Sunday, 31 March 2013

Britsploitation from A-Z: V is for Virgin Witch (1971)

This jolly slice of hexploitation was the movie debut of director Ray Austin, who’d spent a large part of the 60s as Patrick Macnee’s stunt double on The Avengers.   The script’s co-written (under a pseudonym) by Hazel Adair, one of the creators of Crossroads and a mainstay of 70s sex films.  They set out their stall straight away: the first thing we see in the film is a naked female torso accompanying the credits:
The credits sequence is an array of nudity, witchcraft and death.  There’s lots more of this sort of thing in store as the film goes on.  We’re now launched into the story of sisters Betty and Christine, played by future ‘Allo, ‘Allo! star Vicki Michelle and her real-life sister Anne (who’s also in Britsploitation faves Psychomania andHouse of Whipcord).   They’ve run away from their strict parents and hitch a lift to London with the very wide-faced Johnny who, despite boasting about being the boyfriend of singer Abby Darke, is clearly very interested in Betty.  We soon learn that Christine has mysterious powers: She can see in the dark and occasionally says spooky things with a reverb effect added.  Once Johnny’s helped them install themselves in London the girls go looking for work.  There’s a truly astounding moment of 70s sexism as they stand in the street and a passing stranger in a cravat casually gropes Betty’s behind.  She and Christine both think it’s great.
Christine eventually decides to have a go at modelling, and gets an audition (or whatever it’s called) with top agent Sybil Waite.  Sybil’s a predatory lesbian (or to borrow Johnny’s turn of phrase ‘She’s the other way! She fancies birds!’) played with villainous relish by the marvellous Patricia Haines.  In this film’s world lesbianism is thoroughly evil but very sexy – perhaps not the most progressive portrayal imaginable.  Sybil’s interest in Christine is clearly more than professional  (she craftily angles her desk mirror to spy on her getting undressed).  She signs Christine up on the spot and takes the daring step of giving her a new name she feels will guarantee success in the modelling world: ‘Christina’.  The erstwhile Christine manages to flirt her way on to her first assignment, a prestigious cider advertising shoot taking place at the country estate of Wychwold.
Christine decides to bring Betty along, and Sybil drives them into the country, pointing out a local landmark picturesquely known as The Old Witch’s Ring.  Wychwold is home to Sybil’s friend Gerald (Neil Hallett), as well as a sinister silent housekeeper.  There are other sinister, silent folks in the vicinity who stand around and stare a lot and scare the rather fragile Betty out of her wits: a tweedy colonel, a brutish milkman and a butch horse riding woman.  Gerald reassures her in a very 1971 way: ‘There’d have been something wrong if they hadn’t stared at you – you’re a very pretty girl’.  But then he would say that – the first opportunity he gets he’s perving on her in the bathroom through a hidden spyhole.
Christine has started dallying with photographer Peter, much to jealous Sybil’s annoyance.  She laments her duff gaydar: ‘I was quite sure he was queer!’ In fairness I can see where she was coming from: it’s his taste in shirts that does it.  Meanwhile, Betty stumbles across a mysterious altar in the basement, as well as what is clearly a Japanese kabuki mask.  Gerald, however, insists that it’s the mask of the High One (i.e. Satan): he’s the high priest of a coven, Sybil’s the high priestess, and the local weirdoes are all members too.  Gerald claims they only use white magic but in fact the more powerful Sybil has been steering the group toward darker rites.  She’s picked up on Christine’s powers and is keen for her to join.  Christine’s game , and they quickly mount a sabbat for her initiation.  Slightly unfeasibly Christine is still a virgin (hence the title), so the ceremony  consists mainly of Gerald taking her virginity on the altar while Sybil and the others (including the elderly housekeeper) dance around naked.  Next morning Christine wakes up naked next to Sybil.
Now she’s in the coven it turns out that Christine’s not such an innocent: she plans to master black magic and use it to get Sybil out of the way so she can take over as high priestess.  She steals a photo of Sybil and stares at it very hard until it catches fire (and the expression changes from smiling to screaming), causing the real Sybil unbearable pain.
Gerald wants Betty to join the coven too.  ‘Perhaps I could initiate her’ Christine suggests, suggestively .  Gerald seems rather excited by this prospect.
Another sabbat’s held to initiate Betty, against her will.  This time it takes place outside at the Old Witch’s Ring, and it’s even wilder than the first, with a variety of people of different shapes and ages jiggling about and doing everything they can to suggest pagan abandon (Virgin Witch should be commended for its commitment to equal opportunities nakedness).
Neil Hallett particularly gets into the spirit of things, with some amazing lustful facial expressions.
Will Johnny turn up in time to save Betty from the forces of evil?
Virgin Witch is a likeably honest film that manages to deliver everything you might conceivably expect from a film with that title.  It’s Britsploitation at its simplest and most unpretentious, but Hallett and Haines manage to add a welcome touch of class, even when they’re writhing about naked.
Here is the exciting trailer:


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