31 Days of Hell: Fire, Brimstone, and Hypocrisy: Three Films About Witch Hunts

Films about the witch trials were quite popular for awhile, with the bulk of them being made between the '50s and the '70s. They range in tone from serious to pure exploitative farce. I have chosen three of the more infamous entries to explore, each with a different take on the material.

Witchfinder General (1968)

The most infamous witch-hunter in history was Matthew Hopkins who reportedly executed 300 "witches" between 1644-1646. He was at the height of his career during the English civil war and made a sizable amount of money traveling from town to town ousting accused citizens. Witchfinder General is a fictionalized account of Hopkins' (played by Vincent Price) reign of terror.

Most of the film takes place in Brandenston, a small village in Suffolk, England where a young woman named Sara (Hilary Dwyer) lives with her Uncle who is a priest. Her lover, Richard (Ian Ogilvy) is a Roundhead soldier who comes home on leave to visit her. Her uncle warns Richard that trouble is coming to the village and that he would like him to marry Sara and take her away. Richard promises to return to marry Sara but goes back to his regiment as his leave is up. Unfortunately, Hopkins and his ghoulish assistant ride into town while he is gone and wreck havoc on both the priest and Sara's lives.

Witchfinder General is well known for its fairly graphic violence and torture scenes which were considered intense for the time period. Hopkins' methods of extracting confessions from his victims were harrowing and included sleep deprivation, slicing them up with knives, and his dreaded swimming test. In this test the accused were bound up and thrown into water. If they "floated", or tried to swim to save themselves, that proved they were guilty of being a witch. If they sank and drowned then they were innocent. This technique is depicted in the film with an almost documentary-style feel which makes it even more agonizing to watch.

Many say that Vincent Price's role as Hopkins is one of his best, and I would tend to agree. The director, Micheal Reeves, famously told Price to tone down his "overacting" and the result was an understated and sinister performance. Price exudes dark energy throughout the film and his imposing height and regal bearing make him a formidable villain.

There was special care given to the depiction of the English countryside and the cinematography and framing are gorgeous. The juxtaposition between the rolling green hills and serene forests and the horrific activities going on is intriguing. Society was experiencing a sort of temporary insanity were superstition and fear overtook logic. Such a beautiful land marred by the disgusting way that mankind treats each other.

While Witchfinder General didn't find much acclaim when it was released, partly due to it being heavily censored in England, it has since been reevaluated as a cult classic and grisly historical horror. The ending is incredibly haunting and will stick with the viewer long after the credits have rolled. Reeves was very young when he wrote and directed the film and tragically he spiraled into a depression after making the film and died from an overdose of barbiturates. He didn't make many films, but Witchfinder General was his most influential addition to cinema.

Witchhammer (1970)

While many films about the witch trials would focus on the more lurid aspects like the torture and degradation of the victims (especially the women), Witchhammer is a much more serious take on the topic and was based on the Northern Moravia witch trials which occurred in the Czech Republic from 1622-1696. The spearhead of these trials was a man named Jindřich František Boblig who was brought out of retirement to resume his work as an inquisitor. The film is centered around the beginning of the hysteria in the Moravia region that provided the perfect atmosphere of fear for Boblig (Vladimír Šmeral) to conduct his loathsome work.

Although Witchhhammer is often marketed as an exploitation film, the way it is executed is more akin to a historical piece with arthouse trappings. It came out on the tale end of the Czech New Wave bubble and some of the stylistic choices (artfully framed scenes, poetic interludes from a mysterious monk) give the aesthetic a decidedly Gothic feel. It is filmed in black-and-white which dampens some of the more gruesome and bloody torture scenes. The score, an ever present foreboding drum beat, brings to mind some sort of death march that cannot be stopped.

It is not uncommon for directors to use long past historical events as an allegory for present day social commentary--it is much easier to get the film past the censors if the critique is left as subtext in a by-gone era. Even so, Witchhammer was still banned on its release by the Czechoslovakian government. This film was made during a volatile period of history where the Czech people were being subjugated under communist rule called the "normalization".

Running parallel to the narrative about the witch trials is an understated romance between a priest named Kryštof Lautner (Elo Romančík) and his young beautiful cook Zuzanna (Soňa Valentová). Because of their different stations in life they are unable to publicly be together. Unfortunately Zuzanna gets accused and after being tortured and abused gives a false testimony that says Lautner was involved in witchcraft and pagan rituals. Seeing them interact is absolutely heartbreaking because Zuzanna is literally driven mad by her pain and grief. Women are the main targets of these trials, even more evidenced by this quote uttered by the shadowy monk: "The womb of woman is the gateway to Hell. Through woman, sin came into the world. Woman is sin."

Although many poor people were killed in the witch trials, eventually it became lucrative to accuse rich people as well in order to take their assets (and towns would pay the inquisitors to find witches for them). Boblig is depicted as a greedy and covetous man who cares not for the truth and only wants the money and power that being an inquisitor can give him. There are two interesting traits about him that hint at his inner character: although he dresses in fine clothes his shoes are always dirty and in a state of disrepair, and he has black decayed teeth that are sensitive to cold. Whenever he drinks wine he requests a pitcher of hot water be brought to him so that he might warm up his own cup (which he ceremoniously tests with his finger). Both of these things point to a man who might look like a powerful authority figure on the outside, but in reality is rotten to the core. One could say the same about any fascist regime, most of which focus on keeping up appearances to hide an unstable center.

Witchhammer is one of the most nuanced and philosophical of the witch trial genre and well worth watching as both a historical drama and an interesting snapshot of the early '70s Czechoslovakian political climate.

Mark of the Devil (1970)

Mark of the Devil is an interesting mixture of exploitation film making and self-aware social commentary. The film attempts to portray the culture surrounding the witch hunts in the early 18th century, and the way that religion and zealotry can oppress people if left unchecked.

The story centers around an apprentice witch hunter named Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier) who is trying to follow in the footsteps of his mentor witchfinder general Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom). Cumberland is the reigning authority in the town and anyone who is brought to him under suspicion of witchcraft is judged and sentenced only by him. The town employs the services of Albino (Reggie Nalder), a particularly cruel witch-hunter who abuses his powers and uses them to rape and torture women he finds attractive and extort money from wealthier townspeople. Mark of the Devil is essentially two different movies in one--a historical picture about the witch trials and a sleazy trash film that focuses a lot of screen time on graphically torturing beautiful half-naked women. 

While one might be tempted to write the entire movie off because of the more lurid scenes, the narrative definitely does not condone these practices and furthermore is quite a scathing critique of both religion and government. Albino is depicted as a ignorant boar, a man who is illiterate and only concerned with his disgusting obsession with subjugating women. Reggie Nalder's performance is perfectly over-the-top and his disfigured visage (the result of real life scarring from burns) adds to his ghoulish demeanor. In direct contrast, Lord Cumberland is a suave and coiffed individual, who holds himself with an air of royalty. His regal appearance hides his dark nature, as he is just as fond of abusing the prisoners in his care. It is revealed that he is impotent and it's implied that he is using torture as a way of getting sexual gratification. This reinforces the idea that the evil can be hidden underneath a pleasing exterior or laid out for all to see in plain sight.

All of this injustice is carried out in front of the townspeople, but because it mostly affects women initially they choose to turn a blind eye to it. Eventually, Cumberland's greed has him indicting men as well, as once a a person is accused and sentenced their worldly goods are forfeited to the church. The dangers of ignoring persecution just because you are not part of the group that is receiving it is apparent--eventually it will make its way to other groups. Christian starts out in the film as a naive and ambitious apprentice, but as the story progresses he becomes disillusioned by all the atrocities he witnesses and tries to denounce it. Unfortunately, it ends up being too little, too late.

This film's graphic content was made infamous by its marketing which touted it as being "positively the most horrifying film ever made". They even handed out barf bags at showings of the film! Eventually it caught the attention of the morality police during the UK's Video Nasty panic and was confiscated and subsequently banned. Many other versions of the film were released with most of them editing out the more violent scenes. Arrow Video finally released it uncut in 2015 on Blu-ray and DVD. The torture scenes are quite gruesome (especially for the time period) and a few of them veer a little too close to titillation. That being said, for the most part, Mark of the Devil plays it straight and presents an intriguing morality play on the dangers of letting corruption flourish.

--Michelle Kisner