Virgin Witch (1971)
Distributor: Odeon Entertainment
DVD Release Date (UK): 28th February 2011
Directed by: Ray Austin
Starring: Ann Michelle, Vicki Michelle, Keith Buckley, Patricia Haines
Review by: Ben Bussey
Two beautiful, virginal, adolescent sisters run away from home with dreams of fame and fortune in London town. Promptly picked up by a smooth-talker in a sports car, they are soon raped, murdered and dumped in a ditch… I jest of course. This being a 70s British sexploitation film, they’re swept off to a comfortable city flat with opportunity waiting around the corner. Elder sister Christine is particularly adept at finding such opportunities, owing to what seem to be burgeoning psychic abilities. This leads her to the office of an apparently upmarket modelling agency, and the almost immediate offer of a weekend job at a country manor called Wychwold. So off Christine and Betty go for what they assume will be a weekend of high fashion photography; but, surprise surprise, it soon turns out it isn’t mere coincidence that the name of the manor sounds uncannily like Witch World. The resident coven seeks new initiates to boost their power – preferably virgins – and these two tasty young things would seem to be a gift from God. (Or, erm, Dionysus, or Aphrodite or whoever.) But they have reckoned without the untapped power inside Christine.
It would seem that sex and horror were nigh-on indivisible for British filmmakers at the dawn of the 1970s. But whereas the likes of Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy were ultimately old-fashioned horror films spiced up with a bit more flesh and blood, Virgin Witch is first and foremost a nudie cutie with a bit of horror thrown in for good measure. Yes, the central characters are involved in the occult and demonstrate supernatural powers, but most crucial is that they are butt naked while doing so. The characters are also involved in fashion photography; naturally, this also requires them to be naked a lot. They also tend to be in the process of dressing or undressing, often getting in or getting out of the bath or shower, whilst having any manner of conversation. You get my point, so to speak. There is a large amount of nudity in this film.
And for the benefit of older British readers – yes, this film stars the Vicki Michelle, famed for putting on a ridiculous French accent and saying “listen very carefully, I will say this only once” on pre-PC sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo. And yes, she’s naked a lot in this film. But she takes a back seat to her real life sister Ann Michelle, who portrays the would-be model/fledgling witch Christine, and gets naked even more often. In fact, pretty much everyone you see in this film will ultimately be naked on screen before the end, even those you’re quite certain you don’t want to see with their clothes off. That’s the glory of movies about witchcraft and/or devil worship; the opportunity for people to gather in numbers and perform rituals which invariably require nudity. Given the popularity of both ‘alternative’ beliefs and nakedness at the time, it’s no surprise that a fair number of such films cropped up during the 70s, even though it may have lead to issues with the censors: Virgin Witch was initially refused a certificate by the BBFC due to the very occultism and bare flesh which were its key selling points.
Today, however, we’re less likely to be taken aback by the abundance of boobs and bums than by the attitudes on display. Be it the girls not batting an eyelid when a total stranger fondles their arses on the street, or the modelling agent’s lesbianism taken as concrete proof of her evilness, Virgin Witch illustrates how much some things have changed since 1971. And this may go without saying, but the way the camera constantly leers at the young Michelle sisters (both of whom were barely in their twenties) combined with the abundance of leering older male characters makes the whole enterprise feel very sleazy indeed. Sure, Christine manages to outsmart and overpower those that seek to exploit her, but even so it would be a bit of a stretch to pitch this is a tale of female empowerment.
As for the horror elements – why, they’re so mundane and ineffectual they scarcely warrant a mention. There is a hint of psychedelic surrealism to the ritual sequences and moments of Christine going psychic, but nothing to get too excited about. As any afficionado of ‘horrotica’ can tell you, nobody beats Jess Franco at this kind of shit. Perhaps that’s why Franco’s still doing it to this day, whilst Virgin Witch director Ray Austin retreated to family-friendly TV, directing episodes of Hawaii Five-0 and The Love Boat, amongst others. Virgin Witch is by no means a lost classic, then, but as a look back at a largely forgotten era of British filmmaking, and a demonstration of how attitudes toward sexuality and gender have changed since then, it’s certainly got curiosity value on its side.