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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Documentary or mockumentary? That's a question hanging over Derek
Ford's weirdly fascinating film about modern-day witchcraft. On the one
hand there's real-life "king of the witches" Alex Saunders, taking
himself oh so very seriously this is, after all, his big chance to
clear up widespread misconceptions about his witchcraft activities. But
on the other hand there's Ford's influence behind the camera is he
reporting honestly and earnestly about witchcraft? Or is he relishing
the exploitative nature of the subject, and sensationalising it with
tongue very much in cheek? After viewing the film I'm still not
entirely sure, but a glance at Ford's filmography with its frequent
leaning towards sex comedies and other sexploitation items draws me
towards the latter.
In a deliberately camped-up opening we see a debauched orgy held at a remote château populated by witches. An innocent girl is dragged into the château, but saved from humiliation at the hands of those darned witches by her dashing lover. Cut to Alex Saunders, an actual modern day witch who rues modern culture's prejudices towards his beliefs. We then follow the exploits of Penny, a young hairdresser who wishes to join Saunders' coven. After meeting Saunders in a pub in Notting Hill, Penny goes through a bizarre initiation ritual and comes to learn what it takes to be a real witch. All this is narrated by Lee Peters, in a tone more suited to reading out football scores than informing us about the true face of witchcraft.
The film is definitely a fascinating snapshot of a period and set of beliefs beyond the ordinary. It is interestingly shot and contains an agreeable score by The Spindle. Whether truthful or totally fictional, the film's information is certainly absorbing if taken at face value. But ultimately it's very hard to escape the conclusion that Saunders and Ford have totally opposing motives for making the film. This can be illustrated no better than in the ritual scenes. All the assembled witches strip naked Saunders clearly thinks nothing of this; he sees it as a natural thing, a mere requirement of the ceremony. But Ford is a sly old fox and knows full well the "value" of full frontal nudity when trying to attract an audience. His camera lingers just a little too long. It is this contrast in intention which ultimately stands out in Secret Rites, and leads me to the conclusion that it is sexploitation rather than information. Or, to answer my initial question, mockumentary rather than documentary.
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