The Last Gasp for Witch-Hunting Cinema: Inquisition (1976)
Though many of the themes of the witch-hunting films had by the mid-1970s become displaced onto the newer subgenre of ‘nunsploitation’ films – pictures such as Sergio Grieco’s Le scomunicate di San Valentino (The Sinful Nuns of St Valentine, 1974) and Joe D’Amato’s Immagini di un convento (Images in a Convent, 1979) utilising a convent setting as the locus for stories of heresy and demonic possession – in 1976 the Spanish filmmaker Paul Naschy (the screen pseudonym of Jacinto Molina Álvarez) made Inquisición (Inquisition). A picture that might be considered the last gasp of the witch-hunting film, at least in the form defined by Reeves’ Witchfinder General, Inquisition was Naschy’s directorial debut.
Naschy himself stars as witchfinder Bernard de Fossey, also appearing in heavy makeup as Satan in a handful of scenes. A voiceover tells us that the story takes place in ‘France, at the end of the 16th Century’. The countryside is riddled with the plague, and Bernard forms part of a group of inquisitors who are journeying to the village of Peyriac in order to investigate claims of sorcery. Arriving in Peyriac, Bernard becomes fascinated with Catherine (Daniela Giordano), the mayor’s daughter. However, Catherine is engaged to be married to Jean Duprat (Juan Luis Gallardo). Jean has left the village with a promise of returning to Catherine after acquiring farmland near Toulouse, but he has disappeared mysteriously. Catherine’s sister Madeleine (Mónica Randall) takes Catherine to the cottage of Mabille (Tota Alba), a local witch, who tells Catherine that if she will give over her soul to the Devil, she will be told who killed Jean. Agreeing to this bargain, Catherine is given a mixture of herbs by Mabille and transported to a Witches’ Sabbath, where she meets the Devil, who tells her, ‘You must serve me faithfully’.
Bernard seems to be a believer in his work as a witchfinder. Near the start of the film, he tells his associates that ‘Witches deny God and the Saints for gifts from the Devil. Satan grants great riches and delights’, though ironically the characters claimed to be witches are largely peasants. Bernard is unflinching in his application of torture, as evidenced when he uses the rack to extract confessions from two women, Pierril and Odile, who are known for their promiscuity. Again, for the witchfinder, female sexuality is associated with sorcery. After she has attended the Witches’ Sabbath and met the Devil, Catherine asserts that ‘I m powerful now [….] In the Sabbat, my flesh cries out with pleasure. Everything is permitted’. As Naschy tells the mayor, ‘the evil one tends to use women for his dark deeds […] Temptation is his best friend’. Later, Bernard suggests to Catherine that no-one can be trusted: ‘The husband in bed believes he holds his wife when what he holds may be a foul succubus. The wife may be deceived by an incubus. They corrupt everything’.
The film places Bernard’s belief in, and commitment to, witch-hunting in dialogue with alternate perspectives. The mayor, responding to the torture of Odile and Pierril, suggests that ‘witches’ only attend the Witches’ Sabbath as a way of ‘rebel[ling] against the tyranny of the powerful’. He adds that, ‘I’m convinced the majority of those burned to death are ignorant and deluded poor fools’. Likewise, the village doctor, Emile (Eduardo Calvo), is a man of science who deeply contests the activities of Bernard and his group. His criticisms of Bernard are clearly intended to resonate with the views of the film’s modern day audience. ‘Every day come new accusations. Husbands give up wives; children their parents. Everyone is afraid they may end up on the stake’, Emile tells the mayor, ‘He’s [Bernard] a fanatic and bloodthirsty zealot […] One day, all of this will be mankind’s shame’. As if to prove Emile’s claims, in a subsequent scene we see a man denounce as witches his elderly mother and young son, who are taken away for torture and execution. The most sinister character is the vile Rénover (Antonio Iranzo), who takes particular pleasure in the torture of women. ‘It’s the young ones I like to see burning’, Rénover says at one point, ‘Just the young ones’.
Inquisition is an easy film to overlook, but is one of Naschy’s best pictures. Though the film depicts the Witches’ Sabbath that Catherine attends, including a meeting with Satan, the narrative neither confirms nor denies the existence of the supernatural: the scenes involving the Witches’ Sabbath are ambiguous, as are the scenes in which Catherine is presented with a vision implicating Bernard in the murder of her fiancé, Jean. These may be taken as ‘real’ events or as delusions brought on by Catherine’s grief and the suggestions of Mabille – not to mention the herbal mixtures prepared by the witch. As Madeleine tells Catherine, when Mabille is executed for witchcraft, no demon came to save her. Though Inquisition is an undoubtedly exploitative film (its scenes of torture are particularly graphic: in the dungeons, naked bodies are mutilated with blades and burned with hot irons; nipples are cut off), in its handling of the theme of witchfinding it is a surprisingly thoughtful work, Naschy investing the story with considerable ambiguity.
By the mid-1970s, the paradigms of the witch-hunting film were so familiar that they could be comfortably parodied in Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones’ 1975 picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In that film, King Arthur (Graham Chapman) first encounters Belvedere (Terry Jones) during a scene in which a group of villagers are attempting to burn an alleged witch (Connie Booth). Belvedere asks the villagers what evidence they have for the claims of witchcraft. They claim she is dressed like a witch, but under questioning by Belvedere reveal that they put a hat and false nose on her. ‘She turned me into a newt’, a peculiarly un-newt-like villager (John Cleese) asserts before adding, ‘I got better’. Belvedere applies a memorably skewed series of false syllogisms to the problem – reasoning that because witches burn, they must be made of wood. And as wood floats on water, and ducks also float on water, if the woman weighs the same as a duck, she must be a witch. A huge set of scales is produced, by which the weight of the alleged witch is compared with the weight of a duck – and the two do indeed weigh the same. ‘It’s a fair cop’, the witch says to camera as the crowd behind her yell, ‘Burn her! Burn her!’ However, by the time of the production of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, many of the themes of witch-hunting films had dissipated into other subgenres – particularly the ‘nunsploitation’ films mentioned previously.
Hopkins’ assertion in Witchfinder that ‘Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do’ perhaps sums up the witch-hunting films of the era. These films stick in the craw for their depiction of human cruelty – a cruelty that is, within the films themselves, generally coded as patriarchal, largely directed by men of authority against women. Very few of the films contain evidence of the supernatural: Blood on Satan’s Claw is a notable example of a film which does, and by doing so represents the assured authoritarianism of its witchfinder (The Judge) as something which is desperately needed by society. Though all of the films criticise to some degree the authoritarian violence of the witchfinders within their narratives, the more exploitative examples also sometimes celebrate this violence via graphic depictions of torture, in particular, that are presented for the titillation of the audience. When Rénover asserts in Inquisition that ‘It’s the young ones I like to see burning’, one can’t help but think of the manner in which these executions are presented as a spectacle for the films’ viewers. The films sometimes fall into the familiar trap also associated with the films of Sam Peckinpah, in particular: that in order to criticise violence, the filmmaker must depict it onscreen. As Sam Peckinpah once said, in relation to the depiction of violence in his films, he wanted to ‘get [viewers] involved in [the violence] so that they are starting to go into the Hollywood television predictable reaction syndrome, and then twist it so that it’s not fun anymore, just a wave of sickness in the gut… It’s ugly, brutalizing and bloody fucking awful [….] And yet there’s a certain response that you get from it, an excitement because we’re all violent people’ (Peckinpah, quoted in Weddle, 1994: 334). This conflict seems most apparent in Mark of the Devil, where producer Adrian Hoven’s attempts to up the ante in terms of onscreen violence, going as far as shooting explicit footage behind the director’s back, seems at odds with Armstrong’s handling of the rest of the material.
The persecution of ‘heretics’ is still with us, of course. These may be spiritual heretics in the traditional sense but, in most 21st Century societies, are often ideological or political ‘heretics’. The totalitarian mindset represented by the figure of the witchfinder seems to come to the cultural foreground at times of great stress (the Civil War of Witchfinder General; the Monmouth Rebellions in the two Jess Franco films; the time of plague in The Devils and Inquisition). One needs only to look at the current political landscape in order to ascertain how relevant this theme continues to be in the 21st Century. As Grandier notes during his trial, ‘This new doctrine – Laubardemont’s new doctrine, Barre’s new doctrine – is the work of men who are not concerned with facts or with law or with theology’. And, as Baron de Laubardemont tells Grandier, ‘You have one consolation. Hell will hold no surprises for you’.
Recommended for you: Mendez, Baledon, Urueta: The Golden Age of Mexican Horror Cinema
WEDDLE, David, 1994: ‘If They Move… Kill ‘Em!’: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah. New York: Grove Press
Written by Paul A J Lewis
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