By the time the counterculture was in full swing in the mid-1960s, esoteric beliefs had become a significant influence on the hippie dream. Perhaps it was the drip-feed of years of devilish country-manor intrigue in the novels of Dennis Wheatley, the mass intake of drugs, the desire for ritual happenings, or simply the search for alternatives to the traditions of the Christian west.
This bubbling interest burst into all forms of art and media. Aleister Crowley sat comfortably in the assortment of figures on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper LP; musicians increasingly looked to occult imagery and themes for their lyrics and work, from Black Sabbath to Pentangle; horror films and genre TV played with occult themes; and imagery pertaining to many sorts of esoteric belief systems crept into everything from logos to Sainsbury’s home-brand cornflakes to Pan Paperbacks.
By the 1970s, occult influence was everywhere. Wicca and other forms of modern pagan practice had become extremely popular, and the occult gained an unusually domestic, even swingers’ club flavour. It’s unsurprising then to find a number of documentaries from this period attempting to get to the heart of this popular occulture, and even more unsurprising that such documentaries opted to follow the route of exploitation cinema with its penchant for nudity.
While several documentaries of this ilk were made, two of the most detailed and accomplished were Malcolm Leigh’s Legend of the Witches (1970) and Derek Ford’s Secret Rites (1971), which have been released together on Blu-ray and DVD as part of the BFI’s Flipside series.
Often aligned with the cycle of ‘witchploitation’ films, Legend of the Witches explores its topic in detail while also recreating the typical eerie atmospheres found in the folk horror films of the same period. Its visuals and set pieces are deeply cinematic: the treatment of rural landscapes, outside of the claustrophobic museums and ceremony rooms the film depicts, is vast and sweeping. As a film, it shares more in common with the work of Kenneth Anger or Benjamin Christensen’s silent classic Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages (1922) than the skin flicks it probably shared screens with in sleazy Soho cinemas.
Secret Rites is an altogether different proposition. It’s even more deliciously of its period, capturing the wide-scale craze for Wicca, in this case in Notting Hill Gate. The film opens in almost Hammer horror-like style, with a satire on how such practices are perceived, before exploring the more domestic but still eerie and evocative ritual practices.
Director Derek Ford is best known for naughtiness such as The Wife Swappers (1970) and Suburban Wives (1972) – the latter of which was supported by Secret Rites in cinemas. As such, Secret Rites is filled with nudity, exploiting the shedding of clothing that was typical at such happenings. Add to this its fuzzy psych soundtrack and you have one of the great time-capsules of the counterculture era. It’s hard not to love a film that follows Holland Park hairdressers shopping for the right ceremonial daggers and sex magick gear.
Both of these films showcase Europe’s king of the witches and founder of Alexandrian Wiccan, Birkenhead-born Alex Sanders, an incredibly influential figure in counterculture material and in the infiltration of such esotericism into wider pop culture.
In Secret Rites, his northern accent makes Sanders seem rather more down to earth than the silent, enigmatic figure he’s seen as in Legend of the Witches and elsewhere. The film gives us access to some of Sanders and his wife (and queen of the witches) Maxine’s most private rituals, including the equivalent of a wedding. And as Ford plays on these rituals’ pulpy qualities, they feel far closer to something out of a Wheatley novel than Sanders – who was critical of how Wheatley depicted such rites – would have liked.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Legend of the Witches is how technology was integrated into its initially rural-based rendering of the occult. Alongside its ritual amid rocky outcrops at night, the film transports us to a modernised occult ritual, where stroboscope altars spin dizzying designs on the walls, like a cross between a Pink Floyd light show and the interrogation methods used in TV’s The Prisoner.
These act as bizarrely effective replacements for the more archaic paraphernalia of the earlier ceremonies – although, ironically, the analogue technology lauded in the film as cutting edge is now as interestingly dated as the rituals they’re used for.
These documentaries are compelling not simply because they’re so clearly of their time, but because their themes feel unusually current again. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, the uptake in witchcraft among millennials is stark, with 1.5 million Americans now supposedly identifying as either pagan or Wiccan. It’s as if there’s a vast new audience lying in wait for a countercultural resurgence, away from the puritanical dictates of modern digital culture. If so, they could do worse than begin with these schlocky but brilliantly layered documentaries. For, as the saying goes, the devil is in the detail.