The witches are coming. Disney has Maleficent ready for release in May, but the bigger story has to be Toten Herzen going head to head with the Malandanti in June.

For those who don’t know, aren’t in the loop or live under a rock, Maleficent is the evil fairy/witch from Snow White. Maleficent the film is Disney’s revisionist study of how she came to be bad, bitter and deranged and probably won’t do the witchcraft community any favours. But then who has?

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Joan Fontaine plays the troubled schoolteacher in small village Hammer Horror The Witches.

Joan Fontaine plays the troubled schoolteacher in small village Hammer Horror The Witches.

Throughout cinema history witchcraft has been portrayed in a less than flattering light, from the manipulative Stephanie Bax  in The Witches (1966), to an island full of pagan antagonists ready to roast Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man (1973). This automatic link between witchcraft and the dark arts mirrors the great slander of witchcraft by the early Christian church, borrowing pagan elements and attaching them to any bit of devilry they saw fit. (The horned god Pan, goddess Astarte, the list goes on.)

The Wicker Man pits the convictions of Woodward's Christian beliefs against long standing isolated communal traditions of paganism. (Film poster from 1973.)

The Wicker Man pits the convictions of Woodward’s Christian beliefs against long standing isolated communal traditions of paganism. (Film poster from 1973.)

But just as all religions have their extremist wing, witchcraft is no different and in Toten Herzen Malandanti the witches are out to obtain what they want at any cost. Taking the name from the 16th/17th century evil spirits of Italian witchcraft – fought by the Benandanti: witches defending their crops from spoil – the 21st century Malandanti take witchcraft to new extremes.

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The Malandanti spy on the spies, manage the corporations and instruct the politicians. More effective than the Illuminati, their international cells blackmail, coerse, threaten and murder their way forward, using a combination of suggestion, chemicals and good old black magic.

And black magic is another of those crossed wires we come across in film and fiction. In Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out and Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate, black magic and Satanism are conflated. The two become one, but Satanism is a relatively modern phenomenon.

The image of Baphomet used on a title card of Hammer Horror's 1973 The Devil Rides Out. First 'worshipped' by the Knights Templar in 1088 Baphomet became a antagonist in the church's fight with anyone it deemed to be heretics.

The image of Baphomet used on a title card of Hammer Horror’s 1973 film The Devil Rides Out. First ‘worshipped’ by the Knights Templar in the 1300s Baphomet became a component of the church’s fight with anyone it deemed to be heretics. Baphomet’s identity crisis was complicated further by Anton LaVey’s adoption of the Goat of Mendes in his Church of Satan, founded in 1966.

Roman Polnski's 1999 film The Ninth Gate draws heavily on esoteric and pagan imagery to create a complex tale of forbidden knowledge, Satanism and hermetic belief.

Roman Polnski’s 1999 film The Ninth Gate draws heavily on esoteric and pagan imagery to create a complex tale of forbidden knowledge, Satanism and hermetic belief.

Prior to 1966 when the world was seen through a purple haze and Anton LaVey set up his Church of Satan in California, ‘devil worship’ was virtually unheard of outside the Catholic church. Popular culture made it mainstream, embellished it, added a veneer of sensationalism and inevitably a public link back to witchcraft was completed. A link last made by Malleus Malleficarum published in 1486.

Title page of Malleus Malleficarum, written by Heinrich Kramer.

Title page of Malleus Malleficarum, written by Heinrich Kramer.

The link persists and runs through film and fiction, but are we seeing a link between witchcraft and Satanism or is it a link that was always there? Remember, Baphomet is not the devil; when the goat headed figure is portrayed observing the so called black mass in The Devil Rides Out, this isn’t Satan being worshipped. Likewise any cloven hoofed entity trotting across the lawns of Frank Langella’s house in The Ninth Gate is Pan, not Old Nick.

Confused? You should be. And Toten Herzen Malandanti won’t help you. The main character in this European network of covens is Lena Siebert-Neved, whose ancestors were murdered during the Bamberg witch trials of 1626-31. From a young age Lena has sought to undermine western values and structures, initially through terrorism (the novel tip-toes round her connection to Baader Meinhof in the 1970s), communism and ultimately a potent mixture of corporatism and black magic. She is devouring the system from the inside out. But Lena is more carrion crow than raptor; she feeds off a system that is already corrupt, already rotten to the core. Her aspirations to ruin what she sees as a Christian based set of social values is helped along by western society’s existing self-destruction and corruption.

Liana Telfer (Lena Olin). The Ninth Gate.

Liana Telfer (Lena Olin) in The Ninth Gate.

There is no good/bad, black/white dichotomy in Toten Herzen Malandanti, only ambiguity and shades of grey. Toten Herzen, the ‘arch hoax’ rock band invented by music journalist Rob Wallet, are what they say they are and not the imposters dreamt up by a burned out muso the media claims. And they’re no strangers to murder and mayhem themselves. Confronting Lena Siebert-Neved brings out their moral side, but only briefly, and even then only out of self-interest. As Lena repeats to band member Susan Bekker: “But we do have a lot in common . . . we both protect the people around us.

The Malandanti’s cellular nature means that Lena’s connections to the band are closer than she thinks, a point only revealed after the dust of conflict has settled. (And don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler.)

An illustration portraying the 17th century Witchfinder General Mathew Hopkins.

An illustration portraying the 17th century Witchfinder General Mathew Hopkins. (The Discovery of Witches, 1647)

There are besoms, but no pointy hats, the witches of the Malandanti are not the cartoon crones of Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters. Nor are they the bored housewives of The Witches of Eastwick. The Malandanti are that most worrisome threat: the enemy within, the familiar, people we trust who look just like us. When the truth emerges we utter the old ‘well who would have thought’. And we tie ourselves in knots trying to figure out why they did what they did, where the conflict came from, what drove them to be what they became.

It will be there in Maleficent and there in Toten Herzen Malandanti. The ambiguity of motive. The good versus evil sleight of hand where you root for the bad guys, are bewitched by the bad girls, and in a tangential side note, agree with the old cliche: the devil has all the best music.

Toten Herzen Malandanti will be published June 21st.

Toten Herzen Malandanti

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