Hooray for the BFI's flipside series, bringing out the obscure, the fascinating and the valuable in British cinematic culture, and here's a release that's definitely all three. The BFI are bringing out the above two titles as a single release in a dual format edition. Make sense? I hope so - let's have a look at what we get!
Legend of the Witches (1970)
Do you remember those old public information films about ancient history? The ones that got squeezed in between programmes when there was a minute to spare? I don't mean the ones about children drowning and having their souls eaten by Donald Pleasence, or how a badly wired plug could kill you. I mean the far more benign, pleasant couple of minutes spent in the company of a voice saying 'Whenever you see the symbol of the acorn there's a hundred miles of history for you to explore' or guiding you round the kind of crumbling old castle that these days is taken care of by English Heritage.
LEGEND OF THE WITCHES is a lot like that.
By which I mean we get a cultured and authoritative voice telling us about the history of witchcraft whilst rather beautifully shot pastoral scenes unfold. Yes it's in black and white and yes there are some of the promised nudie witchcraft rituals, but overall this is a calm, measured account of witchcraft through British history. I actually learned quite a bit and the intercut shots of landscapes at dawn and the sun setting are so lovely you don't mind that they go on a bit (presumably to pad the running time). I was surprised how much I liked this. Just don't go in expecting some sort of sleazy exposé of naughty practices in rural England.
Secret Rites (1971)
I dare say a sleazy exposé is exactly what director Derek Ford (THE WIFE SWAPPERS, SUBURBAN WIVES) was going for here. Instead we get quite a jolly spoof of Hammer Films as an opener, before this much shorter film (47 minutes) becomes a pseudo-documentary about witchcraft, centring very much on the self-styled King of the Witches himself, Alexander Saunders.
The lengthy ritual footage appears to be on the same set as the Hammer spoof that opens the film. There's lots of nudity and no doubt that's the point of the film (which was released as a B feature to one of Ford's sex comedies presumably to up the titillation value). If you plan to watch both I'd suggest this first, with all its dayglo colours and plentiful jiggling bottoms, then put on LEGEND OF THE WITCHES as your chill-out A feature.
As always the BFI do us proud. Authors of that excellent volume The Bodies Beneath, Vic Pratt and William Fowler, provide a commentary track for SECRET RITES. We get several short films - THE WITCH'S FIDDLE from 1924, THE JUDGEMENT OF ALBION from 1968 and by Robert Wynne Simmons who wrote BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW and GETTING IT STRAIGHT IN NOTTING HILL GATE about Notting Hill in 1970. Lots of sitars!
There's also Out of Step: Witchcraft in which Daniel Farson (known to my generation as the author of The Beaver Book of Horror amongst others) interviews a witch on the Isle of Man. You also get an image gallery, a booklet and lovely Graham Humphreys artwork. A terrific value package of obscure British cinema.
LEGEND OF THE WITCHES & SECRET RITES is out on dual format from the BFI on Monday 14th October 2019