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Torture in the Witch Movie: A Brief History

Critic David Edelstein coined the term “torture porn” during a 2005 New York Times op-ed, Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn (subtitled Why has America gone nuts for blood, guts, and sadism?), which he wrote shortly after seeing Eli Roth’s Hostel Part II (2005). Edelstein’s chosen appellation was new, but it followed a long-standing tradition of snippy social critics dismissing something offensive by tagging the word “porn” onto it (despite such a patronizing denouncement, it should be noted that Edelstein was not an ignorant moral guardian on the level of Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values [Harpercollins, 1992] author Michael Medved). Unfortunately, Edelstein wasn’t really concerned with defining the term in the body of his editorial. He couldn’t have known that it would quickly become a shorthand used by critics, liberal sophisticates, conservative moralists, righteous gatekeepers, and, soon enough, regular, everyday people to describe any and every violent movie that made them uncomfortable.


Outrage and bad classifications obscured the fact that post-millennial filmmakers weren’t dabbling in a new brand of depravity. There was a long, storied history of graphic mutilation in staged entertainment – the roots of which extend all the way back to a time before the motion picture camera was invented, from bloodsport in ancient Roman coliseums to public executions and humiliations in medieval squares. Grand guignol and the gothic traditions instituted by popular literature and film – including Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934), Norman Lee’s Chamber of Horrors (1940), and Antonio Boccaci’s Tomb of Torture (1963) – helped pave the way for increasingly graphic torture horror and entire sub-industries of ‘Roughies’ and S&M-themed shorts (both genres that used sexual violence to titillate their audiences at a time when explicit nudity was still banned in most countries). These were, in turn, succeeded by more graphic iterations. Torture even entered the mainstream: James Bond was tortured, Biblical epics revolved around torture, and torture was a central set-piece in John Schlesinger’s award-winning, major studio thriller, Marathon Man (1976). Nobody used the term “torture porn” in print, because so many other genre significations were already built around this kind of exploitation filmmaking.


Around the same time director Teruo Ishii and Toei Studio introduced Japan to the “historically based” ero guro (erotic-grotesque) tradition in the form of Shoguns Joy of Torture (Japanese: Tokugawa onna keibatsu-shi, 1968), European-born witch hunter movies began exploiting the horrors of the Salem Witch Trials and the Spanish Inquisition in kind. Unlike those films and other torture-heavy subgenres, which wore their misogyny on their sleeves, witch hunter movies tended to balance their blatant exploitation with serious acknowledgements of the era’s atrocities against women and persecuted populations. Assuming anyone reading doesn’t already know, during actual witch hunts, suspected witches were supposedly tortured for information, confessions, and repentance, but, beneath that rationale, the awful truth was that most of these people were really being punished for defying the status quo. By the time movies got around to telling witch hunt stories, the bogus ‘science’ behind the inquisitions was such common knowledge that inquisitors were invariably characterized as villains and their tactics so duplicitous that they became a punchline. This almost universal affirmation of innocence across even the most grotesque films in the canon is a unique feature to witch torture movies.


Witchfinder General (aka: The Conqueror Worm, 1968)

The first images of torturous interrogation and violent death in witch movies date back to the silent era and the release of Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (Danish: Heksen; aka: Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1922) and were powerfully conveyed in Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (Danish: Vredens dag, 1943). However, neither of these films, nor the other early, dramatic, largely anti-fantasy portrayals of historical witch hunts were directly responsible for the brief grindhouse fad of witch torture movies. At that forefront was Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General – a highly acclaimed, elevated B-movie that helped usher in the politically conscious modern era of horror alongside George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (also released in 1968).


Witchfinder General (aka: The Conqueror Worm, 1968)

Retitled The Conqueror Worm in a misguided effort to link it to the Corman Poe movies here in America, it was initially built on the broadening appeal of star Vincent Price. Price had graduated from dramatic guest roles in the likes of Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ Dragonwyck (1946) to a career as a pop culture horror movie icon. His most popular roles throughout the late ‘50s and into the ‘70s were either in campy dark comedies, like William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill (1959) or colourful costume dramas, like Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Despite the advertising’s insistence that Reeves’ film was more of the same, Witchfinder General was unlike any these more patently Price-friendly movies. It was shot largely outside, in the elements, in a rough, naturalistic manner. There are no real supernatural elements at play. Price is moderate, menacing, and cruel, minus the tongue-in-cheek posturing that typified the vast majority of his performances at the time – due in part to on-set antagonism with Reeves, who was in his early 20s and making his first movie. Witchfinder General was also relentlessly grim without any of the pulpy winks and nods audiences had grown used to and, moreover, it reminded them a little too much of the horrors of the existing world.


Reeves’ screenplay explores the nature of political corruption and moralistic hypocrisy and concerns the exploits of Matthew Hopkins, a real-world English witch hunter during the mid-17th century. In real life, Hopkins and his colleague John Stearne oversaw the execution of somewhere between 200 to possibly 300 accused witches between 1644 and 1646, accounting for almost 60 percent of all of the people executed during English witch trials between the 15th and 18th centuries. He outlined his methods in a book entitled The Discovery of Witches, published after his retirement in 1647, and the techniques described within were employed for many decades, including during the Salem Witch Trials. The film is set during the English Civil War, at a time when Hopkins, played by Price, had been granted nearly unprecedented powers as a witchfinder. He and Stearne (Robert Russell) run ramshod over the countryside, accusing, torturing, and executing “witches,” then collecting extravagant fees from local magistrates. When they accuse a local priest, his niece, Sara (Hilary Dwyer), pleads on his behalf, appealing to Hopkins’ pride and libido. Sara wins her uncle a brief reprieve, but, soon after, Stearne rapes her and Hopkins loses interest. The priest is executed alongside other accused witches. Soon after, Sara’s betrothed, Richard (Ian Ogilvy), returns from war and vows revenge against the witch hunters.


Witchfinder General (aka: The Conqueror Worm, 1968)

Witchfinder General wasn’t banned for its graphic content in its native Britain (rumour has it that the censor in charge was distantly related to Reeves and may have helped in this regard), but it was trimmed by about two minutes for violent content. It was also met with controversy and savaged by critics who were too disgusted by the sadism on display to notice its quality. Stateside, American International Pictures, the studio behind the Corman Poe movies, released a (mostly) uncut version onto their typical drive-in-centered market, where it was virtually ignored by the cultural elite. A handful of critics championed it from the beginning, but it took many years of scant home video availability and Price’s own (belated) recommendation for it to be reexamined as an “important genre work.” Sadly, Reeves’ drug overdose death a year after the film’s final release also helped it to cultivate notoriety. Despite the film’s notorious reputation, Reeves leaves much of the sex and violence to our imaginations, opting to focus instead on the bleakness of the situation and sadistic qualities of its characters. By not dwelling on the nastiness of the torture (something that probably wouldn’t have been allowed in 1968, anyway), he de-emphasizes the scandalous content, making it a bit easier for unsusceptible audiences to recognize the film’s themes and contextualize the anguish of its downer ending.


Witchfinder General is available on DVD and Blu-ray, including Scream Factory’s first Vincent Price collection, but keeps going out of print. The UK Blu-ray from Odeon Entertainment and Aussie Blu-ray from Shock are in print, but region B locked.


Mark of the Devil (1970) and Mark of the Devil Part II (1973)

Witchfinder General was not a particularly big hit, but still managed to inspire a rush of witch hunter movies. Among its more prestigious brethren were Gordon Hessler’s Cry of the Banshee (1970), another film erroneously credited to Poe by the advertising materials and AIP’s best attempt at recreating Witchfinder General, Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), Ken Russell's The Devils (1971), and, arguably, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). Not surprisingly, it spawned plenty of disreputable, mean-spirited cash-ins, as well. These included entries from the usual suspects, namely Jesús “Jess” Franco, who replaced Price with Christopher Lee and threw together a rather shameless copy called The Bloody Judge (Italian: Il trono di fuoco; aka: Throne/Night of the Blood Monster, Witch Killer of Broadmoor, Trial of the Witches, 1970), Bernardo Arias’ The Inquisitor (Spanish: El inquisidor, 1975), and Paul Naschy, who wrote and directed himself in Inquisition (Spanish: Inquisición, 1976). Less predictable was the fact that a German production company would outsell and overshadow its Italian and Spanish counterparts in the witch torture lottery.


Mark of the Devil (1970)

About two years after Witchfinder General’s release, British writer/director Michael Armstrong completed his screenplay for Mark of the Devil. He found production support from Filmvertrieb KG in Germany and Austrian actor/producer Adrian Hoven. Hoven partially rewrote the script and hired himself as uncredited co-director. According to on-set accounts, the two filmmakers clashed over every aspect of the production, leaving little room for the subtleties and strength of theme that made Reeves’ film so powerful, especially after Hoven reportedly reshot and recut parts of the film without Armstrong’s knowledge or approval and left a couple of subplots hanging. Bereft of all this, as well as a star of Price’s caliber, Armstrong and Hoven were forced to rely on the brutal depictions interrogation practices. The script was so heavily indebted to Witchfinder General that it could easily be mistaken for a sequel. It’s the 18th century and an all-star witch hunter named Lord Cumberland (Price contemporary Herbert Lom) arrives in a small, rural Austrian town with his apprentice, Count Christian von Meruh (developing cult star Udo Kier), in tow. When Von Meruh witnesses the corruption of the local witchfinder (Reggie Nalder) first-hand, his faith in the righteousness of his profession is shaken. Then, he develops affection for a beautiful young victim (Olivera Katarina), leaving him vulnerable to the Inquisition’s torture.


Armstrong’s film has a history of being dismissed by social and movie critics as a grotesque, trashcan imitation of a better film, but the appalling purity of its violence is certainly remarkable. Upon its debut, it became the new standard for graphic torture violence, from racking, to branding, flogging, foot-whipping, thumb-screwing, iron-chairing, and, in a show-stopping sequence that was splattered across all of the posters, tongue removal. While the graphic content is generally played for shock amusement, similar to an early Herschell Gordon Lewis movie, there is at least one genuinely chilling sequence where a woman is so emotionally broken by torture that she remains silent as she slowly burns to death. Like Lewis’ films, Blood Feast (1963) and 2000 Maniacs (1964) in particular, it represents a brief point in time between shifts in the acceptability of mainstream cinematic violence. This was no more apparent than when American distribution company, Hallmark Releasing (not to be confused with the greeting card company-owned, family-friendly cable TV channel), welcomed controversy by handing out barf bags to patrons at the door (it was reportedly the first movie to do so) and self-imposing a non-MPAA-approved rating of V – for Violence.


As the witch hunter subgenre bled further into the seedy corners of the grindhouse, filmmakers didn’t choose to focus solely on amplifying the graphic violence, they also glommed onto the idea of the villainous witch hunters/torturers being deeply emotionally/sexually repressed. Technically, Witchfinder General’s witch hunters didn’t hold themselves to the same chaste standards as the people they were persecuting, so this particular cliché was better characterized by Mark of the Devil’s villain/damsel/rescuer pseudo-love-triangle, which was the closest to a unique contribution that it made to the subgenre, even if witch fiction has included romantic tragedies since its beginning (in film, it goes back at least as far back as Frank Lloyd’s 1937 melodrama, Maid of Salem).


Mark of the Devil (1970)

Mark of the Devil did better than Witchfinder General at the world box office and is possibly more responsible for the overall popularity of witch torture movies throughout the early ‘70s. It was followed closely by one official sequel, Mark of the Devil Part II (1973), which was distributed by a German company and directed by Adrian Hoven – the same producer/uncredited co-director who had recut/reshot much of the original film. Mark of the Devil was an uninspired rehash of Witchfinder General, but its lack of creativity paled in comparison to Hoven’s sequel and its disinterest in anything but violence. Even the German language title, Hexen geschändet und zu Tode gequält, literally Witches Are Violated and Tortured to Death, awkwardly attempted to one-up the first film’s German title, Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält, literally Witches Tortured till They Bleed.


Mark of the Devil Part II is a strange sequel in that it is at once a remake and thematic follow-up to the first film, yet completely unrelated in terms of continuity. In fact, it is as much inspired by The Devils as it is Witchfinder General and Mark of the Devil, which tilts it beyond the witch hunter subgenre and into nunsploitation territory. Austrian character actor Reggie Nalder also appears in both movies, but as different characters. The plot kicks off as a noble family happens upon an inquisitor (Anton Diffring) and his assistant (Nalder) ‘testing’ a witch by dunking her into a frozen lake. The father/husband tries to stop the spectacle and is killed, along with the woman. The mother/wife, Elisabeth (Erika Blanc), and her son, Alexander (Percy Hoven), survive, but are watched closely as the witchfinders go about their business. One day, following a minor accident, the boy, a friendly herbalist (Rosy Rosy), and the boy’s playmate nun, Clementine (Astrid Kilian) are taken into custody. Elisabeth uses her clout to mount an impressive legal defense, but her son’s chances are dashed when, a fearful Clementine, pregnant from rape, swears that she’ll admit to anything if the inquisitors will allow her child to be born.


The violence is more pronounced, but less convincing, probably due to increased budgetary constraints. Besides the opening icewater test, we witness a woman being raked over bladed rollers, then being lowered crotch first onto a spike, the herbalist has her head twisted all the way around, a priest has his foot seared in a hot iron boot, and Elisabeth is racked and has her fingers crushed, while her son (who, again, is played by the writer/director’s son) is prodded with a needle. The priest is beheaded and Clementine is set aflame (a messenger arrives to announce a stay of execution, but is beaten up by the rabid townsfolk in an amusing moment of unintentional levity). There’s also a lot more rape and it’s much more explicit. An early sequence in which the mother superior (Ellen Umlauf) flagellates a topless Clementine, then hands the cat ‘o nine tails over and demands absolution implies a cheeky naughtiness that is quickly forgotten in favor of more joyless abuse. All around, the wearisome misery is almost impressive. Or it would be, had Hoven’s grasp of storytelling, cinematography, and (especially) editing weren’t so slapdash. Given that the original Mark of the Devil is at least competently made, one might assume that Armstrong was the more talented of the two filmmakers.

Mark of the Devil is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow Video. It is also available on DVD from Blue Underground and is currently streaming on Shudder. Mark of the Devil Part II has never been released officially on digital home media, but can be seen on YouTube.


Witchhammer (1970)

Outside the relative mainstream of American drive-ins and British grindhouses lay a much smaller Czech filmmaking industry. Released at the tail-end the Czechoslovakian New Wave – a period running roughly from 1960 to 1972 that includes the early works from future Hollywood icon Miloš Forman – Otakar Vávra’s Witchhammer offers a more nuanced take on witch torture. The film’s native language title, Kladivo na čarodějnice, roughly translates to Hammer for Witches and is a reference to the Malleus Maleficarum or Hammer of Witches, a treatise on witchcraft by Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer. The film itself is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Václav Kaplický, originally published in 1963, which is, in turn, based on an historical event known as the Northern Moravia witch trials. This series of trials occurred in the 1670s, amid a several decades-long period of unrest between rebelling Protestant Bohemians and Catholic counter-reformationists. The trials began when a Jesuit priest named Arnold Engel called attention to apparent witchery in the region after witnessing the so-called Bohemian revolt. Despite some resistance by local Countess Angelia Anna Sibyla of Galle, inquisition judge and this tale’s real-life lead villain, Jindřich František Boblig, eventually oversaw the torture, humiliation, burning, and (sometimes) decapitations of more than one hundred people.


Witchhammer (1970)

The events of the movie version are set in motion after an alter boy sees an elderly beggar hoarding communion bread. Confronted and taken to the local priest, Kryštof Lautner (Elo Romančík) and land-owning aristocrats, including Countess de Galle (Blanka Waleská), she claims that she was saving it for a cow, hoping that the Eucharist wafer’s holy properties would renew its milkflow. Troubled by such sinful behavior, the rich community leaders discuss the need for an investigation, opting to call upon Jindřich František Boblig (Vladimír Šmeral), despite the man’s apparent retirement, due to his reputation as a tyrant. Boblig and his team immediately establishes apparent proof of an extensive network of witchcraft, initially through psychological tactics, but, eventually, with the help of brutal torture techniques – thumb screws, sleep deprivation, leg bindings, and the rack. With the fabricated testimonies collected, the inquisitors begin the spectacle of burning the accused at the stake before the complacent Countess and her aristocratic friends. Shocked by the wanton violence, Lautner and his fellow priests grow conflicted, but their objections arrive too late, as the scope of the witch hunt has already expanded to include people holding political/social influence, thus cementing Boblig’s power over the community.


Witchhammer was extremely controversial, though not for its violent or sexual content. At the time, Czechoslovakia was still reeling from the Warsaw Pact Invasion from the Soviet Union and four allied countries in 1968. More specifically, it was released at the center of Normalization period (normalizace), when the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) rose to power. Shortly after the January 1970 premiere, censorship officials realized that Vávra and co-writer Ester Krumbachová’s film wasn’t really about 17th century witch hunts, but the oppressive nature of the post-invasion government. It was quickly pulled from theaters and banned. Essentially, Witchhammer represents the mirror image of a typical American witch hunt stories and their allegorical allusions to McCarthyism, swapping Hollywood Blacklists for domineering, Soviet-backed political regimes. According to Jill Nelmes & Jule Selbo’s Women Screenwriters: An International Guide (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), one key change Vávra and Krumbachová made to Kaplický’s book was to magnify the subject of sexual repression with the intention of connecting it to the greater metaphor of political oppression, something that grew into an ongoing theme throughout Krumbachová’s work as a writer. In Witchhammer’s case, this isn’t even subtext, but plain text, as seen in the opening sequence, where an unnamed monk fervently describing the sin of womanhood, set against loving close-ups of nude women bathing, grooming, and enjoying each other’s company. This, of course, jibes with the central concepts of Arthur Miller’s McCarthy-inspired play, The Crucible (1953) – a play/story/eventual movie that Witchhammer has often been compared.


Witchhammer (1970)

Vávra and cinematographer Josef Illík utilize a style of somber, stark black & white photography that was common for the Czech New Wave and seen in similar genre-bending, surrealist screeds, like Jaromil Jireš' Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Czech: Valerie a týden divů, 1970; also written by Krumbachová) and Juraj Herz’ The Cremator (Czech: Spalovač mrtvol, 1969). In this case, the high contrast of the monochromatic footage reflects the highly contrasted lives of the poor & the wealthy, as well as the repressed & the liberated. Vávra depicts religion as rigid, but the film is less concerned with the hypocrisy of belief (exemplified in the fact that the would-be heroes are holy men) than in the division of the classes and genders. The delights of wealth & privilege initially appear merely ridiculous compared to the trials of the downtrodden, but become truly grotesque as Boblig and his cronies settle to partake in their ill-gotten gains (this is likely the most direct references to normalizace). In the end, they find themselves alone in their opulent filth, having executed all of their dining companions along with the wait staff. The concept of dangerous ignorance is also prevalent, as the villains are depicted as small-minded traditionalists (Boblig proudly states that the Malleus Maleficarum is the only book he owns and reads) and the public as illiterate sheep, while Lautner’s righteousness is tied as much to his access to literature and artistry (specifically his ability to play violin) as his piousness – facts that, along with his (probably platonic) affection for his live-in cook (Soňa Valentová), doom him.


Witchhammer is available on non-anamorphic DVD (misframed at 1.79:1) from Facets Video in the US. A better bet would be to import Second Run’s remastered, region-free Blu-ray from the UK, complete with video essay from Kat Ellinger.


Betsy and I covered one more witch torture movie, Stuart Gordon’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1991), during episode two of the Genre Grinder Podcast. Learn all about it here.


Further reading:

  • Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s, by Kim Newman (Bloomsbury USA, 1989, 2011)

  • A Rough Guide to Horror Movies, by Alan Jones (Rough Guides, 2005)

  • Dark Dreams 2.0: A Psychological History of the Modern Horror Film from the 1950s to the 21st Century, by Charles Derry (McFarland & Company, 2009)

  • Witches’ Hammer, by Andrew Leavold; Aug. 2008, Senses of Cinema (http://sensesofcinema.com/2008/cteq/witches-hammer/)

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