Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Witchfinder Cycle: Witchfinder films of the 60's and 70's.

I haven't seen too much written on the smattering of films I call The Witchfinder Cycle. During the late 1960's Satanism and demonism had a resurgence in popular culture. Most people were not flooding to worship the dark lord, but there was a rise in interest.

For one, The Church of Satan opened in San Francisco in April, 1966. The news media went crazy. My parents even posed for photographs for an article (pics HERE.) The UK had been shipping over a steady diet of Satanic cult movies since Mario Bava's Black Sunday was released in 1960. Vampirism got tangled with Satanism and the two were never unstuck.

The counter-culture movement was also a ripe target for any kind of parental, authority, or establishment fears. They'll take your kids? They'll subvert authority? They will destroy the establishment? Sprinkle lightly with the devil and you've got a book or film that will make a million dollars to a fearful population.

Witchcraft, The Witches, Night of the Eagle, The Naked Witch, The Witch's Mirror, there are about twenty more witchcraft themed films from the 1960's. Something was happening in culture. Youth was taking over. Adults were scared. Hollywood fed into that fear. Good stuff. The production of satanic and witchcraft themed films went into 666th gear in the early 1970's with close to a hundred films produced on the subject. The devil slowly lost his ground throughout the polyester decade. I remember seeing Satan terrorizing after school specials. Destroying a girl's chrystal pony collection. The Devil wouldn't get too much rest, though. While films eased up on the dark side, 70's music was turning BLACK. Black Sabbath picked the devil up out of the gutter, dusted him off and handed him over to their heavy metal disciples of the 1980's.

I consider the late 60's and early 70's the golden age of witchcraft movies. If you like road movies you can watch Werewolves on Wheels or Race With the Devil. Are you timid? You can watch the beautifully titled but Rated PG, Blood Orgy of the She Devils or the 1967 TV version of The Crucible. Oh, you're a Criterion Collection watching highbrow, then take Polanski's Rosemary's Baby or Friedkin's The Exorcist for a spin. Already seen them, try The Omen. Like the classics? Try any of Hammer's Dracula films of the 70's, Satan gets his dues. Where's William Shatner? In The Devil's Rain, of course. Want something raunchy? Well that list is endless.

"Raunchy" brings me to the point of all this devil-talk, The Witchfinder Cycle. Starting in 1968, with The Witchfinder General, a new sub-sub-genre of films began spurting onto screens. These films are all period pieces. They are all based on real history to one degree or another. Each film in the cycle concerns a witchfinder, searching the land for women (and some men) who have made a pact with the devil.

The witchfinder cycle is interesting to me because of it's confused and disingenuous moral grounding. Witchfinder's torture women in order to find out if these women are disciples of Satan. Many of the films have a female protagonist in love with another male protagonist. The witchfinder is almost always a horny, sadistic, pervert, who falls in lust with the female and will end her torture for sexual favors. Real nice stuff, huh? Now, if the woman is really a disciple of Satan does this make the witchfinder's work justifiable? What if she thinks she's in a pact with the devil? What if the witchfinder actually loves the girl that is accused? A few of the films have British politics thrown in. That can get pretty confusing if you don't do a little Wikipedia reading beforehand. It definitely confuses the protagonist - antagonist relationship. The nuances of these films are what make them interesting to me.

Today, the Witchfinder or monster hunter always finds a witch or Warlock. The Witchfinder is a hero in the Solomon Kane, pulpy, model.

If you like seeing naked chicks get tortured, The Witchfinder Cycle is good for that too. In the old days, the witchfinder held the power to see naked ladies and to watch them be tortured. Today, that is all democratized. You, from the comfort of your couch, can feel the same thrills that the witchfinder's did 400 years ago.

Almost none of these damn films have happy endings. They are heavy, downtrodden, depressing films. If you're into modern torture porn, they won't have the visceral impact, but they will act as a devil's lotion and seep into your skin. They will turn your spirit dark. Humanity will feel that much more grotesque. And when you ponder that humans really did these things to each other and they still do all over the world, it just makes your chest hurt. My wife and I watched these films so you don't have to.

The commandments of The Witchfinder Cycle.
1. Must be a period piece.
2. Must have a witchfinder.
3. Must have been released in the 1960's or 1970's.

Here are the films. (psssst, let me know if you find one that I have not included.) Each write up is FULL of SPOILERS.

Maciste in Hell (1962)

 Maciste is a Hercules-like character in Italian cinema dating back to 1914. When the Peplum Hercules films became popular again in the early 1960's, Maciste was reborn as a box office rival to Hercules. In the U.S. many of Maciste's films were redubbed into Hercules, Goliath, and Samson films.

The film starts out with a bad ass witch burning scene in Scotland (see the first picture in this post.) This is a real witch, spitting revenge curses. A hundred years later, in 1550, a woman tries to hang herself and is cut down by villagers. The dead tree sprouts flowers. Two men argue about the curse put on the village by the old witch a century ago. A couple is married. This film moves at a good pace. It jumps around in all the right ways. The supernatural is real.

The recently married woman is somehow connected with the old witch. She is haunted and toyed with by dark forces. The villagers riot and put her on trial. She tries to touch a bible and it burns. The witchfinders think this is a sign of witchcraft. The woman is sentenced to die. Sounds like a standard witchfinder film so far, right? Well, then a twenty-something HUNK in a loin cloth shows up. It is Maciste! It is striking as all hell when Maciste shows up. Imagine a near naked Hercules walking onto the scene of a Shakespearean play.

Maciste agrees to take care of everything. He enters Hell and kicks the ass of demons and monsters in order to kill the witch and end the curse.

When Maciste enters Hell. The film turns pure Sword & Sandal. Maciste fights a lion, snakes, and the bird that feasts on Theseus' liver each day. The shots of the suffering dead are straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. There are some weird flashbacks, which I think are from other Maciste films. He fights a Cyclops; saves slave workers in Egypt, and adventures in China. Confusing.

There is a shocking scene where Maciste stops a stampede of a dozen oxen. He stops the onslaught by pushing the actual oxen down a ten foot cliff. It is a mess. If you have a soft spot in your heart for oxen, it could be heartbreaking.

Above ground, the accused witch is not tortured and the film plays out like a straight, but cheesy, drama.

The script and acting, both physical and the English dubbing, are extremely passionate (read, waaay over the top.) The Witchfinder is sort of a know nothing and he actually sits in a tall backed chair with a carved pentagram in a circle (see top picture.) Talk about mixed messages.

The film slows down when the witch disguises herself as a hottie and talks Maciste's ear off. Maciste eventually wises up and kicks witch ass and saves the day. The film is great fun, but hit the scan fast-forward button when she comes on the scene.

The film is a strange hybrid. It's really more Peplum than Witchfinder Cycle, but it meets the criteria.

 Witchfinder General (1968)

This is the grandaddy of The Witchfinder Cycle. The film was based on a 1966 novel by Ronald Bassett. The novel was based off of the real activities of Mathew Hopkins and John Stearne, self-proclaimed witchfinders in the 1640's. Hopkins was only a witchfinder for two to three years but is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of over three hundred people. Hopkins' book on the subject has been put online by the good folks at Project Gutenberg, HERE. The book is titled, The Discovery of Witches and is sort of an FAQ on the subject.

Director, Michael Reeves, had Donald Pleasance in mind to play Mathew Hopkins. The idea was that he would be a bungling, ne'er do well, but ultimately ineffective and loutish. When Vincent Price was hired for the role, the rewriting went into high gear. Hopkins was streamlined into a more fox-like, clever, and intelligent character. After a few battles with the British censor, the script was ready to be shot. Reeves was pissed about not getting Donald Pleasance and by most accounts treated Vincent Price poorly on the set.

A man and woman are in love. He is a soldier during the English Civil War in 1645. While he is away, the witchfinder, Mathew Hopkins, comes to town to string up the woman's uncle for consorting with the devil. The woman is raped, the uncle killed. When the soldier finds out, he swears an oath of revenge.

The film looks like a Merchant Ivory masterpiece compared with some of the other films in The Witchfinder Cycle. The sets and costumes are beautiful. The cinematography is top rate with lush colors. The acting is fine. Vincent Price considered his work here as the finest in his long career.

The film has horse chases and barroom brawls. It has a good pace. If you're into Hammer films, this fits in nicely. It gets a bit grim with the witchfinding tortures, but it is the mildest of the lot.

If you want to dip your finger into something without going full thumscrews, this is a good film to watch.

A major theme in these films is power. A good old fashioned, black and white, aristocracy over peasant, total and complete domination. To modern, democratic, eyes, it is a big part of that stifling, heartache, feeling. These people are just so dominated. The wealthy, the titled, the church, anyone with perceived title, have absolute power. The common person has nothing, least of all a voice. If you have any kind of sense of fair play, your guts will hurt.

Mark of the Devil (1970)

This is how badass Mark of the Devil is: The film was shot in the dungeon of a castle in Austria which was actually used by witchfinders. The instruments of torture in the film are real. They were used to torture good people. Vomit bags were handed out at the theaters it played. And if you really want a measure of badassery, Udo Kier is the handsome, protagonist, UDO KIER!

This is the low point (or is it high point?) of The Witchfinder Cycle. Brutal, misogynistic, and so downtrodden you may find it hard to breathe. The same, short, uplifting score is played throughout the film. It sounds happy but it is a liar's song. In a Pavlovian way your heart will skip a beat and you will throw up a little in your mouth when you hear it.

Albino, the local witchfinder feels the pressure when Lord Cumberland, a famous witchfinder played by Herbert Lom, comes to town.

Lord Cumberland's apprentice (Udo Kier) falls in love with a woman, played by Olivera Katarina, that the local witchfinder has declared a witch. The pressure builds.

Albino is played to perfection by Reggie Nalder. I guess Nalder was burned as a child and was left with this unforgettably fantastic mug. His voice is high pitched and condescending. He has this quality where even when he's losing it feels like he's winning. He is eminently hate-able.

Like most films in The Witchfinder Cycle, Mark of the Devil either wrestles or pretends to wrestle with its themes. Is this a comment on the horrible atrocities committed by religious furor or is this a straight up exploitation film? Is showing extreme amounts of violence a way to make the public understand how horrible violence is, or is it tossing Scooby Snacks to the bloodthirsty? A reflection or a guide?

The film is the symbol of what a good witchfinder film should be. It is horrible.

Witchhammer (1970)

Power corrupts.
In a Czech town an old woman squirrels away a holy communion wafer. She is seen and reported. She says it is for her friend's cow whose udders have gone dry. Perhaps God will help the cow. The town's leaders think they have a witch infestation on their hands. They recruit a witchfinder, Boblig to get to the bottom of their problem.

Boblig tortures the old woman and her friends into admitting guilt. The old ladies are forced to memorize specific blasphemous stories. A tribunal is formed and the women executed. Soon, other men and women are added to the list of accused witches. The tribunal members are disenpowered. Boblig steam rolls over the town's leaders. Soon they are all accused. Finally, the deacon of the town is accused and tortured. There is no one left.

The film is shot in black and white. The sets, costumes, and actors are all top notch. The old women are fantastic and look like they have stepped out of and old Flemish painting.

The film starts with a bathhouse full of naked ladies and has a very light tone. It almost feels like a dry comedy in the beginning. Everyone really knows that these old ladies are innocent, but no one has the spine to stand up. The theme is an old one, but very effective here. As people are accused, no one will stand against Boblig and his perceived power. The Witchfinder has no clothes, but no one will speak up.

What starts out as a light film ends up being one of the more dispiriting entries into The Witchfinder Cycle. 

The Bloody Judge (1970)

 Jess Franco directed this slow, political, period piece. Witchfinding takes a backseat to political dissent and revolution here.

Christopher Lee is the bloody judge of the title. A man intent on squashing political dissent in a time of revolution; he also has a witch or two executed. However, he never watches the dirty work. He presides and retires to his room for diary writing and plotting.

The film is pretty grand for Jess Franco. I have heard that Franco shot the battle scenes for Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight (which I have not seen) so he did have some experience directing large scale scenes.  Christopher Lee worked with Franco three times and put in a good effort here. His acting is fine, but the part of the bloody judge doesn't ask for much range. It is funny to hear Lee's voice while a feminine looking hand model commits some of the more lurid and Franco-like roughie scenes. The good Mr. Lee knew when to walk away from the set.

The score is by Spaghetti Western favorite, Bruno Nicolai. It is good. Sparse and downtrodden, but good.

The sex and violence is pretty tame for a Jess Franco film. Perhaps Christopher Lee and the seemingly higher budget quelled Franco's instincts with classiness.

The film is slow. There is not much witchhunting. The brute henchman, Satchel, will make you angry in a good way. A lot of politics. I didn't like it when I was watching it, but I'm softening to it.

Cry of the Banshee (1970)

 Vincent Price and Hilary Dwyer from Witchfinder General return. Directed by Gordon Hessler. The opening credits were created by Terry Gilliam, in the Monty Python style. Cry of the Banshee looks like a well made film. The cinematography is excellent. The camera moves. However, it is mired in a muddy story.

A witchfinder attempts to destroy a coven of witches. Their priestess, Oona, declares revenge and conjures a "banshee" to exact her revenge. The Banshee weasels his way into the witchfinder's home and attempts to crumble it from within.

Price's character is a short tempered, cruel man, but he is sold as some sort of protagonist. The film is just a mess.The banshee is not a banshee. No one acts as you would expect them to act in such circumstances. It's just a poorly constructed movie.

The Devils (1971)

The film is decadent, inspirational, and entirely too annoying for me. The Devils is directed by Ken Russell and is clearly an influence for filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and David Lynch. A section, or two, was directly swiped by William Friedkin for The Exorcist. The sets and costumes are bigger than life and entirely original. However, there is a certain, usually British, style of acting and directing where everyone is frantic and either screams their lines or whispers them; truly headache inducing.

I did not enjoy the film while watching it, but have been thinking a lot about it. That's a good thing.

The script is based off of the true story of Father Urbain Grandier. Grandier (played by Oliver Reed) was a popular Catholic priest that wanted the French crown to honor the sovereignty it had bestowed upon his home town. The town has a high, armored wall around it. The last town to have such walls. The Vatican, however, wanted all of the walls torn down out of fear of the spread of protestantism. Grandier is framed and tried as a witch.

The framing is the key of the film. A delusional Mother Superior (played by Vanessa Redgrave) is delusion-ally in love with Father Grandier. She finds out that he has secretly married and it sends her towards the edge. She writes to him, asking him to lead her convent. A different priest is sent instead. This sends her over the edge. She rants and raves and says that Grandier visits her at night and they fornicate. She says that Grandier has possessed her.

A hippie looking witchhunter is brought in. The Mother Superior is tortured. The rest of the nuns are convinced that they are all possessed and go crazy. Ripping off their clothes and rubbing up against everything and dancing and just going nuts.

In a fantastic scene. The King visits the convent. He has a solution. A small box. Within the box is a vial of the blood of Christ. As the box is passed around the room, the nuns, including the Mother Superior are all cured of the possession. They settled down. When the box is handed back to the King. He opens the box to reveal it is empty. The nuns go apeshit crazy again. He leaves knowing it is all a farce.

Nonetheless, Grandier stands in the way of the Vatican. He is tried, shaved, and burned at the stake. The Mother Superior masturbates with his burned leg bone. The witchfinder leaves. Grandier's wife leaves the town in a most dramatic fashion.

This is the highest budget and most "mainstream" film on the list. The Devils received an X rating in the U.S. and in the U.K. There are a ton of different edits out there, each one with different footage. I will watch this film again.

It must be mentioned that in 1961 a Polish film entitled Mother Joan of the Angels picked up the story where The Devils ends. It is a fictional but really well made film. Grandier has been killed and the nuns are still mad. A priest is sent in and loses his soul as he attempts to purge the evil from the convent. The film reminds me of Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal mixed with a tiny dash of William Friedkin's The Exorcist. It is quiet and subdued, a far cry from the wailing and melodrama of The Devils. Worth finding.

Twins of Evil (1972)

One of my favorite Hammer Films. Part of the Karnstein trilogy and one of the films that tangled Satanism with vampirism for a most unholy alliance.

Two twins go to live with their extremely pious uncle and his wife. One of the girls is lured into darkness by the local vampire.

Simple plot. The beauty of this film comes in the nuances. The twins are played by Mary and Madeleine Collinson (yes, they were in Playboy) and they are incredibly beautiful. The uncle is played by Peter Cushing and he is incredibly sallow and gaunt. His wife had died just before filming this picture and I think Cushing used those emotions to just ramp up his role; Gustav Weil, is the head of a witchfinder/vampire hunter group called The Brotherhood. They are vicious and unfair and cruel. It is easy to be turned off by religion living with Weil for an uncle. The girls begin looking for trouble. One with a boyfriend, one with a vampire.

Count Karnstein, is cool, affable, and as a local count, untouchable by the law. Weil knows Karnstein is a blood sucking freak but he cannot act, even as his own niece is succumbing to vampirism.

The film takes some very brutal turns near the end. Like most Hammer films of the time, the cinematography is good. Lush and colorful. Other than Peter Cushing, the acting is a bit hammy.

The film does not center on witchfinding per se. There is no torture of suspected witches. Not a lot of nudity (one of the twins takes off her top.) It fits the tenets of The Witchfinder Cycle but not entirely the spirit. Twins of Evil is often maligned by Hammer fans, but I think it is a fine film.

The Monk (1972)

 The film was co-written by film legend, Luis Bunuel, from a story by Matthew Lewis. The film was remade in 2011.

Franco Nero stars in this surrealistic, drama. The film smells like filmmaker Michael Haneke or another filmmaker who deals in stories one step away from reality. The Monk feels real. It could almost be a straight drama, but it's just that one step that bends the universe.

Franco Nero plays Ambrosio, a popular and inspirational monk in France. He is tempted by another monk, who, for some reason, no one other than Ambrosio can see is an extremely beautiful woman. Their sinful relationship completely unhinges Ambrosio. Step-by-step, he finds himself molesting children and murdering women. Meanwhile, the seductress woman dines with a local lord who shelters orphaned girls, kills them, and eats them.

Reality becomes foggy to Ambrosio and when the witchfinders come looking, he has no alternative but to sign a pact with the devil. With the signature, everyone essentially winks at each other. Ambrosio's fate is sealed. Ambrosio does not age and in the early 1970's he becomes the pope. WTF!

It's an extremely dark (VHS crap print) but fun film. Franco Nero is a bit over the top, but the guy goes through an extremely LONG fall in morality. It's a pretty artsy film. The first thirty minutes could have the dialog removed.

The film just barely claws its way into The Witchfinder Cycle. The witchfinder doesn't show up until an hour and sixteen minutes into the film, "Open the gate! It is the holy inquisition!" And he ends up being part of the Satanic plot.

If you like dark, artsy films. This is mindbendingly interesting. If you want naked ladies to get whipped, stay away.

Mark of the Devil II (1973)

This is not really a sequel. It is simply more of the same witchfinder-tainment for us sickos. The original title is Hexen geschändet und zu Tode gequält which translates to "Witches Violated And Tortured To Death." The film is about as original and creative as the title. I do love the poster, however. There is nothing likeable at all about it. It looks like the designer chose the worst possible pictures of the actors and spent ten minutes throwing it together. It pathetically reaches out to fans of The Exorcist, brags that it is in color (it's 1973 for crying out loud), and brags that it is "A Hallmark Production." Is this the same company that makes greeting cards?

Reggie Nalder is back as essentially the same character as the first Mark of the Devil. This time he is named Natas. With him, is the same scribe as the first film. The rest of the cast is ugly inside and out. No one is charismatic and you will care about no one. A bald nun is whipped and raped by her mother superior. The witchfinding tortures are over the top. Dipped in and out of ice. A woman is lowered onto a phallic wooden spike. Hot coals in one gent's shoes. Whipping, needle insertions, and beheadings. The film ranks up there as one of the sleaziest of The Witchfinder Cycle.

A woman's husband sees Natas at his dirty work. He kills one of the witchfinder's cronies and is assassinated by Natas as he is leaving. The woman complains. She and her young son are accused of witchcraft. Let the dirty work begin.

It is interesting to watch the little boy laugh and tease about the devil and witchcraft. Everyone else takes it so seriously and tries to shut him up. He just thinks it is funny and it gets him more attention so he continues. The ending of the film is actually upbeat.

The production almost seems like television quality. A lot of medium shots, flat lighting, and a slower pace. I'm not sure if there is a decent copy of this film available. Mine is from a crappy VHS copy. 

The Demons (1973)

Jess Franco's little softcore porn flick surprised the heck out of me. The story was solid and kept moving at a good pace.There is a ton of nudity and simulated sex in this film and the torture scenes are not extreme. Despite having no budget, Franco managed to find some huge and epic looking sets.

 A witch is burned at the stake. This is a three-mole, hissing, traditional witch.
Two sisters, Margaret and Kathleen live in a nunnery. They do not have a past. Kathleen is accused of being a witch by Lady de Winter, a witchfinder. The turn of having a female witchfinder is historically inaccurate to the extreme, but nonetheless interesting.
Before Kathleen is burned at the stake Lady de Winter's father, Lord Malcom de Winter frees her. De Winter is played by one of my favorite faces, Howard Vernon (see below.) Vernon also played the cowled torturer in The Bloody Judge.
Kathleen is on the run.
Margaret receives a message from the girls' mother, who ends up being the first witch burned at the stake. Margaret is then visited by a foppish looking Satan, who rapes her.

The plot moves fast and is actually quite interesting. Margaret becomes a powerful witch. Her kiss can turn a person into a skeleton. Kathleen, who was never really a witch, finds out and turns her sister over to the witchfinders. "She's a witch! A real witch!"
Lord Jeffries, the same character from The Bloody Judge, but sadly not played by Christopher Lee, skulks around issuing orders. In the end, Margaret is about to be burned at the stake. She asks Lord Jeffries for forgiveness and for one last kiss. She turns his ass into a skeleton and laughs as she burns.
Kathleen wanders through the forest and finds the blind old witch.

There is a super weak political undercurrent. Some whispers about an invasion.

If you're into softcore porn, this may be the witchfinder film for you. These sisters really get around. They even writhe around sexually when they sleep.

My wife and I were actually very surprised at how well the story held our attention. Franco's directing is clunky as always. Pay attention to his directing choices. Kathleen gets maybe one close up shot the entire film. You see her vagina more than you see her face. However, she is the "good" sister. Margaret gets close ups galore and she is the wicked sister. The morality gets really confusing in this film. Also, watch the physical actions of the actors. There are parts that are just maddeningly unrealistic.

Inquisition (1976)

I always try to hate Paul Naschy. Usually, I am successful. This time I was not. Inquisition is FULL-Naschy; he wrote, directed, and stars in this witchfinder film. I've watched the film twice and it has become my favorite of all The Witchfinder Cycle films.

A woman, Catherine, is haunted by the death of her husband. She begins dabbling in the dark arts as a trio of witchfinders comes into town, led by Grand Inquisitor Bernard de Fossey (Naschy.) de Fossey falls in love with Catherine. She falls deeper and deeper into her deal with Satan. Soon the murderer is revealed as de Fossey (Come on, it's not really a surprise.) Catherine seduces de Fossey to the dark side and in the end they are both burned.

One aspect that I really like about the film is that it is supernatural. There is a devil and he has powers. The end of the film offers a wonderful way out of this in a casual conversation between two townsfolk. But, we the audience, do see the devil.

The tortures are grisly and cringe-worthy. However, Naschy goes for quality over quantity and the film is not full of them. After watching and re-watching all of these films together, the sound of lady screaming just grates on me. The makeup effects are pretty well done. The Devil's makeup is sort of funny, not at all creepy, but mostly cool. The filmmaking is fine. The quality of the print I saw was excellent.

This is Naschy's first directorial effort and he does pretty well. The tone of the film goes up and down a bit between exploitative, titty, torture, and cruelty versus somber, dark arts, and drama. But really, that's me trying to find something to be critical of. If you like these movies, you'll like Inquisition.

If you want more information on The Witchfinder Cycle, you'll have to dig it up yourself. I have found no resources which talk about these films with any depth. If there is an old book or article out there please let me know.

P.S. I'm publishing this post on 6/6 at 6:00am just to enhance the EVIL.

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