Legend of the Witches / Sacred Rites [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (14th October 2019).
The Film

"Legend of the Witches" (1970)

"Sacred Rites" (1971)

When most people hear the term "Witch", there are many stereotypes and stories heard for many generations. Ugly green skinned women, supernatural powers, a mystical cauldron, flying on broomsticks, human sacrifices, etc. With films such as "The Wizard of Oz", "Haxan" or even "The Craft", the occult of the twisted and evil are portrayed and there are even the opposite with works such as "Kiki's Delivery Service" portraying witches in a more positive light. But these cinematic works are quite far from what Wiccan culture was and has been, with exaggerations over reality. Persecuted and misunderstood for generations, Wiccans and Witchcraft have never had a positive view around the world, even if their culture shares quite a lot with Christianity. Spirituality together with belief in magical powers made their culture quite different and causing panic among outsiders, especially with their secrecy in rituals. In England the Witchcraft Act 1735 made it a crime for anyone to claim they had mystical powers of witchcraft, and was not repealed until 1951. Even with the repeal it did not change views on witchcraft for the common people, but it did make Wiccan culture less of a tabboo matter, leading to books and small acceptance, especially for the counterculture movement in the 1960s.

Alex Sanders was the founder of Alexandrian Wicca along with his wife Maxine Sanders and was a prominent figure in spreading Wiccan culture from the 1960s onward in England. Unlike many leaders and practitioners, he was welcoming of interviewers and documentarians to explain himself and the religion, and in turn led to some documentary film appearances. 1970's "Legend of the Witches", written and directed by Malcolm Leigh and featuring Sanders, is a documentary that features Wiccan rituals in full nude glory, a historical account of Pagans, witchcraft and the parallels to Christianity, talks of misconceptions and details of the culture including historical persecution, all with the supervision of Sanders who plays a major role in the ritual segments. The stark black and white film is told entirely through narration by the uncredited Guy Standeven, with documentary footage, shots of historical paintings, and some scenes of recreation. The Sanders both also appear uncredited, and none of the other witches that took part in the ceremonies shown are given any credit in the end. In a post-Woodstock era, the nudity with the rituals do not seem out of place at all with the counterculture movement, and it is also reflected in cinema of the period. With the collapse of the studio system and a younger generation of filmmakers appearing out to challenge the norms with nudity, sex, and violence, "Legend of the Witches" also partially falls into the exploitation category, where Mondo Films and sex films also crossed paths. There is quite a lot of full frontal nudity (and at a time when grooming of the lower area was basically non-existent), though it is not particularly in a sexual form. Of course there are some that could take offense to the amount of nudity and the exploitative nature, but with Wiccan rituals being recreated with the approval and participation of Sanders, they are as they were.

"Legend of the Witches" plays as a very straightforward documentary in an old school instructional form. There are no interview segments, the pace is quite slow, and structurally not very engaging. The provided script may be informative but is very one sided. The historical remarks are taken from historical text, but as for the rituals of the modern witches seen in the documentary, they are basically what Sanders has provided, and they are his own views which can be slightly different from other Wiccan sects. There are no outsider perspectives such as other religious leaders or historians on the subject matter and it can be seen as a propaganda tool rather than that of a genuine overviewed documentary piece.

Sanders also participated in "Sacred Rites" in 1971 by exploitation filmmmaker Derek Ford. The opening segment is quite a shocker, with full nudity and torture coming straight out of Hammer or Amicus. But it quickly informs the viewer that what was shown was possibly what people imagine Wiccan rituals as being, rather than how it is in reality. In this documentary film, Sanders talks directly to the viewers into the camera, sharing his knowledge of Wiccan history and its place in the modern day. He is very open and candid about the rituals and the powers that be, with many demonstrations of various rituals. While it can be placed as a documentary, there are a few portions that are surely recreated for the screen rather than a true documentary. At one point the film follows Penny (Penny Beeching), and office assistant who is having her initiation ceremony. The camera interviews her at work, follows her on the tube to Notting Hill Gate, and later at the ceremony in a colorful psychedelic cavern that does not look at all where Sanders resides. Beeching was in fact an actress and so her portions are played for effect, though she did go through the initiation on camera, so that may in fact make her an actual witch in real life. The documentary shows not only the initiation ceremony, but also marriage and others that showcase what Wiccans eventually go through.

"Sacred Rites" is not like "Legend of the Witches" in its approach of explaining history, but instead is a showcase on the extravagant and seemingly bizarre rituals where people are blindfolded, tied up, and placed in various situations for different ceremonies. It's certainly theatrical, with the documentary 16mm cameras able to capture the rituals in a studio environment with colorful lighting, but overall it is on the exploitative side rather than the informative, though it never overstays its welcome by being just under fifty minutes in length.

Alex and Maxine Sanders separated in the early 1970s but still remained close for their children, and continued their practices for many years. Alex died in 1988 from lung cancer at the age of 61, while Maxine continues with teaching in the Coven of the Stag King in London. Over the years the two documentary films have fallen into obscurity. "Legend of the Witches" was released on DVD in the 2000s, and when the BFI was planning to screen it as part of their Flipside series, the researchers Vic Pratt and Will Fowler discovered the only known print of "Sacred Rites" in the BFI National Archive. Both films were screened in 2009. Ten years later, both films have been given restorations and released on Blu-ray and DVD on the BFI Flipside label.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray & region 2 PAL DVD set

Video

"Legend of the Witches" is presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. The original black-and-white 35mm A+B camera negative held by Renown Pictures was scanned and remastered in 2K and the image looks absolutely great. Grey levels are well balanced with the photography whether in the night scenes around the bonfire at the start to the examination scenes in the mansion near the end. Some shots looks grainier than others depending on the lighting and sources, though film grain is kept at a fairly consistent rate within shots. Damage is minimal, with some light speckles and dust with the image cleaning.

"Sacred Rites" is presented in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. The only known 35mm film print held by the BFI National Archive was scanned and remastered in 2K. The color film has faded quite heavily, with skin tones and backgrounds losing much of the blues and greens, leaning everything to much more yellow and red tone with pale highlights. Apparently much was done to boost and correct the colors in the restoration but the fading is still unfortunately apparent. As for clarity, dust and debris have been carefully removed for a fairly clean image, though there are some minor damage still visible in some of the outdoor shot scenes. It may not look the most ideal, but considering the source it is in quite good shape.

The runtime for "Legend of the Witches" is uncut at 85:20 and "Secret Rites" is also uncut with a runtime of 46:52.

Audio

English LPCM 2.0 mono
Both films have their mono tracks in LPCM 2.0. For "Legend of the Witches", the 35mm optical negatives was the source and for "Sacred Rites" the 35mm theatrical print was the source for the audio restoration. With "Legend of the Witches" having most of the track as narration in studio, the dialogue is fairly clear. Music is frequent but never overbearing, and well balanced with the narration. Scenes with on set dialogue can be slightly echoey but nothing too difficult to discern. There are a few instances of pops and cracks that can still be heard in some sequences. "Sacred Rites" also has fairly good audio with clarity of the dialogue sequences and narration. There is some minor hiss and crackle within the track, but again not too much to distract from the feature.

There are optional English HoH subtitles for both films in a white font for both films.

Extras

This is a dual format set with the Blu-ray having the films and extras in HD while the DVD replicates the content in standard definition PAL.

Audio commentary on "Secret Rites" with Vic Pratt and Will Fowler
In this commentary by the Flipside founders, there is information on the production, biographies of Sanders and Ford, comparisons to other Mondo films of the period. the rediscovery of the film and more.
in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"The Witch's Fiddle" 1924 short (7:03)
In this silent short made by the Cambridge University Kinema Club, it is a story of a bewitched fiddle that makes everyone dance. The text is quite faded but the film is in pretty fair shape.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, Music LPCM 2.0 with English intertitles

"Out of Step: Witchcraft" 1957 TV documentary short (13:28)
In this news short broadcast on December 4th, 1957, Daniel Farson reports on the phenomenon of witchcraft, interviewing an elderly skeptic that says she has "seen" a witch and talks about witchcraft from her seemingly basic knowledge, as well as a practicing elderly male witch who lives quite a normal life without any sort of sorcery or magic around him.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"The Judgment of Albion" 1968 short (26:20)
Robert Wynne-Simmons, writer of The Blood on Satan’s Claw" directed, produced, and wrote a visual essay on the modern London, featuring scenes of the city alongside animation and paintings. The menu and packaging say “Judgement” though the onscreen title uses the American spelling of the word for some reason. The transfer is not on the best side, with very scratchy sounding audio with buzz and hiss throughout.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"Getting It Straight in Notting Hill Gate" 1970 short (24:56)
This short is a profile of the Notting Hill Gate area, which at the time was a multicultural center but was also a ghetto with poor housing and issues with crime. The short features shots of the area as well as interviews with artists, volunteers, musicians, and others.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

Image Gallery (2:13)
Presented is a slideshow gallery of posters, newspaper clippings, books, and other promotional materials for both films are shown. There is some Indian inspired music accompaniment to the gallery, which is not on either film and not credited in the booklet.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, Music LPCM 2.0


Booklet
A 36 page booklet is included. The first essay is "Legend of the Witches: Performance or Ritual?" by writer and lecturer Christina Oakley Harrington focusing on the film as well as Sanders and his presence. Next is "Rarely Witnessed, Never Photographed: The Secret Rites of Derek Ford" by William Fowler, an essay on director Ford's works especially "Secret Rites". "Which Witch is Which? Legend of the Witches and Secret Rites Redux" by Vic Pratt follows, about witchcraft and witches seen throughout cinema and television. Next is "What Witches Did: The Magical World of Alex and Maxine Sanders by counterculture expert Mark Pilkington, which talks about the Sanders couple featured in both films. "Border Films: The Legend of the Fanceys" by lecturer Adrian Smith is an essay about Border Films which distributed "Legend of the Witches" and the Fancey family that ran it. "Warp, Weft and Wah-Wahs: The Mystery of The Spindle" by Rob Young is about the mysterious band credited as "The Spindle" that created the music for "Secret Rites". Last, there are stills, credits, and acknowledgements.


There is a good amount of extras on this release, though there is no involvement from Maxine Sanders who is still alive today. It may have been interesting to hear her present thoughts on the productions. In addition during the commentary for "Sacred Rites" the two seem to hint at a separate commentary for "Legend of the Witches" but none is found on that film.

Packaging

On the packaging it lists both films as 1.33:1, but in fact "Sacred Rites" is in 1.66:1, and confirmed by the BFI that 1.66:1 is the correct aspect ratio.

Overall

"Legend of the Witches" and "Sacred Rites" are curious pseudo-documentary films on witchcraft in the modern age featuring the "King of the Witches" Alex Sanders. They are both on the border of exploitation in differing ways, and the audience may be limited, but for the curious the BFI has given both films great restorations with a good selection of extras.

The Film: C Video: B Audio: B Extras: B+ Overall: B

 


DVD Compare is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the Amazon Europe S.a.r.l. Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk, amazon.com, amazon.ca, amazon.fr, and amazon.de.