Monday, March 14, 2016

Legend of the Witches (1970)

Watching Malcolm Leigh's Legend of the Witches one is frequently left wondering whether the film is intended as a serious documentary or designed to provide mondo-style titillation.  Indeed, on its initial release, the titillation angle was played up, with the film's distributors clearly trying to capture the 'dirty raincoat' demographic.  Certainly, the copious amount of nudity, both male and female, much of it full frontal, featured in the film's opening sequence of a novice supposedly being initiated into a coven, would seem to indicate that this is the target audience.  The film, however, quickly veers off into more serious territory, establishing witchcraft's origins in pagan belief systems, drawing parallels between the rituals of Christianity - the drinking of Christ's 'blood', for instance - with those of the 'old religion' before going on to chronicle the persecution suffered by those who practiced witchcraft.  Along the way we also visit a museum of witchcraft in Cornwall and introduced to some of the basic spells and rituals of witchcraft, (cue more nudity - those swinging sixties witches just couldn't keep their clothes on, it seems).  It concludes with a section linking the technology of club culture (strobe lights and the like0 with witchcraft rituals and shows how contemporary witches embrace such technology to achieve altered states of consciousness.

Whilst much of this is actually quite interesting and the individual sequences well photographed by Leigh (in glorious black and white), the problem is that it moves at a glacial pace.  In fact, it is slow to the extent that it actually feels longer than its relatively brief seventy two minute running time (it was apparently cut down from an original near ninety minute version).  The lack of pace isn't helped by the uncredited narrator's ponderous commentary, in which every point is made with deadly seriousness.  Ultimately, it is this lack of pace which prevents Legend of the Witches from succeeding as titillation.  Whilst it has all the elements one might expect from a mondo movie - staged for cameras local rituals, nudity in the guise of anthropological study, sensational accounts of torture and other depravities, a museum full of bizarre (and often sex-related) artefacts - it lacks the energy of its Italian cousins.  Luigi Scattini's contemporaneous Angeli Bianchi, Angeli Neri, for instance, covers much of the same ground, (including similarly staged naked witchcraft rituals filmed in the UK), but bounces from segment to segment at a much faster pace,  never lingering on any scenario long enough for the viewer to either become bored or question the veracity of what they seeing too closely.

Of course, the fact that the various witchcraft sequences have clearly been staged for the camera, (although I'm perfectly prepared to accept that the participants are a real coven and that they are re-enacting actual rituals), disqualifies it, in the eyes of many viewers, as serious documentary.   Ironically, such mondo-style tactics are nowadays seen as perfectly acceptable, with even wildlife documentaries admitting that they 'recreate' certain scenes for the benefit of the cameras, and have even spawned a whole TV genre of 'structured reality' shows, where 'real people' re-enact episodes from their lives for a multi-camera set up.  In the end, Legend of the Witches frustrates:  whilst watching it, one yearns for the film to make up its mind and be either a serious study of witchcraft in Britain, or be full on mondo sex and nudity pretending to be serious anthropological study. Either way, one yearns for it to speed up.

It's pretty easy for you to make up your own mind about Legend of the Witches as it is readily available on DVD and turns up on Talking Pictures TV every so often (usually in the early hours of the morning).  Last time I checked, there was even a version uploaded onto You Tube.



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