In early modern Europe, it is estimated by historians that between 50,000 and 200,000 people (mostly women) were tortured, burnt or hanged for witchcraft. So no surprise that the majority of horror films set in the early modern period explore the spectre of witchcraft or the violent persecution of supposed witches. Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968) drew the template for what has been termed by some, the ‘persecution horror’ film. Vincent Price (in arguably his best role) plays the deliciously sadistic Matthew Hopkins, roaming the English countryside while burning and pillaging to the delight of the noose-happy mob that feed him bogus intelligence. He is paid well for his incendiary services, and uses his position of power to force women into bed with him, lest they be burnt at the stake.
Owing to the commercial success of Witchfinder General the narrative and thematic focus was rehashed at least three times in 1970, with Spanish counterpart The Bloody Judge (Jess Franco) and the German Mark of the Devil (Michael Armstrong, Adrian Hoven) aping Reeves’ tale of an opportunistic sadist, but with enough added flesh and torture to satisfy exploitation markets. Narratively, these films focused on the horror of persecution itself rather than that of Satanic worship, although the American attempt Cry of the Banshee (Gordon Hessler) went someway to muddying the water between supernatural and real world horror, introducing a coven of cavorting witches into the mix.
Inquisition (Paul Naschy, 1976), just released on US multi-region Blu-ray from Mondo Macabro, is a very different beast. Combining the brutal exploitation of the earlier persecution horror pictures with the Satanic horror focus of Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out (Terence Fisher, 1968), Inquisition, takes a more thoughtful and ambiguous approach to the dual horror of man and the devil.
Paul Naschy, in his directorial debut, plays Bernard de Fossey, a French magistrate with a penchant for eradicating witchcraft. Unlike the witch-hunters of films past, de Fossey is a pious man, cruelly driven by his faith. He studies texts on witchcraft and witch-hunting like the Malleus Maleficarum (1487) but relies too readily on an unreliable informant, who choses to settle his own personal differences by means of accusation. While on a witch-hunting mission in the French town of Pyriac, de Fossey falls in love with local beauty Catherine, played by Daniela Giordano, who Italian genre fans may recognise from her appearances in Violent Rome (Umberto Lenzi, 1975) and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Sergio Martino, 1972). De Fossey begins torturing and burning his way through Catherine’s gorgeous young friends with his cruel and unusual instruments of pain; meanwhile Catherine’s lover Jean comes to his own mysterious end. Grief stricken by the loss of Jean and driven hateful by de Fossey’s reign of terror, Catherine turns to a local witch to get her pound of flesh.
Inquisition is a film about the horrific persecution of women but also one about the power of female sexuality to fight back, as Catherine, imbued with the spirit of Satan, uses her bodily power to wreak vengeance. The paradoxical presentation of violent sexual exploitation and liberation, through the portrayal of strong female sexuality, is a tension present in much of 1970’s Spanish horror cinema, and this paradox adds to the thematic and textural layering of Inquisition. That is not to say the film is lacking the viciousness associated with 1970s exploitation cinema—one scene featuring a nipple and a pair of pliers would likely be cut from a UK release.
The film is a visual work of art as well. Catherine’s dream sequences, once she begins her dances with the devil, are eerie and sinister, as the spectator is slowly pulled into her blackening dreamscape. The studio-shot black mass sequences (and there are a lot) are beautiful to behold and possess both the earthy spirit of Spanish horror and the expressionistic artifice of Universal horror flicks from the 1930s and 1940s. Dead trees and dry ice also echo the dark mystical beauty of Francisco de Goya, balancing enchantment with grotesquery and horror. In these scenes Naschy replicates the painter’s dual representations of the ugly and beautiful sides of the macabre.
Inquisition was made in 1976, and is a highpoint of Spanish horror cinema at a time when horror production was on the decline in Spain, increasingly supplanted by the more commercially successful sex comedies. As a transgressive and challenging work that reflects on local, human horror, its production would not have been possible under General Franco. In Inquisition, the horror is the terror of Catholicism and state authority just as much as that of the devil. Naschy even gets a stab at playing Satan in one particularly creepy sequence, further highlighting the film’s dualist philosophy.
Mondo Macabro’s blu-ray offers a handful of extras: an interview with Giordano, an interview with Naschy and the documentary Blood and Sand, which looks at Spanish horror more generally. It focuses a few minutes of its 25-minute run time on Inquisition, with Naschy speaking eloquently about the film. He says, “Women in my films are not just scream queens. They are proper characters that challenge the male characters—women with personality, with strength, with energy.”
In the way that Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) acts a gateway for cinephiles less familiar with Italian horror, Inquisition, could easily engage people with Spanish horror in the same way. For fans of horror and of cinema in general, it is a masterful piece of work that deserves to be seen.