Sunday, January 30, 2011

False Witches and Religious Hypocrisy

In 1968, Vincent Price starred in Witchfinder General, the story of a corrupt, hypocritical monster who travels the English countryside accusing innocent people of witchcraft and torturing confessions out of them. It is set in the year 1645, during the English Civil War, and Price's Matthew Hopkins uses the country's social breakdown to his advantage, identifying "witches" and charging the local magistrates for his services.

In a village in Suffolk, he accuses the local priest (Rupert Davies) of sorcery and orders him to be tortured. His horrified niece, Sara (Hilary Dwyer), offers herself to Hopkins in order to save her uncle's life. But when Hopkins is called away to another village, his equally corrupt assistant, Stearne (Robert Russell), rapes her. Upon his return, Hopkins now considers her "unclean," and the torture of the priest resumes, culminating in his death.

Sara's fiance, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), is a young Roundhead who, upon returning home from the war, is horrified to discover what has happened to his beloved and her uncle. He vows to hunt down and kill both Hopkins and Stearne.

This is an amazing film in many respects. Price's performance is absolutely grim and humorless, a revelation in this era when he'd really begun to camp it up. It's also surprisingly sadistic for its time, earning the wrath of British critics, even though it had been heavily censored before it hit theaters.

Ironically, when American International Pictures released it in the States under the title The Conqueror Worm (to tie it in with the earlier series of Poe films, also starring Price), it was virtually uncut. It was written and directed by wünderkind Michael Reeves, who was only 23 at the time of filming.

Even while it was being condemned by British critics, it went virtually unnoticed in America upon initial release, but a few months later defenders on both continents began to speak up, and Reeves' star began to ascend.

Reeves didn't want Price in the film at all (Donald Pleasance was his first—and unavailable—choice). Price didn't want to work with Reeves, considering him to be far too young and inexperienced. On-set explosions were frequent. At one point, Price famously sneered, "I've made 87 films. What have you done?" Reeves' response: "I've made three good ones."

In one scene, Reeves wanted Price to fire a pistol between the ears of the horse he was riding, and he wanted the pistol to be loaded with a blank so the puff of smoke could be seen. Price was aghast: "What? You want the gun to go bang between the ears of this fucking nag? How do you think he’s going to react?” Reeves persisted and—of course—Price was thrown to the ground.

Other problems plagued the production. A technician's strike had to be negotiated. Price showed up drunk on the final day of shooting. Sometimes there weren't enough actors, and production staff filled in. The startling climax (which I won't reveal here) is the result of a continuity problem, but that's a really lucky accident as far as I'm concerned.

Reeves had only directed two films prior to Witchfinder, The She Beast (also with Ogilvy and the incredible Barbara Steele) and The Sorcerers, with Boris Karloff. Even though his career was going well, Reeves suffered from clinical depression and he died of an alcohol and barbiturate overdose in 1969. The jury is still out on whether it was intentional. He was only 25 years old.

Inspired by the film's success, Germany jumped on the bandwagon with the infamous Mark of the Devil in 1970, starring Herbert Lom, Reggie Nalder and an incredibly young and androgynous Udo Kier. Following in the footsteps of its predecessor, it raises the stakes (ha!) by amping up the sadism and nudity.

It's set in rural Austria in the 1800s, and Keir plays the apprentice to a witchfinder (Lom), only to become disillusioned when he discovers that his employer is using his position for profit, free sex, and to keep the population terrorized. The torture scenes are pretty tame by today's standards, including the cutting of flesh (in search of Satan's skin), bare bums on spikes and perhaps the most famous scene—the pulling of a woman's tongue out by the roots.

The film's American distributor (Hallmark, which also released Last House on the Left and Don't Open the Window) went into publicity overdrive. The ads screamed: "Positively the most horrifying film ever made!" "Likely to upset your stomach!" "Rated V for violence!" It was also the first release to provide barf bags for theaters to distribute to patrons.

Mark has its defenders, but it's miles behind Witchfinder. The scenes of torture are contrasted with sequences of Kier and his love frolicking in the Austrian countryside, accompanied by that 1970s "doo-doo-doo" European music, and the frequent nudity gives it a sleaziness and unintentional humor that Witchfinder doesn't possess. Plus, some of the scenes could be transferred intact into a Monty Python routine and were, in a way, if you count the persecution of Carol Cleveland in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

"She turned me into a newt!" Pause. "I got better!"

1973 brought Mark of the Devil II and more of the same, although ironically it wasn't as brutal as the original. However, it did have a consistent theme of misogyny, which many found even more distasteful.

It took big, burly and prolific Spanish horror star/director Paul Naschy six years to do his own witch-burner, but in 1976 he starred in and directed Inquisition. As Bernard de Fossey, a corrupt inquisitor traveling the French countryside during the time of the Black Death, he does basically the same things Price and Lom did: accuse, torture, kill.

What makes Inquisition different from the earlier films is that many of the accused actually are devil worshippers. Plus, the film asks that its audience find some pity for the inquisitor.

I haven't personally seen this film. I find Naschy's movies to be rather slow and silly, but it sounds like De Fossey's demise echoes that of Oliver Reed's Grandier in Ken Russell's The Devils—head shaved and burned at the stake. And, of course, it heaps on the nudity that is required of a Naschy film. Once again, the sadism stakes are raised to out-gross Mark, the highlight being a rather realistic nipple-removing scene.

Witch hunting movies didn't enjoy the long-term popularity of the Exorcist clones, Naschy's latecomer was pretty much it for the genre. Christopher Lee starred in Jess Franco's The Bloody Judge in 1972, but he was targeting traitors to the crown instead of witches.

1 comment:

Russell Adams said...

Your piece inspires waves of nostalgia. It's been WAY too long since we had a good witch-hunting movie! And in today's political climate, one might seem almost like a documentary...


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