How witchploitation cinema cast its spell on the counter-culture

In the 1960s and ’70s, a spate of low-rent exploitation films tapped sorcery and the occult for cheap, sleazy thrills.


Adam Scovell


In the 1960s, dabbling in the occult became an unusually popular pastime. Though initially the preserve of aristocrats and the like, interest in esoteric beliefs and practices – particularly various forms and wicca and witchcraft – became part of the fabric of popular culture. By the end of the decade, what had once been niche was now as much a part of counter-culture life as music, drugs and fashion. Film had its part to play in this growing trend.

Whether in feature films, documentaries, exploitation films or softcore skin flicks, witchcraft in particular became a useful excuse for nudity, violence and various other titillations. Sometimes used as an intriguing expression of suburban social angst while other times just a reason for disrobed rituals, witchcraft became a popular theme for filmmakers of all sorts. Like all boons, it was ripe for exploiting and produced a body of sleazy witchploitation cinema.

It must be suggested that, in many of these films, belief systems and practices are hugely conflated. Witchcraft, wicca, occultism, satanism, paganism, voodoo and all sorts of other practices and theologies went into the melting pot. For the sake of simplicity, they’re referred to as occultism and witchcraft from here on, but it should be noted that filmmakers played fast and loose with such imagery and ideas.

Such themes were arguably already relatively popular in horror cinema. One of the most accomplished examples was Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages, an incredibly influential film that would foreshadow the future blend of documentary and horror imagery. Tellingly, the film was re-released in 1968, re-edited with a voiceover by William Burroughs, just as schlocky variations on Christensen’s film were in vogue.

Films such as Mark Robson’s The Seventh Victim, Claude Alexander’s The Naked Witch, William J Hole Jr’s The Devil’s Hand and Don Sharp’s Witchcraft are also good foreshadows of fictional witchploitation films, albeit ambiguous and lacking the determined kitsch style of later screen renditions.

Witchcraft itself generally had a different flavour before the counter-culture, more a drawing room novelty than an erotic happening for hip young things. Even if the Chelsea mob did eventually retire to their parents’ manors to indulge, its vibe was still something closer to popular rather than underground culture. Think of Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon or Sidney Hayer’s Night of the Eagle, films where there is something distinctly upper class in occult mischief, the latter film especially showing witchcraft used for earnest social climbing.

Not all films later in the ’60s tapped into the counter-culture aspects either, even with the cultural revolution in full swing. Films such as Cyril Frankel’s The Witches and Terence Fisher’s The Devil Rides Out still retained that rural indulgence as opposed to grimy urban exploitation. Even folk horror classics such as Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General and Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw played loosely to some extent with the possibilities of witchcraft; the former looking at what behaviour its possible presence could excuse, the latter looking at its use in influencing groups of youths to help the Devil arise.

It’s easy to see the influence of Christensen’s Häxan on the most important run of witchploitation films. Whether in grimy Soho cinemas or on television, filmmakers used the documentary format to explore the growing practices of counter-culture youth, in a not dissimilar way to mondo and exploitation directors’ use of swingers groups and strip joints.

The first of these was Witchcraft ’70 by mondo maestro Luigi Scattini. Sometimes known as The Satanists, the film globe-trots in order to explore a number of different esoteric practices (similarly to Scattini’s appropriately named debut Sexy Magico), perhaps most importantly zoning in on Diane LeVey, founder of the Church of Satan in 1966. LeVey herself would play a fictional Satanist some years later in Robert Fuest’s underrated The Devil’s Rain. Exploring “the often erotic world of the witch,” the film typifies the witchploitation style; a documentary filled with increasingly Kenneth Anger-esque imagery, all psychedelic nightmares and hippy communes.

The British iteration of witchploitation cinema is perhaps the most celebrated, often because it features the king and queen of the counter-culture witches Alex and Maxine Sanders. It’s difficult to convey the influence these Notting Hill häxans had on b-movie culture at this point, as well as on the general perception of the counter-culture as distinctly witchy, specifically in its growing taste for wicca.

Though Alex Sanders had appeared on an episode of Late Show London in 1966 (tellingly alongside Roman Polanski a year before he started production on Rosemary’s Baby), his real screen debut came in the mesmerising Legend of the Witches. Directed by Malcolm Leigh, the film’s stark black and white imagery is startling and evocative, centring around one particular initiation rite where a naked man walks blindfolded through a series of tests. The eerie calls of “Michael” uttered by the naked witch leading him into the night make for exceptionally compelling scenes.

Leigh’s background and future was in lesser sexploitation comedies, his previous short being about the typically strange British obsession with randy window cleaners, while his latter work such as Games That Lovers Play and Erotic Fantasies show where the director’s true interests were. Other directors took note.

Sanders appeared again in the even more pulpy and psychedelic Secret Rites by Derek Ford. More so than Leigh, Ford really was a skin-flick director. Secret Rites could have been just a witchcraft tinged addition to Ford’s other saucy work such as Groupie Girl, The Wife Swappers and Suburban Wives. But the film is surprisingly effective. Focussing on the Sanders coven allows for a huge range of visual possibilities. The film is a heady, colourful daydream, filled to the brim with effective horror imagery. The genuine costumes are especially magnificent, retaining the sort of grainy authenticity that most occult films today would murder for.

No turn towards popular witchcraft would be complete without the obligatory Satanic Panic style reaction film and this came thanks to the BBC in 1971. In The Power of the Witch: Real or Imaginary, Sanders again makes an appearance, alongside various authority figures expressing concern about all this preternatural permissiveness, presented by Michael Bakewell. Being the BBC, it obviously doesn’t go to the lengths of the B-movies but it certainly feels a natural cousin to those other films, replacing the sex magick rituals with enjoyably concerned vicars and pious church military.

Though other films looked at witchcraft with more creative aims, in particular Roddy McDowell’s The Ballad of Tam-Lin and George A Romero’s Season of the Witch, it was the b-movie model that dominated. In an atmosphere of sex comedies, mondo documentaries and increasingly camp horror, it was natural that witchploitation reflected the cultural milieu around it.

Ray Austin’s Virgin Witch is the epitome of fictional witchploitation films. Everything that made those films entertaining pulp is present; the typical exploitation tropes of sex and violence, but also the endlessly watchable, kitsch visual style of the early ’70s. The film is enjoyable precisely because it understands the natural coupling of the post-’60s youth revolutions and the occult. It follows a model Christine (Ann Michelle) and her sister Betty (Vicki Michelle) heading to a castle in order to be contracted to a modelling agency run by Sybil (Patricia Haines). There’s only one problem: Sybil is a witch in charge of a coven and requires a young virgin to join their ranks.

Austin himself was really a television director and Virgin Witch was only one of his two non-TV feature films. The other was Fun and Games, another sexploitation film following the unbalanced daughter of a prison governor who decides to work her way through staff and prisoners alike. Virgin Witch is slightly subtler, but only just. It is at least more earnestly fun, aware of its own absurdity and relishing its staging of various rituals.

As with many films of the genre, it’s best to enjoy the pulpy vivaciousness of Virgin Witch rather than think about the scenario too deeply. The film’s aesthetic alone is replete with dated pleasures, all miniskirts, dodgy hip dialogue and a wonderful, heady score by Catweazel composer Ted Dicks. Its role as just another cheap Soho quickie may have been its chief production draw, pulling the punters with promises of copious nudity, lesbian witchcraft and a spattering of ritual sacrifice, but films like Virgin Witch capture the era of their production far better than bigger budget films do, quite simply because they’re more honest about the tastes and drives of a late night audience.

The genre itself didn’t just cannibalise general horror tropes but openly nicked things from other films. It was only a few years later that B-movie don Norman J Warren used the exact same location of Austin’s film for Satan’s Slave. The witchy element is more esoteric than hobbyist in that the main character, played by Candace Glendenning, is suggested to be the re-incarnation of a witch. Michael Gough has macabre, campy plans for her, and the film is filled with wintry landscapes and flowery fashion.

Ultimately, it’s Austin’s film that collects together all that went before it and packages it neatly and entertainingly. Even the semi-documentary form of previous works feels in some way parallel to the youth culture elements of Virgin Witch. It’s British schlock at its best, but then, as happens with many cheap flicks, other directors saw the potential for their own salacious necromancy.

Witchcraft itself had really become ubiquitous by the way time it entered the grindhouses. The BBC Ghost Story for Christmas in 1975, Lawrence Gordon Clark’s The Ash Tree, focussed around the haunting of a period witch and her deadly “children”, while television programmes like Doctor Who, The Tomorrow People and Play for Today all showcased occult tendencies throughout the 1970s (specifically in The Dæmons, The Heart of Sogguth and Robin Redbreast respectively).

Once popularised by the counter-culture, schlock and B-movie cinema found new ways to exploit the most abstract and fictionalised accounts of witchcraft. Supplanting occultism into the modern day was really a blessing for no-budget filmmakers, as well as television directors, as it removed the expensive requirements of period films like Witchfinder General and Adrian Hoven’s Mark of the Devil.

Instead, the linking between esoteric practices and the modern day was taken for granted, tying into youth culture and fashion. It made the job incredibly easy for B-movie directors. In Corrado Farina’s Baba Yaga, for example, the narrative of a jealous lesbian witch (Carrol Baker) is told around a variety of fashion shoots, most of which descend into softcore S&M.

Provided the modern day is present in some form, no occupation is too bizarre or ill-fitting for a spate of witchy action. In Hollingsworth Morse’s Daughters of Satan, an antique dealer (Tom Selleck) buys a painting of witches being burned at the stake, only to notice a strange resemblance between one of the witches and his wife (Barra Gant). Freddie Francis’ Craze also featured a demented antique dealer (Jack Palance) who sacrifices women to an idol. Adding to that Peter Cushing’s non-witchy role as a murderous antique dealer in Kevin Conner’s From Beyond the Grave and it’s easy to believe that antique hunting in the ’70s was a genuinely hazardous pastime.

While most of these films have absurdity embedded within them, as the years went on and the counter-culture continued its slow demise, there’s little doubt that witchploitation films became camper, lumbered with ever more bizarre colonial hang-ups and, overall, entertainingly bad. Films such as Ted V Mikels’ Blood Orgy of the She-Devils, David Lowell Rich’s Satan’s School for Girls, Mario Gariazzo’s Enter the Devil, Amando de Ossorio’s Demon Witch Child and Jordi Gigó’s The Devil’s Kiss are just a few examples that showcase just how schlocky filmmakers were willing to go with their So Mote it Be’s. Filmmakers were literally selling the name on the tin by this point, epitomised most by films like Luigi Batzella’s Nude for Satan which had hardcore scenes cut and uncut, depending on the screening scenario.

What at first seemed a mere ploy to get punters in to horror films had turned almost uniquely into seedy Satanism. Hammer films had tried to mine the post-counter culture trend of hippy witchcraft too, in John Hough’s Twins of Evil, but its period setting made it feel closer to the studio’s regular stock and trade. Elements could also be seen in Alan Gibson’s Dracula: AD 1972 but it toed the line with vampirism rather than witchcraft. Instead, Hammer used their remaining throw of the horror dice to indulge in vaguely erotic witchcraft in To the Devil, a Daughter.

Their second adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s work, the first being the superior The Devil Rides Out, Peter Sykes’ film again conflates modern day London life with ancient practices; following Richard Widmark as he tries to save the soul of Natassja Kinski from Christopher Lee’s ruthless band of occult disciples. The occult had gone through many variations at this point and the days of grainy films showcasing naked witchcraft seemed long gone. Though the film may have contained copious violence and nudity, much to the dismay of Wheatley who wrote to Hammer to express his annoyance, the occult had moved onto bigger things than swinging circles and Notting Hill orgies.

The success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist showed the future direction of the occult in all its guises; namely that The Devil himself now provided the best box office odds. It was less about frolicking hippy witches and more overtly about political power. Followed further by the success of Richard Donner’s The Omen, as well as Dario Argento’s still witchy Suspiria, the grainy, grimy end of witchploitation was left to decay in the Chelsea basements from where it had bloomed. It was far from those heady days of new freedoms a decade earlier when it really had been the season of the witch.

Virgin Witch is released on Blu-Ray via Black House Films on 6 December.

Published 6 Dec 2021

Tags: witchploitation

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