by Steve Habrat
A year before English director Robin Hardy’s tasteful and intelligent 1973 horror film The Wicker Man, fellow English director Ray Austin released Virgin Witch, a sleazy exploitation film that surely pleased midnight audiences craving some non-stop sex and nudity. Featuring slightly above average acting, enthusiastic editing, and playful camerawork, Virgin Witch is a fairly handsome B-movie that doesn’t miss a chance to show off for the viewer. Considering the film falls into the exploitation category, you might be thinking that Virgin Witch also contains some extremely graphic violence to go along with all the sex and nudity, but the film is actually a bloodless affair. It also happens to be devoid of any real attempt to scare the viewer, as clearly the emphasis was on the steamy side of things rather than the satanic rituals presented to us in lighting schemes that could very well have inspired the neon glow of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Despite all the skin on display, Virgin Witch quickly reveals that it is light on plot, stretching its rickety storyline to the breaking point and spreading it thinly as possible. It buries it underneath heaping piles of panache and close-ups of pretty faces, but after about a half-hour, it’s clear that the story doesn’t intend on developing itself much further.
Virgin Witch introduces us to Christine (played by Ann Michelle) and Betty (played by Vicki Michelle), two unemployed sisters who leave a restrictive home and shack up with Johnny (played by Keith Buckley), a free-spirited fellow who enjoys flirting with every girl he meets. Desperate to find a job, the beautiful Christine has an interview with a shady modeling agency run by Sybil Waite (played by Patricia Haines), who quickly takes a liking to the desperate girl and offers her a modeling gig at a remote castle in the English countryside. Despite the virginal Betty’s unease about the job, the girls venture to the castle where they meet a young photographer named Peter (played by James Chase), castle owner Gerald Amberly (played by Neil Hallett), and several other mysterious locals. While exploring the castle, Betty stumbles upon a room that appears to be used for satanic rituals and Sybil begins questioning Christine about her belief in the supernatural. It soon becomes clear that Gerald and Sybil are the high priest and priestess of a coven of witches, and that they intend to use Christine in one of their rituals. Christine partakes in the ritual and after a wild night, she decides that she wants to join the coven. She begins trying to talk Betty into joining, but she also has another sinister plan which involves taking Sybil’s place as high priestess.
Virgin Witch immediately lets the viewer in on what it has on its mind in the very first frame of the film. This puppy is all about the female form and it comes at you like a speeding bullet with psychedelic images of nude girls posing for the camera. Unlike some exploitation films that would simply glare statically at all the flesh, Austin spins his camera around, flips it, slides it, and pushes it in for fast close ups that lend the film a bit of personality. It actually allows it to become a bit more than just a Halloween issue of Playboy in cinematic form. As far as the sex goes, it’s nothing too racy and its dropped right into the scenes that are supposed to be freaky. Austin fills the set with red and green mood lighting as he presents extreme close ups of two characters getting busy on a satanic alter, all while the other members of the coven dance around like grinning school children. It’s not scary or suspenseful and it’s far from erotic. It’s almost sort of goofy in a way, especially when he cuts to the spinning members who look like they took too much acid at psychedelic rock concert. To be honest, there is barely any effort put in to making the film scary—the only attempts to make us jump are a few surprise jolts and an image of a satanic mask that keeps rearing its ugly mug.
While much of the action drifts towards silly, the actors and actresses work double time to sell each and every scene with a straight face. Real life sisters Ann and Vicki Michelle are certainly talented enough, but they aren’t asked to ever challenge themselves. When the action slows, they simply shed their clothing and strut around for the camera. As for the evil Christine, Austin uses camera tricks to give a bit of menace to the performance. He zooms in on Ann’s eyes, which is supposed to signify that she is starting to become our antagonist and that she wishes to cast an evil spell in Sybil Waite. Vicki’s virginal Betty acts the voice of reason to Christine’s free spirited nature, but the script fails to give her much to do, so she basically wanders through the film. Chase’s Peter is fairly strong as the photographer there to show off Ann’s naked body. Surprisingly, he adds a bit of legitimate romantic depth to his character that most wouldn’t have dared to even bother with. Haines has a cold side as Sybil, a lesbian witch who is overjoyed when Christine gives herself over to the coven. Hallett is restrained as Gerald, the laid-back high priest of the coven who gets to have his way with Christine. Buckely rounds out the cast as Johnny, a massive flirt who suspects that Christine and Betty may be in danger.
As Christine’s plot to take Sybil’s place as high priestess kicks in, Austin makes a brief attempt in the last ten minutes to get your pulse pounding. What results is a darkened chase through the castle’s gardens that basically features a bunch of screaming. The smidgeon of suspense is neutralized when Betty and Johnny make a run from the castle, collapse nude in the woods, and Betty whispers to Johnny that she wants him to take her virginity right then and there. Never mind that they were just being threatened by a coven of witches! It’s scenes like this that make it nearly impossible to take the film seriously or view it as a serious horror effort. While Virgin Witch holds up visually, some of the sound work in places makes it difficult to understand what the characters are saying and the thick English accents don’t make it any easier. I’m never one to complain about accents in movies but this one tempted me to turn on the subtitles more than once. Overall, Austin approaches the project with plenty of zest and he does turn Virgin Witch a visual winner, but as a serious horror film, it’s a massive failure. If you’re in the mood to watch a bunch of people run and dance around in their birthday suits, this is the film for you, but if it is sheer thought-provoking terror you seek, it’s best to start looking for a different coven of witches.
Virgin Witch is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s, gothic horror was alive and well in Europe. In the United States, interest in vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein monsters faded in the wake of World War II and the atomic bomb. American horror movies moved on to mutated fiends, aliens from outer space, giant bugs stomping on small American towns, femme fatales, film noir, and Norman Bates slashers. Sure, Roger Corman released a few gothic drive-in Edgar Allen Poe tales starring Vincent Price, and there were a handful of witch-hunting films, but the emphasis was on monsters made through radiation, not in the pages of a Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley book. Europe was a completely different story. The British film company Hammer Films cranked out a number of classic gothic horror films, exploding in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein and continuing their run well into the 1970s. It seemed that Italy also had an interest in the gothic horror film, or at least Italian cinematographer turned director Mario Bava did. In 1960, Bava released Black Sunday (aka The Mask of Satan), a gorgeous gothic masterpiece centering on evil witches and bloodthirsty vampires coming back from their 200-year-old graves. Since its release, many critics have described Black Sunday as being a cross between a Hammer horror film and a classic Universal Studios horror film, an accurate description indeed. Featuring exquisite black and white cinematography, chilling sound work, unmatchable set design, an iconic performance from genre star Barbara Steele, and one of the most terrifying resurrection sequences in horror history, Black Sunday sits proudly near the top of the best Italian horror films of all time.
Black Sunday begins with a witch named Asa Vajda (played by Barbara Steele) and her vampire partner Javuto (played by Arturo Dominici) being sentenced to a gruesome death by Asa’s brother. Before the pair is left to burn, Asa’s brother orders that the mask of Satan be nailed to the faces of the condemned so that the world will forever know their true wickedness. Before they are executed, Asa puts a curse on her brother’s descendants and promises to return from the grave to have her revenge. Two centuries later, Dr. Thomas Kruvajan (played by Andrea Checchi) and his assistant, Dr. Andre Gorobec (played by John Richardson), are traveling through the same area where Asa and Javuto are buried. While passing through the eerie forest, one of their carriage wheels is damaged, leaving them stranded near Asa’s ruined tomb. While they wait for the wheel to be fixed, they decided to investigate the ruins to see what they can find. While poking around, the doctors find Asa’s coffin, which has a window displaying the horrible mask that was nailed to her face. Just as the men are about to leave the tomb, Dr. Kruvajan is attacked by a giant bat, which leaves a nasty cut on his hand. In the process of the attack, a few drops of blood make it into Asa’s tomb, resurrecting the evil witch and reigniting her fury. She telepathically resurrects Javuto, who sets out to find her brother’s descendants and make them pay.
If you were convinced that Hammer and Universal were the undisputed kings of gothic horror, Black Sunday is guaranteed to change your mind. There is not one scene in Black Sunday that doesn’t have some sort of gothic image to haunt your nightmares. There are cobwebbed tombs, dead forests, silhouetted castles, lifeless swamps, cracked graveyards, and crosses in every character’s hand. It’s full of the usual stuff, but the gothic style has never seemed so evil and dead as it does here. In Hammer and Universal’s offerings, there were at least a few glimpses of life, maybe a few late autumn leaves stuck to a branch or a babbling brook, but not in Black Sunday. It appears Asa’s curse worked its way into the trees, soil, and even the castle stones, leaving a perpetually parched and still wasteland where nothing will ever grow. It’s extremely creepy and it looks absolutely amazing in Bava’s lush black and white cinematography. You’d think that when compared to Hammer’s color releases, Black Sunday would be overlooked due to being presented in black and white, but the lack of color only adds to the hopelessness of the surroundings. It also adds extra menace to the shadowy castle hallways and rotten tombs, where candelabras flicker and tapestries hang down like fangs waiting to snap.
While Black Sunday may be celebrated for its gothic style, the film is also loaded with spectacular performances, particularly from Barbara Steele in a dual role. As Asa, Steele is in completely command of the film as she curses, and manipulates anyone who dares look in her direction. When we first see her tied to the stake waiting to be burned, her beauty throws us. We hear her brother condemning her for these terrible actions, but her innocent eyes hold us in doubt. Could she really be responsible for what they say she is? Don’t be fooled, as her true nature soon rears its ugly head. When Steele isn’t projecting pure evil as the vengeful witch, she is showing us her softer side as Katia, a striking descendent of Asa’s brother. Her performance as Katia doesn’t hit quite as hard as Asa, as she is basically asked to sit by her father’s bedside, look worried, or play the damsel in distress, but it’s still strong where it counts. Arturo Dominici gives a strong and silent performance as the equally wicked Javuto, Asa’s vampire partner who carries out some of the dirty work for the witch. When he speaks, you will be turned to stone. John Richardson’s Dr. Gorobec basically becomes the hero and love interest of Katia, Andrea Checchi’s Dr. Kruvajan becomes hypnotized servant to Asa, and Antonio Pierfederici’s Priest demonstrates a very creative and gruesome way to dispatch a vampire.
Despite the long list of positives, Black Sunday still has a few minor flaws that are difficult to ignore. First is the dubbing, which opens the door for some less-than-graceful dialogue. Unlike some of the trashier Italian efforts that would come much later, Bava makes an effort to have the English dubbing match the movement of the character’s mouths. It’s a success in that regard, but there are times when you wish that the film had been subtitled. Another minor problem with the film is the score, which slightly conflicts with Bava’s stunningly grim imagery. The music for the American version of Black Sunday was provided by Les Baxter, who delivers a score that captures none of the gothic atmosphere that flows forth from the screen. Still, the complaints are trivial when compared to both of the terrifying resurrection sequences, the unblinking gore, our first glimpse of Katia, or the chilly opening execution. They are all glimmers of absolute brilliance. Overall, as stylish, eerie, and grotesque as they come, Black Sunday is an astonishing directorial debut by the legendary Mario Bava. To this day, his images still retain their hair-raising power, and Steele’s Asa still stands as one of the most evil forces to ever haunt a movie screen.
Black Sunday is available on Blu-ray and DVD.