I recently mentioned to a friend that I was going through an Occult Moment--he responded by laughing and reminding me that I'd been in an Occult Moment ever since I could talk, gravitating towards "Fantasia's" Night on Bald Mountain sequence, Dungeons & Dragons, and other mystical-flavored weirdness as a rule rather than the exception. There's a power to occult symbolism that still startles and upsets Americans, with a Satanic Panic ever on the horizon in a culture with a bloodthirsty passion for Righteousness. I'm not going to try to detail all the reasons why it's funny to watch a college-educated adult who lives and works in one of the largest cities in the world physically recoil when I tell him that the pretty set of squiggles on my arm is a symbol from Hatian voudou. As an individual who's wiser and kinder than me has gently cautioned on a few occasions, "provocation shouldn't be an end game," but man alive, is it ever a cheap and easy form of fun in this kind of world.
It should surprise exactly no one reading this that Luigi Scattini's "Angeli Bianch, Angeli Neri" is my favorite entry into the Mondo Film genre. It's not a fave because it's the finest of these pseudo-documentaries, but because it's the one that focuses on occult practices around the world. As is the case with all Mondos, the events captured on film are of dubious provenance and the voiceover work is a haphazard mix of judgmental moralizing, lurid exoticism, and out-and-out lying. Since mondo movies were made more with exploitation in mind than enlightenment, international releases chose to focus on different aspects of the material. "Angeli Bianchi..." is an especially interesting example of this phenomenon, as the British "The Satanists UK" takes a decidedly more cynical stance than the wild-eyed American "Witchcraft '70."
From what cursory info I can ferret out, it looks like "The Satanists UK" is very close to "Angeli Bianchi, Angeli Neri" in its content. The blend of fact and hyperbole begins right away, as very real footage of Highgate Cemetery leads into footage of an alleged witchcraft ceremony, a Satanic wedding, and a black mass, all held in England. Apparently England's two key exports during the 1970s were tweed and Satanism, if Italian exploitation cinema is to be believed. After a side trip to Scandinavia for the deflowering of a young witchcult initiate, it's on to an equally dubious exploration of African diaspora religions, complete with animal sacrifice.
The cynicism gets ratcheted up to its maximum with a visit to a man who takes mystical Polaroids, a psychic with a really awful track record, and an interview with a representative of the British Society for Psychical Research (the original Ghost Bros). There's the prerequisite LSD cautionary tale, a cult that believes in the mystical powers of marijuana, further occult exoticism in the form of Santeria, and then a lengthy segment on Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey in his Black House in San Francisco (which, by the way, is filled with all manner of covetable shit like skeletons, gravestones, monster masks and hypno-wheels). LaVey performs a black mass and a Satanic wedding (Satanists may reject Judeo-Christian mores in other ways, but man alive, they really love getting married). The film wraps up with a piece of cryogenics, which would be rather weak sauce were it not accompanied by the film's theme song, a beautiful, minor-key piece that adds an almost Buttgerietian sensuality to the preparation of the corpse. The amazing Piero Umiliani soundtrack enhances the entire film as it vacillates between jazzy vocal tracks and sweeping, almost soupy romanticism. The overall experience of watching "The Satanists UK" is a little like being inside someone else's drug trip, with the haughty, even-toned voice of narrator Edmund Purdom serving as a grounding influence.
"Witchcraft '70" takes a rather more hysterical approach to the same material, excising knowing cynicism (and animal sacrifice) and replacing it with interviews with a fear-mongering police officer. When "Angeli Bianchi, Angeli Neri" was purchased to play on the grindhouse circuit, director Lee Frost was hired to create inserts that would be more suited to contemporary American tastes. The psychic photographer, ghost hunters, and scandalously-inaccurate fortune teller are nowhere to be found. In their places are the aforementioned cop (an expert on OCCULT CRIMES), a staged voodoo ceremony, and a violent hippie orgy that is said to have taken place near the Manson Family's home base at Spahn Ranch. This scene closes the movie instead of the clumsily lyrical look at extending life through science that serves as the finale for the European cut. Also absent is the Umiliani score, in place of which is standard horror-movie music. "Witchcraft '70" plays out as a cautionary look at the dangers of the occult--the very true, very real forces of the occult and the very real, very dangerous people who will use them to tempt you away from the path of religious goodness.
The difference between the two films reflects a chasm of cultural experience between Europe and the States. While religion was state-enforced through much European history, and therefore met with arched eyebrows and resentment by much of the public, the American separation of church and state allowed a type of zealotry to flourish in the absence of government mandate. Plus, there's that whole "this country was founded by Puritans" thing at work whose significance shouldn't be underestimated. If you want evidence of of America's love affair with believing in the supernatural, just take a moment to digest the fact that there are currently over ten ghost hunting shows on American cable television, including one about pets that communicate with ghosts. Panicking about pretend stuff is something this country does exceptionally well--audiences would rather see a chilling expose than deal with any shades of gray regarding the reality of the supernatural. Occam's Razor is always calibrated towards "oh my god, bro, did you hear that? It's cold in here; this place must be haunted!"
Even for those who don't believe in the supernatural, having that kind of powerful symbolism at one's fingertips is thrilling. I've never wanted to make a giant papier-mache goat head more than after watching this movie. Using that kind of symbol is like having a big, red button in your hand at all times, sociologically speaking... at least at the times when it's not like wearing a big, red target on your chest.