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AMAD Special Tribute: Edgar Wright worships at the altar of VIRGIN WITCH (1971)!!!

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the first of at least 6 and maybe 7 special tribute A Movie A Days. I’ve asked many friends and constant readers of the column that work in the industry if they’d be interested in doing one-offs looking at a vintage movie they hadn’t seen before and writing it up for the site. I’ll post one a day until they run out. It’s looking like Saturday will the final Tribute article. Edgar was the first to respond and not only that, but he was also the first to get his review to me. I won’t say anything more. Why should I? Mr. Wright has the floor for his thoughts on VIRGIN WITCH!

I don’t usually write on this site, but when young Quint asked me to contribute a piece for his AMAD column, he found me in a mode watching three movies day and I accepted without hesitation. My enthusiasm to do so was mostly fuelled by my admiration for Quint’s near year long journey through film. I get pretty OCD about watching films I haven’t seen before and so could appreciate his epic quest to tick some cinematic boxes. Especially since he covered many of my favourites; DAMES, THE BLACK HOLE, FRENZY, SHOT IN THE DARK, THE HOT ROCK and THE SENTINEL among many others. But perhaps I was more excited by the prospect of discussing a film that had only just left my DVD player. The disc was still warm. The feature in question? ‘VIRGIN WITCH’.

This article is longer than most of Quint’s entries, may take longer to read than the film in question and quite possibly took longer to write than the screenplay itself. But I feel compelled to write as it’s always a thrill to discover a ‘bad’ film that absolutely, thoroughly entertains. There’s an intense glee as you watch, partly because you know you will share the experience with others. But what typifies a ‘bad’ film anyway? Conventional wisdom would suggest it’s atrocious film-making, laughable writing and horrific acting. But if a film consistently entertains, can it really be bad? Is RIKI OH a spectacularly terrible film? Or does it flat out rock? How can something so ridiculously ripe, so ridiculously gory, so ridiculously entertaining be a ‘bad’ film. Is THE ROOM an inept Ed Wood spectacle for the 21st century? Quite possibly. But it is also one of the most consistently funny films of the last ten years. Where do you place SHOWGIRLS? Is it an embarrassing folly or the new BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS? How do you rank Russ Meyer’s film for that matter? Some would actually put it on the so-bad-it’s-good pile. I, on the other hand, would genuinely hold it aloft as so-good-it’s-amazing. And many critics would agree. (Not least Roger Ebert) BTVOTD was on my all time top ten list for EMPIRE Magazine and not as an ironic choice. I absolutely love it. I have long been of the opinion that the only truly bad films are those that are bland, boring or offensively brainless. If I’m engaged as an audience member then I’m having a good time. I was in the theatre at the 2007 TIFF showing of MOTHER OF TEARS, with Dario Argento in attendance. I have no idea how the maestro felt about the screening as the audience reacted with gales of laughter. But, just as tellingly, they also responded with huge cheers and applause, too. When people ask me how I liked that film, I replied genuinely that it was his most entertaining in years. I cannot separate an enjoyable experience watching a film from its perceived cinematic worth. Was 2008’s RAMBO a good film? Not by conventional standards perhaps. Was it one of the most entertaining screenings I attended in 2008? You betcha. I’m going to drop the Robert Evans speak, but will stress again my thinking that there are two kinds of films; good films and dull films. I like to subscribe to Quentin Tarantino’s thinking that he has no guilty pleasures in film; if he likes it, he likes it. End of story. Thus I can happily rank RAMBO alongside HUNGER in my films of the year and feel no real need to measure their worth against each other or compartmentalize them beyond that. Much like ‘guilty pleasures’, I don’t really like to use the phrase ‘so bad it’s good’ either. I prefer to think such films are ‘party films’, one that I know I can show to friends and have a grand old time living vicariously through their peepholes. Twice I’ve shown RIKI OH at the New Beverly and half the buzz is hearing the audible reaction of newcomers, getting a kick out of their virgin experience. With that in mind, I watched a film yesterday that would be considered by many to be dreadful. But halfway through VIRGIN WITCH, I was already planning who I could watch it with next. And indeed, I’ve already seen it a second time with a friend.

Much like young Quint, I have an infinite list of films from all eras that I want to catch up with, preferably on the big screen, but often on DVD. VIRGIN WITCH is a British horror film made in 1971 that I’ve had on DVD for over a year. Borrowed from a friend in fact. It first entered my airspace because it happens to feature a 20 year old Vicki Michelle in various states of undress. British readers (and Anglophiles) of a certain age will know the bosomy Miss Michelle from saucy French occupation sitcom ‘ALLO ALLO. My interest is usually piqued by the promise of TV icons from my childhood turning up in Hammer Horrors, Carry On films or the tawdrier versions of both. Whether it’s Joanna Lumley in THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, Stephanie Beacham in AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS or Wendy Richards in CARRY ON GIRLS, there’s always an amusing thrill to be had from seeing sitcom stalwarts, vintage hotties and RADA trained English Roses in B movies. I tried to conjure up as diverse a cast of British actresses and personalities as I could when I made my DON’T trailer; inspired by the appearance of kids television sexpot Jenny Hanley in Pete Walker’s THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW. Ultimately I came up with the unlikely ensemble of Emily Booth, Lucy Punch, Myanna Buring, Georgina Chapman, Lauren Laverne and Katie Melua. Alongside Jason Isaacs, Matthew Macfadeyn, Nick Frost, Mark Gatiss and Stuart Wilson, I was really aiming for a cast as wild and disparate as THE SENTINEL. Vicki Michelle was the only actor I knew of in VIRGIN WITCH. But as it turns out there were some other interesting people involved. Vicki Michelle’s sister Ann (PSYCHOMANIA, THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE) is involved in the majority of the nudity as the titular witch. Michael Caine’s first wife Patricia Haines plays a striking and stern lesbian modelling agent. Most intriguingly, the film was written, under the pseudonym of Klaus Vogel, by Beryl Vertue, the executive producer of COUPLING and indeed Stephen Moffat’s mother in law. The producer ‘Ralph Solomans’ was also a joint pseudonym; for TV soap creator Hazel Adair and wrestling commentator Kent Walton. It’s somewhat ironic that there were so many reputable British TV names working anonymously on a film about a secret coven in London’s high society. Indeed, as I discovered, the producers were named and shamed in a mid 70’s expose of their sexploitation credits. That documentary was the brilliantly titled MAN ALIVE. And man alive, is VIRGIN WITCH an amazing credit to have on your resume. I was inspired to finally watch it, after a good year of having the disc, as I’d just re-watched Hammer film BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB (starring DON’T style goddess Valerie Leon) and its bonus disc of vintage Hammer trailers. This in turn got me thumbing through Simon Sheridan’s excellent KEEPING THE BRITISH END UP, an exhaustive trawl through the seedier side of British comedy and horror. When I read the VIRGIN WITCH entry, I knew it was time to dig out that disc. And lo, a new party classic was found. Interestingly the factor that first perked my ears up, the promise of copious ALLO ALLO related nudity, quickly got old. There is so much nakedness from the Michelle sisters in this film that it fast becomes akin to watching a naturist film. If the Michelle sisters had started playing ping pong in their birthday suits at one point, I would not have been surprised. I’d go even further to say there is too much nudity in the film. (There’s a pull quote you’ll never see). Beyond the Michelle sisters continual disrobing, we pretty much see the entire cast in the buff. Now, I’m no body fascist, but there are some actors whose naked bodies do not need to grace the silver screen. 80 per cent of those actors are in this film. It would be fair to say the film sags in these sections, but otherwise it rollicks along at quite a clip. Like I said, no film that is so furiously packed with incident can be bad. Indeed VIRGIN WITCH starts at a hell of a lick as it finds the young Michelle sisters on their way to big bad London town from the sticks. We first see them hitchhiking by the side of a country lane in the dead of night, their cases in hand, hoping to get a ride to the Big Smoke. Some looped exposition over a lingering shot of their legs informs us that the Michelle sisters hope to get modelling work when the reach the bright lights of Soho. Within seconds, their knight in shining sportscar arrives in the form of Keith Buckley’s Johnny, who possibly pips Craig Wasson in BODY DOUBLE as cinema’s most pervy hero. Johnny, a sleazy cad in his late thirties gives the Michelle sisters a ride to London and takes an instant shine to young Vicki. He warns them of the perils of modelling agencies advertised in newsagent windows and backstreet photographers who ‘promise the earth’. Suddenly Ann Michelle screams ‘look out’ and Johnny narrowly swerves around a stalled car on the windy road. Johnny is amazed by Ann’s foresight and exclaims “You must be able to see in the dark!”. Vicki replies portentously, “She can.” Cue wobbly crash zoom into Ann’s eyes and spooky piano sting. And five minutes in, I’m sold. From this ripe moment of spookiness, the film continues much like GARTH MERENGHI’S DARK PLACE for real. The Michelle sisters take Johnny’s advice about backstreet modelling agencies and instead Ann signs up with Sybil Waite’s fancy fashion agency that she finds with her amazing pre-cog powers in a style magazine. As it turns out the haughty and towering Sybil is no less sleazy than the grubby backstreet pornographers as she is quickly revealed to be highly lesbotic. As Ann disrobes so that Sybil can double check her statistics; we see the fashion agent angle a mirror to watch her drop her knickers and flip a switch to throw blinding light on her nakedness. After confirming that Ann’s bust and waist measurements are correct, Sybil has a something of a Sapphic meltdown when attempting to measure her waist. She quickly recovers and fakes a call from a client, by pressing a button under her desk to make her phone ring. (What amazing gadgets she has, she’s the Blofeld of lesbian fashion mavens). Sybil acts out an 11th hour request for models needed for a ‘cider shoot’. This faux assignment is faultlessly acted out within the eager Ann’s earshot. Perhaps she could be the last minute deployment? Well, of course she can. If she’d be unavailable for the weekend shoot, then VIRGIN WITCH would end right here and there’s still over an hour of gratuitous and ultimately weary nudity to come. The scene at Sybil Waite’s agency is pretty indicative of the film’s odd style. Clearly of a lower budget than even the Hammer horrors, the film has a curious dream-like quality. The lighting and photography are pretty basic, but there are glimmers of a Man Ray or Kenneth Anger approach in the use of stark black backgrounds and bright red and green splashes of colour. Couple this with odd mixes, the occasional cool germ of a camera angle, the misplaced romantic score and the whole post dubbed shebang feels like some fevered cheese dream. There’s obviously a big ROSEMARY’S BABY influence here and the pervading grubbiness of this waking nightmare is enough to make one exclaim “This is not a dream, this is really happening!”. It’s also quickly worth pointing out that while Ann is booking her ‘cider shoot’ at Lesbian Creative Management, poor Vicki is back at Chez Michelle being felt up by bounder Johnny who wastes no time in trying to get his dirty paws all over the poor traumatised country girl. It’s only Ann returning from her fashion world initiation that stops Johnny from christening their new pad. She rescues Vicki from a second date and no doubt, second base, by insisting that her sister accompanies her on the ‘cider shoot’ in the country.

Johnny, who we soon discover is a philandering, two timing rotter, makes his excuses and leaves. But he will be back. And in spectacular fashion. And so, the Michelle sisters are driven to the shoot by the fearsome Sybil. Their destination? The curiously named Wychwood Manor. This particular manor is indeed within a wood… A wood in an area that has a long history of… Well, you get it. Wychwood Manor is a country pile owned by Doctor Amberley, a world authority on – would you believe - witchcraft. It looks exactly like one of those suburban mansions that turn up in the seediest of British porn films of the 80’s. I’d be willing to lay money on it being one of those very places. The Michelle sisters welcoming committee is somewhat disturbing in that every single man or woman on the estate, be it the hatchet faced housekeeper or the grinning groundsman, leer at the young sisters like slobbering hounds. Even the visiting milkman is presented as a potential rapist brute. That said, the stream of sure to be Satanist perverts can hardly be accused of undressing the Michelle sisters with their eyes, as the ladies themselves strip off in every other scene. A drinking game that could prove fatal to your liver would involve taking a shot every time Ann Michelle takes her shirt off, takes her knickers off or has a shower with the curtain open. It’s every five minutes for the 85 minute duration. Pretty much the remainder of the film is made up of stripping, showering, Satanism and slavering extras. This is where the film gets into its sleazy groove, coming off like a Benny Hill episode directed by David Lynch, with a legion of sinister dirty old men and women frothing at the mouth at our nubile leads. Albeit without the speeded up sexual harassment or comedy sound effects to accompany. Presiding over this horny bunch is the cad of cads, Doctor Gerald Amberley, (played by the suave Neil Hallet) who has an incredible bedside manner when diagnosing Vicki after a faint spell. The silver tongued, silver haired actor has a classic scene when he tries to calm young Vicki after she has been brutally ogled in the garden. The avuncular fellow asks if she felt that the men working at the house were mentally undressing her. When she replies yes, he exclaims “And quite right too, you’re a beautiful young thing!”. He then quickly surmises that she too must have similar sexual urges, correctly identifies her as a virgin, tells her she’s had a repressed upbringing and should cherish her oncoming womanhood. And the doctor’s final prescription for her immediate well being? “A nice, hot bath. Does wonders!” Vicki quickly cheers at his advice and strips off for bath time. Not surprisingly the doctor retires to the adjacent room with a peephole to spy on her. Dirty bastard. While all this is going on, Ann Michelle’s ‘cider shoot’ has her stripping naked halfway through the first roll of film. It soon unravels into a steamy romp with the weedy, poor mans David Hemmings of a photographer. The spying Sybil is green with envy at this hetero coupling as she watches from the ferns. She quickly breaks up the ‘cider shoot’, before any cherries can be popped. Sybil is furious at her faux photographer getting dibs on Ann and who she claims she only hired because she “thought he was a queer”. From here, the plot lurches into its shocking second act revelation; the shoot is a sham, the place is a coven, the leering denizens are all devil worshippers and yes, the clue was in the title. That said, the alternate title was LESBIAN TWINS, which all told is a bit of a rip, since the Michelle sisters don’t at any point get busy and they are not really twins. (A better title might have been CARRY ON UP THE WICKER MAN. No wait, is that HOT FUZZ?) The catalogue of spookiness continues in softcore Scooby Doo fashion as we discover hidden temples, black magic tomes and witness Ann’s initiation in the occult by way of her having missionary position sex with the good doctor on the altar. This unedifying act of unholy mish is made even more insane by the fact that the surrounding circle of acolytes are all naked and dancing first in a big Hokey Cokey circle and then in a crazy free form jazz hands fashion.

Indeed, despite the terrifying nakedness, this coven seem a pretty jolly crowd, they have no stated plans for world domination, just grubby designs on Ann and Vicki. The third act finds Ann Michelle totally unconcerned with her new status as Virgin Witch and seemingly quite pleased about it. She soon conspires to use her new powers for bad and take her revenge on her spurned would be lesbian lover Sybil. This consists of Ann casting spells over Sybil’s B&W headshot and turning her from a smiling face to a howl of pain. That’s some seriously bad 10 x 8 juju. The climax of the film finds newbie necromancer Ann joining the devilish cult in a grand outdoor ceremony where Vicki is to be defiled. But they hadn’t counted on Johnny, our hanging plot strand of a douche bag. The character of Johnny nudges this already highly entertaining camp oddity into party gold. His arrival at Wychwood in the finale is preceded by an ongoing subplot as strung out as Scatman Crothers return to the Overlook. And with a just as surprising twist. Interspersed between the Michelle sisters stripping antics, we see Johnny with his singer girlfriend (the cheating rotter!) at a smoky Soho club, but visibly unable to forget his romantic fumblings with Vicki. He then returns to their Michelle’s humble flat to find both the word ‘WYCHWOOD’ scrawled in a diary and the advert for Sybil Waite’s agency. Investigating further at Sybil’s offices he finds black and white glossies of all manner of naked ladies stuffed into her bureau. While trying to pin down the location of Wychwood Manor, we see his POV of two different models in the nude. This. Will. Become. Important. A couple of scenes later, Johnny is closing in on Wychwood. But the rapey looking milkman is no help and neither is the grinning groundsman. But. Then. Johnny spies two ladies leaving a local pub on bicycles. A clumsy flashback to those B&W glossies shows that he recognises them as the two models from Sybil’s files. That he manages to identify their 70’s boobs having only met them fully clothed for a split second is hugely impressive (implausible). Johnny’s total recall puts Ann’s clairvoyance to shame and marks him out like a pervy Rain Man with his amazing memory for B&W nudie pics. His naked hunch is right, these girls from Sybil’s dodgy stable and are heading to Wychwood Manor that minute. Johnny follows them to the demonic hotbed and is alarmed at the Michelle sisters reluctance to leave. He also seems less concerned by the fact that they are in the grip of an obvious satanic cult, than he is about their lesbian sham of an employer. Throughout, VIRGIN WITCH there’s a worrying homophobic streak as it repeatedly marks out lesbianism as being more abhorrent than Satanism. It’s no coincidence that the only person who actually dies is Sapphic Sybil. Her voodoo stabbing by the Nouveau Witch is pretty much the end of the film and we’re supposed to cheer for her demise. Hmmm.

But that’s not quite the ending. What of our cheating knight Johnny? Does he interrupt the climatic ceremony? Does he redeem himself with an act of chivalry? Does he snatch the virginal Vicki from the jaws of her impending cherry popping? Well, yes and no. Our ‘hero’ Johnny goes to rescue the naked Vicki from the satanic ceremony by pretending to be the Devil himself with the use of a ceremonial mask. When unmasked, does he carry Vicki off to safety? Run off with his lady in his arms? Not immediately... So as not to arouse suspicion among the frenzied cult, Johnny actually proceeds to have sex with Vicki on the slab. As you do. Then, once the rest of the cult are in their crazed freeform jazz bloodlust, Johnny wraps Vicki up in his robes to protect her modesty and like Prince Charming finally carries her off... Into the bushes. To have sex with her again. This is the end of the film. Johnny having sex with Vicki a second time. In the bushes. As knight in shining armor endings go - it's right up there with AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN. And as the credits roll on lesbians dying by voodoo and a cheating boyfriend deflowering a 20 year old in the stinging nettles; the rollercoaster ride that is VIRGIN WITCH has come to an end. There are a many classic out there I’ve still to see and will spend the rest of my days enthusiastically filling in the blanks of my film knowledge. And yet, while there are still works of art by Kurosawa and Bergman that I’ve yet to watch, I know too that I shall watch VIRGIN WITCH again. Maybe a further three or four times. With different friends. But I do know that, while I strive to watch a movie a day, a masterpiece like VIRGIN WITCH (aka LESBIAN TWINS) does not come around that often. While we have time on our hands, we should cherish these films. Is it too much to ask to give 89 minutes of your time to the VIRGIN WITCH? Happy New Year. Edgar p.s. It’s worth pointing out that director Ray Austin is one of the few makers of the film to use his real name. And for that I salute him. He has nothing to be ashamed of. He is the alchemist who gave us party gold. Ray Austin gave us VIRGIN WITCH.

Thanks Edgar! I don’t know about you guys, but I read that review and jumped right over and bought myself a copy of Virgin Witch! How can you not? Keep an eye out tomorrow for the next in the line of AMAD tribute articles!

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