one, but two, versions of an Italian mondo movie I've been trying to see for several years now. I say, 'two versions', but it would be more accurate to describe them as two different films based around the same core footage. Indeed, this fact has caused much confusion amongst critics, (even those specialising in mondo movies), with regard to the film(s) over the years. The film in question was directed by mondo veteran Luigi Scattini and originally released in Italy in 1969 under the title Angeli Bianchi, Angeli Neri
(literally White Angel, Black Angel). It was also released in the UK with an English narration under a variety of titles, including Occult Experience
(the title I saw this version under). The US distribution rights were bought by Trans American (a subsidiary of B-movie kings AIP specialising in more 'adult' material). However, instead of simply releasing the English language version of the original, or having a US narration dubbed onto the film, they chose to have exploitation director R L Frost completely re-edit the film, insert newly filmed material and add a completely new musical score and narration. The resultant movie was released in the US in 1970 under the title Witchcraft '70
Having now seen the two films back-to-back, it is clear that the US version should be seen as a completely separate entity. It isn't just that Frost re-edited and re-ordered much of the material from the original, (dropping many sequences and replacing them with newly filmed material), but that, through the new narration, he completely re-frames and re-contextualises this footage. As the two different English-language titles - Occult Experience
and Witchcraft '70
- indicate, the original was concerned with presenting a series of vignettes of occult practices and beliefs from around the world, whereas the US film focuses on the supposed resurgence in witchcraft in the modern world. (Of course, as with all mondo movies, in both cases these 'investigations' are mainly an excuse for showing much female nudity). But Frost doesn't just cut all the sequences not directly concerned with witchcraft, he actually modifies the remaining original footage. Not only does the uncredited US narrator laboriously tell us at the start of each new sequence that it has been shot with the permission of the participants, or illicitly filmed with a telephoto lens, but he reframes some of the Brazilian footage as a secretly-shot amateur film purchased by the producers, even going to the lengths of degrading and reducing the images in this segment. Just as significantly, in a lengthy sequence concerning a ritual by some UK witches, he goes to the length of claiming that two of the naked (female) participants wanted to keep their identities secret, crudely scratching out their eyes on the film, (which, of course, makes them no less recognisable). A comparison with the Italian original reveals that the two women were apparently quite happy to have their faces visible when the movies was only to be shown in the UK and Europe! (Frost also mysteriously moves the location of the ritual from the London suburbs the original movie places it in, to Brighton).
Another significant piece of reframing occurs in Frost's treatment of the segment about the initiation of new member of a satanist group. Whereas the original simply shows us the events (involving, inevitably, much female nudity), Frost insists on inserting an 'interview' with the female initiate, in which she tells the unidentified narrator why she finds satanism so attractive. This 'interview' simply plays over the original footage as audio, and has to include an explanation of why the supposed initiate speaks with an American accent when the scenes we are watching have been clearly established as having taken place in London. The purpose of these reframings is clear - to add 'authenticity' to the footage, to give them a veracity the original presentation lacked and also to make them seem more sinister. The Italian original presents its spectacles in a slightly detached, amused fashion. The intent of Witchcraft '70
is quite different, as its opening scenes, composed of newly shot footage, make clear. These focus on a US policeman telling us about the rise in witchcraft rituals amongst young Californians. He pops up several more times in the course of the film, to deliver further warnings on the potential evils of modern witchcraft, likening it to the threat posed by drugs and free love. Significantly, another of the new sequences involves alleged hippie black magic rituals.
The US film's determination to be sensational are emphasised by the footage it drops from the original: all but one of the sequences involving Scandinavian occultists, (the Scandanavian countires' supposed sexual permissiveness was a recurring theme in Italian mondo movies), the American psychic who can imprint images on photographic film, the Hare Krishna segment, the British ghost hunter and the girl trying to contact her recently deceased boyfriend through mediums, (a lot of the 'occult' sequences were filmed in the UK -Italian exploitation film makers seem to find Britain very exotic). All of these are either esoteric or downright whimsical pieces which would do nothing to convince US audiences that their children were engaging in naked satanic rituals on a nightly basis. The only truly sensational sequence omitted is the original opening concerning grave-robbing at Highgate cemetery. Also gone is the original closing segment which concerned, somewhat puzzlingly, cryogenics. Actually, I think here Scattini was trying to make the point that cults don't have to be based on magical beliefs. They can also have their basis in pseudo-science, like the cult of wealthy Californians who have their dead bodies cryogenically frozen in the belief that they can be resurrected by future science.
As I said at the start, there is much confusion surrounding these films. Most reviewers and film historians treat them as if Witchcraft '70
is simply the English-language version of Angeli Bianchi, Angeli Neri
, when it patently isn't - there was already
an English language release of the Italian original. This confusion even extends to the identity of the narrator. Most sources claim that British actor Edmund Purdom narrated Witchcraft '70
. However, he clearly doesn't
- the unidentified narrator on this version is obviously American. Purdom does
narrate Occult Experience
- the English-language version of the Italian original - though. In part, I suspect, this confusion stems from the fact that just about the only thing left unchanged from the original in the US version are the opening and closing title sequences, (the US movie simply substitutes the new title for the old, and adds the US distributor's name and the 'additional footage by R L Frost' credit, leaving all the other credits in the original Italian)! Nevertheless, so many alterations and additions have been made to the US film, including the replacing of the original's magnificent psychedelic musical score with what seems like something from an AIP horror movie, that I feel Witchcraft '70
should be treated as a separate film in its own right.
Labels: Musings From the Mind of Doc Sleaze