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Virgin Witch

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Odeon Entertainment
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Directed by: 
Ray Austin
Ann Michelle
Vicki Michelle
Patricia Haines
Neil Hallett
James Chase
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“Virgin Witch” is pretty much the quintessential exemplar of the direction taken by early-seventies independent British horror cinema. With the American money, that had largely sustained the industry during the sixties, now rapidly falling away as the usual multipicture package deals and backing from Major studios disappeared in the flurry of U.S. mergers and acquisitions then taking place as the economic downturn took hold overseas, small British studios such as Hammer films now looked to opportunistic freelance producers at home to provide it with material that would hopefully have a better chance of grabbing an audience. This led to ultimately futile attempts to spice up the previously reliable Hammer formula with a franker depiction of sex and nudity on the big screen. But now that John Trevelyan had recently created the new ‘X’ Certificate, which bumped up the admittance age to such films to 18, the company’s quaint rejigging of its traditional brand of fairy tale-like period horror looked like tired fare indeed next to the uncompromising content of films such as “Straw Dogs” and “The Devils”. Soon smutty sex comedies and films with a more hard-hitting, graphically violent approach to their content such as the Michael Klinger produced “Get Carter”, offered the surest way of bringing in box office cash. Maverick independent writer/producer/director talents such as Stanley Long, Norman J Warren and Pete Walker would refine the art of small budget film production when they perfected a formula that traded heavily on leering exploitation smut leavened with the now requisite graphic gore to lure the punters towards small-scale British films such as “Satan’s Slave” and “House of Whipcord”.

At first glance “Virgin Witch” seems a standard product of the exploitation-based output of entrepreneurial filmmakers like Warren and Walker, and fits right in with the kind of thing they were doing during the period. The film starts out by setting out a basic, rather familiar, sketchily-outlined horror scenario, but thereafter cynically ladles gratuitous sex and voyeuristic nudity into the equation at every available opportunity, no matter how questionable the justification. Most of the action takes place in exactly the same location as would later be used for Norman J. Warren’s “Satan’s Slave” -- even the same recognisable interiors crop up frequently, so much so that Warren’s film could almost have been a sequel.

Also, the themes that would come to dominate the work of, for instance, Pete Walker are very notably evident already, at least in an embryonic form, by the manner in which the film graphically depicts the vices of a sexually liberated, permissive younger generation, but sets them against an even more corrupt and hypocritical older establishment whose values and the thin veneer of respectability attached to them are merely a front for its own institutionalised venality. In a way “Virgin Witch” is a dry run for later Walker exploitation classics such as “House of Whipcord” and “House of Mortal Sin”, but it actually precedes them by several years, and has a very different pedigree. For while people like Walker and Warren started their film careers by producing semi-legitimate 8mm glamour films in the Clubland milieu of sixties Soho, only gradually working their way into low-budget mainstream  filmmaking, “Virgin Witch” director Ray Austin comes from a very different background.

Having started out as stunt arranger on “The Avengers” during its hugely popular high sixties period, Austin moved into directing -- first on “The Avengers” itself during the Linda Thorson years, and later on several ITC film series such as “Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased)”. Later-still came Gerry Anderson’s “Space: 1999” and U.S. series such as “Hawaii Five-O”. “Virgin Witch” is Ray Austin’s first, rarely mentioned, full-length feature, largely competently but rather perfunctorily directed, and assiduously adhering to all the tawdry hallmarks most typifying the 1970s British sex film, with its preponderance of over-exposed, nubile teenage flesh amidst the cosy environs of a leaf-fringed Surrey setting -- much like the kind of home counties locations you’d find in the average episode of “The Avengers”, in fact.

Distributed by Tony Tenser’s  Tigon Films (a company more adept than most at the time in combining smutty exploitation filth with more traditional horror fare), the film was produced pseudonymously under the name Ralph Solomans for the little known Univista Productions – a front for the unlikely pairing of TV wrestling pundit  Kent Walton and “Crossroads” creator Hazel Adair, who also penned the lascivious but intermittently interesting screenplay as well as the lyrics of a schmaltzy song used in an interminable nightclub ‘padding’ scene that occurs half-way through the film.

Despite these rather more respectable-sounding-than-you’d-expect production credentials, the film is distilled sleaze of a typically seventies vintage, probably outdoing just about all other comers in the prestigious bum, tits, pubes & arse ratio.  The cookie-cutter storyline is stamped out of a run-of-the-mill Brit smut template, the sort of thing to be found in countless flicks of the day, and rehearsed quite nicely for example in Pete Walker’s “Cool It Carol”. It begins with the updated ‘babes in the wood’ notion of some virginal innocents from out of town being cast adrift in the big city after they leave home to find their fortune through promiscuous sex. This is the classic exploitation scenario that allows the filmmakers to present themselves as being on the side of innocence and moral virtue, while all the while revelling in the fleshy display of excess to be found in the film’s depiction of the metropolitan permissiveness that inevitably tempts our neophyte innocents with its modish allure. “Virgin Witch” begins the same way, but brings an interesting twist to the hackneyed material despite ultimately failing to fully capitalise on some interesting themes it manages only briefly to allude to before it comes to an abrupt halt and drifts away into its hastily shot orgiastic dénouement, during which the entire cast contrive to get their kecks off.

A perfectly cast Ann and Vicki Michelle play pouty mini-skirted teenage tearaways Christine and Betty.  Off to London to seek adventure and escape the restrictive upbringing of their village backwater home, they fall in with sports car-driving jack the lad, Johnny (Keith Buckley), who picks them up on the road to London and lets them kip at his flat, with the intention of deflowering the younger, ‘perter’ and prettier Betty as soon as big sis is out of the way. He manages to remind them not to reply to those dodgy ads advertising for glamour models to be found in newsagents’ shop windows though, despite it being apparent that, Betty at least, has just as much to fear from his dishonourable intentions.

Clearly the more sexually curious of the two girls, Christine promptly makes for the nearest newsagent she can find, and before you can say ‘get’em off’ she’s merrily posing nude in supposedly renowned modelling agency guru and predatory lesbian (all lesbians are predatory in the world of soft porn smut, of course) Sybil Waite’s (Patricia Haines), low-lit and gaudily furnished office. Crafty Sybil has a concealed button behind her desk that makes her telephone ring on cue, and allows her to fake a conversation with a made up client who apparently needs a model at short notice … one who’s prepared to go nude of course! Naturally, Christina is up for it, and asks if her little sister can come along for the day too.

This little ruse brings them both to the picturesque countryside residence of academic Dr Gerald Amberly (Neil Hallett), a place known as ‘Wychworld’, on the outskirts of the city, where Christine is soon stripping off again in the garden, for the camera of trendy would-be David Bailey, Peter (James Chase). Meanwhile Betty stumbles around the grounds in a skimpy bikini, bumping into various leering personages such as a pervy milkman and a gun-toting Colonel. She also stumbles upon a hidden back room furnished in satanic regalia and with a sacrificial alter in the centre.

After fainting in shock, Betty wakes up  in bed, where Dr Amberly introduces himself and has soon ‘diagnosed’ her condition for her: ‘you thought they might be desiring you’, he explains of her encounters earlier in the day. ‘Parents rather strict? Never allowed any boyfriends?’ he inquires, sympathetically. It’s a straightforward case of sexual repression, and the relaxed regime at Wychworld will soon sort her out, Gerald assures her.

Betty perks up after this pep talk and celebrates with a relaxing bath … while Amberley ogles her through a secret spy hole in the wall! Sybil is also doing her fair share of ogling, and is not best pleased that Peter seems to be extending his duties -- with regard to Christine -- beyond the role of photographer, the highly-sexed runaway being only too happy to oblige him. It seems the respectable Dr Amberley and Sybil double as High Priest and High Priestess of their own pagan cult, which happens to be made up of just about everybody else in the village. But they need their guests’ purity intact for their upcoming satanic rituals. ‘Virgins are very hard to come by, as well you know Gerald,’ reminds Sybil.

After laboriously setting up this rather clichéd, pseudo Hammer horror version of a Dennis Wheatley-esque satanic cult plot (although always spending more of its time finding lame excuses for the Michelle sisters to disrobe while Hallett and Haines gaze longingly at them – something that slows the pace to a turgid crawl), the film then goes about quietly subverting the occult horror genre in a way that is very reminiscent of the strategy employed by Pete Walker’s films later in the decade. Far from continuing to play out the role of the innocent exploited teens one would expect of them in such a film, Christine and Betty very quickly work out what’s really going on behind the scenes of Wychworld, and Christine in particular is not only not shocked or scared by it, but fascinated and enthused by the whole idea of the personal power that could be gained by a mastery of the forces of witchcraft. The viewer of course, assumes this is to be the preamble to a morality tale of unwary innocence led astray by ungodly forces, but it quickly becomes apparent that Sybil and Amberley are both utterly transfixed by the girls’ individual charms, and are themselves being manipulated by their canny guests into giving away all their power. Christine has soon inveigled her way into the upper echelons of the cult and into Sybil’s bed, and the forces of darkness soon prove no match for this ambitious dolly girl on the make who is prepared to use her body to get herself wherever she wants to be in life. Unlike Sybil, Amberley or anyone else partaking of the cult’s rituals, Christine really does appear to have ‘powers’ of some kind, and a character that means she was ‘born to be a witch’. It’s only natural in a way, considering Christine always previously wanted to be a glamour model. After all, as Sybil so succinctly puts it at one point, ‘The entire advertising industry is witchcraft, darling. The poor old public is permanently spellbound!’

 Ann Michelle became a virtual stalwart of exploitation cinema during this period; in due course she rapidly appeared in both “House of Whipcord” and “Psychomania”. Both Michelle sisters also briefly appear in Lindsay Shonteff’s downbeat rock groupie sexploitationer “Permissive”. However they later renounced their involvement with this film, as did just about everybody else, behind the camera and in front of it. There’s no denying the two leads’ suitability for the roles they play here, though. Ann Michelle in particular hints at a flint-eyed mischief detectable behind the frolicsome sex-play she uses to hypnotise both man and Satanist alike.

Mostly shot using a grossly unflattering, over-lit lighting style by second unit man on “Village of the Damned” Gerald Moss (apart from the frenzied psychedelic satanic orgy sequences which feature the flabby cast cavorting in lurid saturated red gel lighting), it’s astonishing just how very sleazy the film actually is, every inch of the nubile Michelle sisters’ young bodies is lovingly explored in harsh, cellulite-exposing detail during the course of its snail-paced proceedings. There’s even more of an aura of the disreputable and the forbidden about the film, though, when one considers that quality actors such as Patricia Haines and Neil Hallett -- who at one time were frequent guest artists on popular shows like “The Avengers” when they were being sold to countries all around the world -- were here expected to strip off and prance around for a lingering and unforgiving barrage of drably photographed full-frontal shenanigans, such was the parlous state of the industry by this stage in their careers. The film is, consequently, somehow perversely satisfying despite (or because of) it being so utterly artless and crude in its execution. It fizzles out towards the end though, and the incidental but intriguing connection that was made earlier between the sexual allure of youth as mediated by modern advertising and the ritual power of witchcraft, is thrown away somewhat in a poorly realised conclusion that looks as though it was made up on the spot. Nevertheless, “Virgin Witch” is worth adding to the collection if you’re an aficionado of British horror and cult erotica, for the film has accumulated a weird retrospective appeal over the years that belies much of the actual content.

Odeon Entertainment’s new release looks about the same as all previous DVD incarnations of the film: a fairly robust transfer with good colour and adequate sharpness, and a slightly muffled but acceptable mono audio track seems to be about par for the course when it comes to this film. Meanwhile the extras are limited to a theatrical trailer and a gallery of production stills. You also get quite a sizable collection of trailers for films in Odeon Entertainment’s Best of British Collection. Lastly, the disc comes with some very informative and interesting production notes written by Simon Sheridan (author of ‘Keeping the British End Up – Four Decades of Saucy Cinema’), who has exposed a few myths and found a few rare quotes relating to the film that will interest many a fan of the cinema of this ignoble but fascinating period in the life and near-death of the British film Industry. Well worth seeking out.

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