Thursday, 5 October 2017

October Horrors #3:
(Jacinto Molina, 1977)

 Believe it or not, I’ve never really been a big fan of the whole witch hunter/tortures of the Inquisition sub-genre, in spite of the fact that I seem to have spent half my life watching examples of it. As such, I have held off investigating Paul Naschy’s inevitable entry in the “religious hypocrisy is explored, meanwhile naked ladies get bits cut off them” sweepstakes for quite some time, feeling that it would most likely prove a somewhat unedifying experience.

Now, don’t get me wrong here - of course I’m a big fan of Naschy and I love many of the wild n’ wooly horror movies he starred in unreservedly. But, I found myself thinking, is there really anything worthwhile he could contribute to the kind of heavy, historical subject matter necessitated by a project like this, beyond just another dose of imitative, ‘Mark of the Devil’-style sadism..?

Well, let’s just say that I hang my head in shame for underestimating El Hombre Lobo, because it turns out Naschy actually had a great deal to bring to the table here, and, assuming one can overlook the fact that it is at least partially cobbled together from reheated bits of ‘Witchfinder General’ and ‘The Devils’, ‘Inquisition’ is a far better, and far more sincere, film than many might have anticipated.

In fact, when Naschy - using his birth name Jacinto Molina - took the plunge and began directing his own films in the late 1970s, he departed significantly from the kind of goofy monster rallies we might reasonably have expected of him. Instead, Naschy/Molina met the collapsing market for independent horror films in the second half of the decade head-on with a series of unexpectedly challenging projects, including the ’10 Rillington Place’-esque serial killer film ‘The Frenchman’s Garden’ (1978) and the bizarre medieval morality tale ‘El Caminante’(1979). First in line in this apparent attempt to reinvent himself as a more serious filmmaker though was perhaps the jewel in the crown of this strange, transitional period in his career – ‘Inquisition’.

Although he was stepping behind the camera for the first time, Molina’s direction here is extremely confident, arguably achieving more professional results than any of the men who had helmed his projects up to this point. Apparently inspired by such works as Polanski’s ‘Macbeth’ and (inevitably) Michael Reeves’ aforementioned ‘Witchfinder General’, Molina establishes a tone that is sombre, stately and doom-laden right from the outset, utilising well-choreographed crowd scenes and carefully composed long shots to establish a genuine feel for the lingering mediaeval barbarism of the rural 17th century setting.

The director is aided in this by some exceptional production design; Molina was apparently a stickler for historical detail, and his collaborators do him proud here with an impressive range of costumes and set dressings that, along with the oppressively dense, earthy tones of Miguel F. Milá’s cinematography, combine to create a brooding atmosphere of febrile menace and mud-splattered feudal poverty.*

Though the film is, shall we say, deliberately-paced, Molina’s tale of a trio of beleaguered witch-hunters trespassing upon the hospitality and inner secrets of an isolated French community threatened by the approach of The Black Death remains sufficiently compelling that boredom never comes knocking (which is certainly more than can be said for some of Naschy’s earlier movies) and, once the story gets underway, it heads off in some unexpectedly interesting directions.

Though character development remains minimal, and much of the acting here is as emblematic and old-fashioned as you’d expect of a pulpy historical yarn, Molina nonetheless does a good job of exploring the social and economic tensions boiling beneath the surface of the story’s myriad witch finder/church/landowner/peasant relationships, all explored in an admirably straight-faced manner that rarely boils over into melodrama.

We probably shouldn’t go too far in trying to play up ‘Inquisition’s “seriousness” however; there are of course still plentiful clichés and random bits of silliness here for euro-horror fans to enjoy. We might for instance ask how the witch hunters, whom we saw arriving in town on horseback with no luggage, nonetheless manage to outfit a local dungeon with a magnificent selection of massive wooden torture instruments within a few days of their arrival -- and indeed, the ensuing scenes of misogynistic torture are as gratuitously exploitative as you might imagine.

Early in the film, Molina proves he is not above letting his camera linger over the naked bodies of some surprisingly buxom plague victims, and, once the witch findin’ gets underway, the torments inflicted upon one young blonde victim in particular top anything in ‘Mark of the Devil’ for sheer, eye-watering excruciatingness. (Those who have seen the film won’t need reminding of the details; I’ll leave the rest of you to find out for yourselves.)

As in Jess Franco’s surprisingly-decent ‘The Bloody Judge’ (1968) though, this sort of thing is more of a gruesome sideshow than anything else – a sop to the more bloodthirsty horror fans in the audience, perhaps – and the imprisonment and torture of innocent victims thankfully never becomes the main focus of the narrative.

Speaking of Franco, ‘Inquisition’ has often been accused – most recently by Jonathan Rigby in his book ‘Euro-Gothic’ – of following the pattern established by 1972’s utterly daft The Demons in terms of taking a mixed up, “have yr cake and eat it” approach to the witch hunter sub-genre, inviting us to condemn (whilst also revelling in) the sadism and hypocrisy of the inquisitors, whilst simultaneously portraying witchcraft and black magick as a genuine supernatural threat.

Though developments in the second half of ‘Inquisition’ – wherein heroine Catherine (Daniela Giordano) falls under the sway of the local witch cult and embarks upon a campaign of vengeance against Naschy’s lead inquisitor – are certainly suggestive of such a conclusion, I nonetheless believe this is a misguided and superficial reading of the film, and one that Molina actually goes to great lengths to avoid, as attentive viewers will hopefully note.

Admittedly, Molina/Naschy is treading a delicate balance here, and some may feel that the character he plays, who is initially painted as a cruel religious fanatic, becomes a tad too sympathetic in the final act (an indulgence perhaps to the actor/director’s usual “tragic monster” persona), but, by and large, ‘Inquisition’ just about manages to hold fast to a consistent worldview throughout.

Crucially, effort is made to establish that the film’s Black Mass sequences – which are totally way-out and awesome, by the way, complete with Naschy pulling double duty as His Satanic Majesty – can be seen as hallucinations on Catherine’s part; more restrained, earth-bound festivities lent an extra kick by the sinister psychoactive brew administered to her by the cult’s intimidating head crone.

Catherine’s other ‘visions’ meanwhile, including the one in which she sees her lost lover murdered by assassins under Naschy’s command, are thus rendered equally suspect; more the result of ideas placed in the head of a desperate and suggestible woman than bona fide supernatural sign-posts. (Giordano, it should be noted, delivers an excellent performance here, powerfully conveying her character’s unravelling mental state without ever overdoing it.)

In order to further untangle the film’s intentions for the audience, ‘Inquisition’ also introduces a character – the wise, liberal minded local doctor, played by Eduardo Calvo - who essentially functions as a mouthpiece for the filmmakers, criticising the proto-fascist behaviour of the witch hunters, whilst also patiently explaining that they are a symptom of the very same atmosphere of religious fanaticism and social inequality that has  pushed women toward the far fringes of this society, leaving them with nowhere to go except into the arms of a newly re-vitalised witch cult.

Whilst the inclusion of such an obvious “mouthpiece” character sounds rather fatuous on paper, in practice the doctor’s presence as a moral barometer within a long, complex film full of compromised, unsympathetic characters is actually very welcome, and Calvo is a strong enough actor to sell the part convincingly.

The ideology he espouses meanwhile will be familiar to most students of the European witchcraft mythos as part of a compelling – if rather fanciful – line of thought that runs through such texts as Margaret Murray’s ‘The Witch Cult in Western Europe’ and Jules Michelet’s ‘La Sorcière’, and films stretching from Eiichi Yamamoto’s extraordinary ‘Belladonna of Sadness’ (1973) to Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2016), all of which seek to some extent to reframe the witchcraft phenomenon as a kind of quasi-feminist rebellion against a repressive Christian patriarchy.

(Quite how well these bold ideas can be squared with the misogynistic violence exploited elsewhere in the film is of course a matter for debate, but veteran Euro-horror viewers should be used to rolling with the punches when it comes to these kind of mixed messages.)

Viewed within this framework, ‘Inquisition’s conclusion, in which Naschy’s character - a befuddled puritan, his acts noble in his own mind but abominable to the world at large – finds himself burned to death next to the former object of his lust/love, now howling with derisive laughter as her kamikaze quest for vengeance reaches its conclusion, actually represents a uniquely twisted spin on the usual, over-familiar witch hunter narratives.

Despite the best efforts of Calvo’s doctor, we are left with the impression of a world gone mad, unsure how we should be feeling, or where our sympathies are supposed to lie – certainly a more unsettling mixture of emotions that those who think of Naschy purely as some cheap-jack werewolf guy would ever have thought him capable of evoking.

Why, it’s almost enough to make us overlook the fact that, when his character is wheeled out to meet his fate with a shaved head, white smock and square-jawed, teary-eyed countenance, Naschy is “doing” Oliver Reed in ‘The Devils’ just as shamelessly as he had previously “done” Chaney, Lugosi, Karloff et al in his earlier films. Well, you can’t keep a good horror-man down I suppose, even when the weight of history, religious philosophy and high art comes knocking.

Whilst it clearly can’t hold a candle to Reeves or Russell, ‘Inquisition’ is still an extremely impressive achievement in its own right, despite its somewhat imitative agenda. In fact I think I would rate it as the single best entry in the “second division” of witch hunter movies I have seen to date. Needless to say, if you are at all interested in any of this stuff, it is well worth your time. (Mondo Macabro's recent blu-ray release is splendid, by the way.)


* A mainstay of ‘60s spaghetti westerns who moved on to home-grown horror pictures in the ‘70s, the range of Milá’s credits as a cinematographer is such that he could probably claim a certain amount of credit for establishing the uniquely “earthy”/brown-heavy look that defined much Spanish horror – a look that perhaps reaches its apex in ‘Inquisition’.

1 comment:

Elliot James said...

I was never a fan of the Inquisition/witchhunter films, British or European. Even so, I somehow wound up with a VHS copy of Mark of the Devil.