Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Virgin of Evil

VIRGIN WITCH (1970)
TOWER OF EVIL (1972)

VIRGIN WITCH's Vicki Michelle would later be best remembered as waitress Yvette in the BBC's WWII catchphrasefest 'ALLO 'ALLO. Unsurprisingly shying away from her schlock past, Vicki can also be glimpsed in QUEEN KONG and THE SENTINEL; she was young, she needed the work.

RAY Austin's VIRGIN WITCH sees two sisters - Christine and Betty (played by real life siblings Ann and Vicki Michelle) run away from home with dreams of fame and fortune in London. This being a 1970's British sexploitation flick, they are promptly picked up by a smooth-talker in a sports car (in this case, Johnny (Keith Buckley)), and swept off to a comfortable flat where opportunity waits around every corner. Christine is hired for a photo shoot by Sybil Waite (Patricia Haines), a predatory lesbian who uses her modeling agency as bait to lure attractive, naïve young women to the pagan coven she acts as high priestess; what Sybil doesn't know is that Christine is gifted with supernatural powers of her own. With Christine arriving at the Wychwold manor house for her assignment - and the innocent Betty in tow - it is soon discovered that the voyeuristic owner of the house, Dr Gerald Amberley (Neil Hallett), is a high priest who is (conveniently) holding a Sabbat that very evening.

VIRGIN WITCH was shot in 1970, but it took two further years to get it into theatres due to problems with the BBFC. The blend of horror and sex was always a problem for the censor, but viewed today it is difficult to understand why such a timid release should be withheld for such a period, particularly as these ingredients were inseparable for British filmmakers at the dawn of the decade. Whereas Hammer’s Karnstein Trilogy was old-fashioned horror spiced up with liberal sprinklings of flesh, VIRGIN WITCH is first and foremost a skinflick, with supernatural and horror elements so ineffectual they scarcely warrant a mention. In fact, the most unnerving thing about the film is that producer “Ralph Solomans” was actually a joint pseudonym for wrestling commentator Kent Walton and Hazel Adair, creator of that zenith of daytime soaps, CROSSROADS.

TOWER OF EVIL's Candace Glendenning has a tough time in this prototype slasher: suspected of a triple murder, her character is actually traumatised because of the Snape Island terror.

Jim O' Connolly's TOWER OF EVIL can boast one of the most delirious plots in British film history. John Gurney (George Colouris) and his son Hamp (Jack Watson) make their way by small boat to Snape, a fog-bound island off the South-West coast of England. On their arrival they discover the mutilated remains of three American teenagers (played with bogus accents by British sex film actors Robin Askwith, John Hammill and Serretta Wilson) before shrieking, naked survivor Penny (Candace Glendenning) knifes John to death and is knocked out by his son. One teen had been killed by a gold Phoenician ceremonial spear, which leads four love tangled archaeologists - Adam (Mark Edward), Rose (Jill Haworth), Dan (Derek Fowlds) and Nora (Anna Palk) - to travel to the island, together with Brent (Bryant Halliday), a private eye intent on clearing Penny's name. As the archaeologists delve deeper into the island, they are attacked by Hamp's demented Neanderthal brother Saul (Frederic Abbot) and his even madder son Michael (Mark McBride); it is claimed that the duo have become unhinged after the death of Saul's "calming influence" wife Martha, whose seaweed-covered, crab-chewed corpse is kept in a rocking chair.

Together with Mario Bava's equally convoluted A BAY OF BLOOD released the previous year, TOWER OF EVIL contains a potent blend of sex, nudity and violence that helped set the template for the American slasher craze yet to happen. Released in the US as HORROR ON SNAPE ISLAND, then reissued as BEYOND THE FOG, this uproarious film also mixes old world Gothic (dark setting, mythical superstition) with a riot of 1970's paraphernalia in its hippie dialogue ("Bravery isn't my bag, man"), psychedelia (Penny's very unorthodox interrogation involves regressive hypnosis induced by disco-lights) and fashion (the use of skin-tight flared jeans leave little to the imagination – and that’s just the men). Ultimately there is something very British in having a dank, foggy island as a hotbed of sexual activity and intrigue, where scrambling crabs over the dead act as a delicious metaphor.