Kissing the Devil’s Arse: Witch-Hunting in Eurocult Cinema, c.1968-1976

This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Paul A J Lewis of

In Adrian Hoven’s super-exploitative 1973 horror film Hexen geschändet und zu Tode gequält (Mark of the Devil, Part II; the German title translates into English as ‘Witches Violated and Tortured to Death’), the spiteful witchfinder Natas (played memorably by the facially disfigured Austrian actor Reggie Nalder) confronts a nun, Clementine (Astrid Killian), who is accused of witchcraft. Having been thrown into the cells and raped by the gaoler, who froths at the mouth grotesquely during the act itself, at the time of her trial Clementine is discovered to be pregnant. ‘Was it the devil who committed this act of fornication?’, Natas spits during the trial, ‘The Devil appeared in your cell and you kissed his arse! Admit it!’

The absurdity of this far-too-vivid accusation, no doubt amplified by the film’s admittedly clumsy English dub, clearly sidesteps the most likely reason for Clementine’s pregnant state (ie, human cruelty) whilst validating for Natas the fact that as a heretic, she has been marked for execution in an unmeasurably cruel manner – by being burnt alive on an elaborate scaffold. The sheer illogicality of Natas’ statement, intended to underscore how twisted the psychopathology of the witchfinders is – in other words, their need to avoid the most logical explanation for events in order to provide a supernatural reason that justifies their sadistic pursuit of alleged witches and sorcerers – was a key paradigm of the horror pictures focusing on witch-hunting made during the late 1960s and 1970s. Elsewhere in the same film, a wedding is interrupted; the participants are accused by Natas and his cronies of drinking a love potion, and a man is arrested ‘for bringing in the Devil’s bastards with the magic aid of a witch’s brew’. In the original Mark of the Devil (Michael Armstrong, 1970; the German title of this is Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält, or ‘Witches Tortured Till they Bleed to Death’), the witchfinder Albino (also played by Nalder) arrests a puppeteer and his wife, accusing them of ‘practising magic using the intermediary of puppets with lifelike human voices’ and ‘consorting with the Devil to trap human souls in these dolls’. Elsewhere in the same film, a woman is accused of mixing a ground human foetus with frogspawn in order to cause a priest to limp.

Witchfinder General (1968)

The witch-hunting film, at least in the form by which it is recognisable today, essentially originated with Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General in 1968. Adapted from a well-researched but exploitative historical novel by Ronald Bassett, published in 1966 under the same title as its film version, Witchfinder General was directed by Michael Reeves. Reeves was a prodigious talent; Witchfinder General was Reeves’ third feature, following The She-Beast in 1966 and The Sorcerers in 1967, and there are numerous accounts of the on set conflict between Reeves and Witchfinder General’s chief star, Vincent Price, who plays Matthew Hopkins himself. (‘Take me to your goddamn young genius’, Price reputedly told producer Philip Waddilove when Waddilove collected Price from the airport.) Reeves had wanted Donald Pleasence for the part, but American International Pictures, who co-produced the film with Tigon British Film Productions, stipulated that Price be cast as Hopkins. By all accounts, Reeves showed little restraint in his apparent distaste for Price’s theatrical style of acting, though Price certainly brings a dandiness to the role that stands in stark contrast with the austerity of the Cromwellian ideology with which the film’s hero, Roundhead soldier Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), is associated.

Taking place during the English Civil War, Witchfinder General focuses on the activities of Matthew Hopkins, an East Anglian witch-hunter who proclaimed himself to be ‘witchfinder general’ and documented his activities in his 1647 book “A Discovery of Witches”. (The book was credited to ‘Matthew Hopkins, Witch-Finder for the Benefit of the Whole Kingdome’, and opened with a quote from Exodus 22:18, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’.) In this book, structured as a series of common queries about witch-hunting which Hopkins furnishes with answers, Hopkins outlined some of the methods for spotting witches: for example, pricking a mark upon the body of the suspect which is believed to be an extra teat used to nourish a ‘familiar’, who would drink the witch’s blood; if such an extra ‘Pap’ is pricked, it will not bleed and the witch will feel no pain. In the final part of the book, Hopkins tries (vainly) to respond to the common criticism of his practice, which was that ‘All the witch-finder doth is to fleece the country of their money and therefore rides and goes to townes to have imployment, and promiseth them faire promises, and it may be doth nothing for it, and possesseth many men that they have so many wizzards and so many witches in their towne, and so hartens them on to entertaine him’. Hopkins’ riposte to this was that he never went to any town that did not ask for his services, only claimed to identify witches ‘after her tryall by search, and their owne confessions’, and demanded ‘but 20.s a town, & doth sometimes ride 20. miles for that, & hath no more for all his charges thither and back again (& it may be stayes a weeke there) and finde there 3. or 4. witches, or if it be but one, cheap enough, and this is the great summe he takes to maintaine his Companie with 3. Horses’. Perhaps the witch-finder doth protest too much. Historical records seem to show that Hopkins was paid far more than the 20 shillings per town that he claimed to receive for his ‘services’. In Reeves’ Witchfinder General, Hopkins asserts that he is doing ‘the Lord’s work’; to this his associate John Stearne says, ‘And a profitable one, the good Lord paying in silver for every hanging’.

With his accomplice John Stearne, over a two year period Hopkins was responsible for around 100 executions of witches and sorcerers – approximately one-fifth of the entire number of executions for witchcraft that took place in Protestant England between the 15th and 18th Centuries. His activities focused on Parliamentarian counties that were heavily Puritan in their outlooks. The common interpretation is that Hopkins took advantage of the lawlessness and dissent engendered by the Civil War, in order to line his pockets. In Reeves’ film, the character of John Lowes (Rupert Davies), a priest persecuted by Hopkins for making an alleged covenant with the Devil, asserts pointedly that ‘The lack of order in the land encourages strange ideas’. This is certainly the thesis put forward by Bassett’s novel and Reeves’ film adaptation, an approach to, and interpretation of, witch-finding that dominates many of the subsequent films. The truth is perhaps more complex, however: Hopkins was the son of a Puritan clergyman, and during the Civil War was far younger than his depiction in Reeves’ film. (The real Hopkins is believed to have been somewhere between 25 and 28 years of age during his misadventures as England’s ‘witchfinder general’.) He apparently died of tuberculosis in 1647; though legend suggested he himself was ‘swum’ as a witch, there is no evidence of this.

In terms of his methods, Hopkins was influenced by the outcome of the Lancaster Witch Trials of 1612-34 which, investigated by Charles I’s physician William Harvey, set a benchmark that physical proof of making a covenant with the Devil was required for a successful prosecution. Hopkins also drew from some of the methods outlined in James I’s 1599 treatise “Daemonologie”, which suggested sleep deprivation (often through ‘walking’ – ie, keeping the alleged witch sorcerer active by making them walk around a room for days on end), pricking (as outlined above), and ‘swimming’ – which was based on the notion that witches, who had by making a covenant with the Devil renounced their baptism, would float when ‘swum’ in a body of water. (If they drowned, of course, they were innocent of witchcraft – but that didn’t bother a good capitalist like Hopkins.) Hopkins’ methods were employed overseas in the New England witch-hunts and the Salem witch trials of the mid/late 17th Century.

Reeves’ film places Hopkins at the dead centre of a fictional story involving Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), a trooper in Cromwell’s army, whose fiancee’s uncle, John Lowes, is executed for witchcraft by Hopkins and Stearne (Robert Russell). Like a number of other named victims of Hopkins in the film (such as Elizabeth Clarke, who is burned for witchcraft at Lavenham), the name of John Lowes is rooted in historical fact: in reality, Lowes was an 80 year old priest in Brandeston who was ‘walked’ by Hopkins for several days, ‘swum’ in the moat of Framlingham Castle and finally hanged for witchcraft. In Reeves’ film, the vicar Lowes is the uncle of pretty Sara (Hilary Dwyer), Marshall’s beloved. In the aftermath of John Lowes’ persecution, Sara is taken advantage of and raped by both Hopkins and Stearne, and Marshall vows his revenge, pursuing Hopkins and Stearne across the landscape of East England.

Reeves’ film highlights the opportunism of Hopkins whilst also underscoring the depths of violence to which Marshall must descend in order to dispatch the fiend. There is no doubt, within the film, that Hopkins is a cynical opportunist who takes advantage of the social dislocation caused by the Civil War – for his own financial gain. In the film’s opening sequence, a crowd assembles in a rural village to watch the hanging of a witch. A priest offers some partially-heard words as the woman screams in terror whilst being dragged to a hastily erected gallows. Her screams are cut short as the drop breaks her neck, and the crowd disperses – their cries of encouragement swiftly turning to a look of shame. It’s a scene bold enough to evoke sickness and shame in any number of those who watch it.

Reeves emphasises the seductive nature of violence – and the manner in which it is cyclical. Violence begets violence. To quell violence demands a greater display of violence. Ideologically speaking, for most people this is abhorrent… inhumane. But, sadly, it seems an interminable fact of life. In his approach to violence, there are many parallels between what Reeves essays in Witchfinder General and the work of Sam Peckinpah, whose most successful venture, The Wild Bunch, would be released in the US the following year (1969). In Witchfinder General, Reeves shows children in the crowd watching the burning of Elizabeth Clarke at Lavenham, and afterwards we see these children cooking potatoes in the embers. The staging is similar to the opening of The Wild Bunch, in which Peckinpah shows a group of children tormenting scorpions by forcing them into a makeshift arena with hundreds of red ants. Both filmmakers offer a quiet commentary on the notion that violence is both innate and learned. The connection with Sam Peckinpah would be consolidated by the work of John Coquillon, the director of photography on Witchfinder General and Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1972), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Cross of Iron (1977) and The Osterman Weekend (1983).

There were predecessors to Witchfinder General, of course: for example, Mario Bava’s Le maschera del demonio (Mask of Satan/Black Sunday, 1960) features a witch (Barbara Steele) who – in the film’s opening sequence, set in 1630 – is executed by having a nailed mask hammered into her face. Approximately two hundred years later, she is accidentally resurrected when the mask is removed from her corpse and blood is spilled on her mummified remains; this incident sparks her quest for supernatural revenge. However, what Witchfinder General did differently to its predecessors was to set its story predominantly by daylight, avoiding the Gothic trappings of most horror films, and also negating any sense of supernatural shenanigans. This is a story of human cruelty, pure and simple. The film is at its heart structured like a revenge Western, including many shots of its characters riding across the countryside on horseback. The similarities with the Westerns of American filmmakers like Budd Boetticher, for example, are underscored by Reeves’ emphasis on location shooting – taking the story out of the studio as much as possible. To this end, Reeves uses some incredibly evocative locations, including setting the climactic confrontation between Marshall and Hopkins in and around Orford Castle, near Ipswich. This, along with some of the richly observed dialogue (‘They’re burning witches there… or some such rigmaroll’), gives the film a strong sense of authenticity.

Witchfinder General establishes its historical credentials with an opening narration that sets the specific context for the film: ‘The year is 1645’, the narrator tells us, ‘England is in the grip of a bloody Civil War. The structure of law and order has collapsed’. Many of the subsequent witch-hunting films featured similar opening narrations or onscreen scrawls, as though adopting the familiar technique of Victorian pornography and horror fiction to present their lurid fictional(ised) narratives as ‘found’ material. The film is rough. Bloody rough. Unrelenting in its depiction of violence and exploitation, Witchfinder General is not graphic by modern standards (though John Trevelyan, chief examiner of the BBFC at the time of the film’s release, exerted his powers to trim many of the film’s more violent moments) but is nevertheless truly disturbing. The opening hanging, the treatment of Lowes, Stearne’s rape of Sara in a field in front of a gurning witness, the cheering of the crowd at the burning of Elizabeth Clarke in Lavenham… all of this adds up to a depiction of human cruelty which belies Reeves’ youth at the time of the film’s production: Reeves was 25 when he made the film, and only months after its release he would pass away, his death the consequence of an accidental overdose of alcohol and prescribed barbiturates.

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