Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The October Ordeal II 03: Virgin Witch (1972)

(Spoilers throughout)

Although Virgin Witch (also known as “Lesbian Twins”, which I’m sure sells more DVDs) came at the height of the European horror-sleaze boom, in many ways it’s an isolated and singular film. Partly this is because of narrative—which I’ll get to later—but moreso because it seems to lack specific time and place. It feels like an Italian film, but it’s British. It’s director, Ray Austin, has otherwise worked only for television. It’s writer, Beryl Vertue, is an accomplished producer, but has only this one writing credit on her resume. It promises a swinging mod-London setting, but takes place mostly inside a single house. It looks on the surface like exploitation—which it is—but offers little in the way of eroticism, really. For these reasons, Virgin Witch is rather obscure, and while it isn’t essential, its still an above average and unique genre entry.

Virgin Witch starts off with out-of-focus stills of nude torsos, a montage of nudity to come, with the actors’ names pasted on, much like the opening of an average porno. Then—suddenly—creepy psych rock blasts and a woman is seen being burned alive, screaming, with no explanation. All of this happens in about two minutes, leading an informed genre fan to expect a brain-melt along the lines of Black Candles or any Jess Franco picture. Well, forget this strange opening, because it will never be explained or revisited. The eternal question when viewing Giallo is this: is it better to exhaust oneself attempting to keep the narrative strands in order, or is it appropriate to just give in to sound and image, and hope that by the end something makes sense? I was prepared to ask myself this same question, until I realized that Virgin Witch isn’t a Gialli slasher, it’s a British vampire film. Aside from this first section, Virgin Witch makes sense, and can easily be followed, processed and understood.

After the surreal first minutes, Virgin Witch begins in earnest, with its central characters, Christina and Betty, played by Ann and Vicki Michelle—who are twin sisters, although I didn’t pick that up until researching the film, as they are by no means identical, and never explicitly referred to as sisters in the film. Outgoing Christina and demure Betty have escaped their boring country lives to slum it in London, and they’re living with the middle-aged Johnny (Keith Buckley), a stylish guy who is really just that; it’s a mystery what he does for a living (he exists because later on the film will need a third party to intervene later). This in-media-res opening finds Christina looking for modeling work and finding it with the icy Sybil Waite (Patricia Haines), a character defined solely by the fact that she’s a businesswoman and a lesbian, usually shorthand for villain in a film like this (hold that thought). Christina is willing to go nude and Sybil needs a model on short notice, so she instantly gets the job, and is immediately on her way to an ornate mansion in the countryside, with Betty along for the ride as her chaperone.

This all happens in the first ten minutes or so. By the time Betty and Christina make it to the secluded mystery house, most characters are established, a mystery is developing, and all gears are in motion. Virgin Witch wastes no time establishing itself, making for a breezy and digestible narrative, a feature rare for the genre.

There are two major characters left to introduce, both waiting at the foreboding manor. The owner of the house—and prime-mover of action—effete charmer Gerald Amberly (Neil Hallett), and horny photographer Peter (James Chase), who seems as in-over-his-head as Christina and Betty are about to be. These two are introduced first as voyeurs, preying on the two women in that way; while Peter is an innocuous character, Gerald will soon be preying on Betty and Christina in a more real and serious way. Peter’s voyeurism is work, and more for the benefit of the audience, as his camera’s lens records Christina in progressive states of undress. Gerald is more sinister, as he watches Betty in the tub through a Norman Bates hole in the wall.

While Christina poses outside, Betty explores the interior of the mansion, coming upon an altar in a sub-basement room lined with red curtains, decorated with demonic masks, daggers and other magickal ephemera. When she’s confronted by Gerald, she’s shocked to learn that Gerald and Sybil are open about their esoteric practices, and are happy to reveal to the women that they are the two pillars of a witch’s coven. Gerald brings Christina down to see the room, and is pleased to discover that she’s into it, and wants to join the circle. In fact, this is what the coven needs exactly, a virgin to simultaneously complete a complex ritual and to join as an initiate. According to Gerald, the group practices white magick only (as opposed to the black magick of most films, I presume).

Lest the audience forget, there’s a guy named Johnny in this film, which Virgin Witch points out mid-way through with a London call-back. Johnny is hanging out with a cool Jazz singer chick in a swank club, where news somehow reaches him of Betty and Christina’s predicament. Since he has Sybil’s business card (for some reason or other), he rushes off to the mansion to see what’s up. This scene is an unnecessary one, just a bit of exposition that could have been handled with a phone call, but it’s a nice diversion which really adds a bit of levity to the film, right before one of it’s most intense moments, the first ritual, which is like a watered down version of Behind the Green Door.

During the night-time initiation, a group of new characters gather with Gerald and Sybil around Christina, the ritual’s focus. Some robed minions strip Christina, Sybil rubs oil on her nude torso, and Gerald drops robe and deflowers Christina to jazzy psych-rock akin to Angus MacLise’s score for Invasion at Thunderbolt Pagoda. She wakes up the next morning in bed with Sybil, who apparently demanded Christina sleep with her as well as Gerald. During this scene, which occurs two-thirds of the way in, one wonders where the horror was. Sure, the focus is on typical horror material, but the film isn’t scary, and doesn’t create any sort of foreboding atmosphere. More accurately, Virgin Witch would be called a drama about magicians and models, if not for some strange supernatural elements introduced in the final reel. Up ‘til this point, Virgin Witch is an atypical genre film, a laid-back, unhurried unspooling of events over a long weekend.

The supernatural element I’m referring to is Christina’s burgeoning—and unwarranted—telekinetic abilities, which develop seemingly only out of her desire to force Sybil from the coven and take her place in the circle. This is a strange development, as its abrupt and severe tone betrays the preceding tone of the film. Complaints aside, I did enjoy this final section on its own, Christina drunk with dark power, nastily betraying both Betty (by passive-aggressively forcing her into the second part of the ritual against her will) and Johnny (by applying newfound mind control techniques to bring him into the ritual as well), and by psychically assaulting Sybil, forcing her out of the circle, and (spoiler!) later killing her, turning their white magick coven into a black magick group in a single night.

This final ritual (and the climax of the film) is more intense than the first. Christina rubs oil on Betty’s breasts (fulfilling the explicit promise of the film’s alternate title, and the implicit promise of lesbianism any film of this kind seems to offer by default), and Johnny has sex with her, entering the ceremony in a black robe and Onibaba mask. This scene is the creepiest and most uncomfortable in the film. The music in this scene is even wilder than before, a mix of Comus and Jade warrior, wailing away while a full-blown orgy takes place, bringing in all the characters of the film, including Peter. (Major spoiler for rest of paragraph) Mid-coitus, Johnny snaps out of it, but instead of fleeing with Betty, he moves her to a more private spot, and continues to deflower her! I suppose because they’ve moved outside the circle they’ve decided to have sex on their own terms, simultaneously ruining the ritual. Meanwhile, Christina kills Sybil by stabbing the dirt, somehow.

This is a strange and confusing ending, its signification obscure. At the same time, it’s satisfying, because it’s a pitch-black, weird, atypical, dark and desperate off-type ending, and totally morally ambiguous, ending the film without clear heroes and villains. There may not be any major thematic point delivered; this is simply how this story ends. As to what happens next is anyone’s guess. The one reason this ending is offensive is because it betrays the earlier good-natured tone of the film; if the entire film were as strange as its conclusion, it wouldn’t be impacting, it would just be a bummer, as nasty as the grimiest English and Italian horror (Evil Eye, House with Laughing Windows, Girly, et al).

While I’m not going to seriously suggest that a film I’ve already compared to mainstream porn is feminist in nature, this is one possible long-shot interpretation: to Gerald and Sybil, Christina and Betty are another set of pretty-girl acquisitions, necessary for their power rituals and important only in that way. The women have subverted their positions in both the film and the genre to steal back control of their own destinies. By upsetting the balance of power in the coven, Christina has asserted herself in a surprising and unique way, even if her strategic tools are sex, subjugation, manipulation and murder. Keep in mind a woman wrote the screenplay, so its not surprising that power would be wrestled back by Christina at the end, who as a character also satisfies the sexist demands of the genre for the majority of the picture.

Despite major problems, Virgin Witch is unique enough to warrant attention. It’s a well paced and easy to watch film, without major breaks and confusing jump cuts, usually inherent to the genre. The actors in the film are uniformly good. The music is fantastic. The photography and idiosyncratic and atmospheric, without being as cavalier and bold as in other similar films of the era. This may even make it appropriate for non-genre fans, as it fails to make mistakes many similar pictures do. For genre fans, Virgin Witch may be somewhat disappointing, as its not as weird, profane, perverse and pornographic as Vampyros Lesbos, for example. It’s also British, which has a lot to do with why its markedly different from the Giallo films it nevertheless takes inspiration from. In translation, the genre has both lost and gained in Virgin Witch, an obscure entry, but nevertheless an interesting film.


joly said...


Barbara Barber said...

Have watched it multiple times, love this movie and find your comments on the movie to be very much right on.

To add to it I'm surprised no one has mentioned how much Ann Michelle looks like Catherine Ross.

The other thing I like about the movie is it is shot at admirals walk, mill lane, pirbright, a house originating in the 1300s England.