Even now, in the 21st century, witches have been burned in lawless regions of Africa and Indonesia, with episodes of religious mass hysteria still surprisingly prevalent for the age of genome mapping. But for most of us, the burning times represents an ethos that is difficult to ponder. We like to think that frail old women, far from being able to bring down satanic pestilence and misery upon their communities, are really quite harmless, and that torturing and burning them would accomplish nothing. There is something compelling about images so alien coming from our shared past. Our adventure in history brings us to a cinematic nightmare. What has come to be known as traditional horror often features witches being burned at the stake, shouting curses at the ignorant villagers or religious tribunal that had conspired against them.
Häxan (1922) seems to be the first film to delve unflinchingly into this forbidden subject, and it's fair to say that it's the most striking cinematic rendering of the burning times to date. The startling visuals would inspire notable witch hysteria films like Ken Russel's The Devils, and Michele Soave's The Church (with imagery echoing Häxan's distinctive black mass scene). Häxan is not surreal in the way of the German expressionism of the time, but alternates between historical representations of the burning times, and a world of fantasy and dementia; a dimension teeming with demons, iniquity and black magic, as envisioned, no doubt, in the fanatical minds of the zealot inquisitors. A pitiable vagrant woman is accused of witchcraft and driven by torture to confess to the leering tribunal that she bore children to Satan, and attended black masses. Christensen boldly presents this exhibition of lunacy in all of it's starkly lurid glory, with witches kissing the ass of a lewd Satan figure, spitting upon a cross and sacrificing an infant. It's clear that Christensen intended some of this diabolical imagery to be comic in it's excess. The movie visits all the sites, from torture chambers, to orgies, to a convent plagued by demonic influences, leaving no stone unturned, and ultimately leaving no mistake as to Christensen's intended statement. Beyond it's satirical nature, Häxan endeavors to illustrate how such horrific events as these could come to pass.
1935's The Black Cat does feature a satanic cult, lead by Boris Karloff, but audiences were largely spared from the horrors of the witch hunts; particularly in the years after World War 2, with it's eerie parallels. It's actually a comedy, I Married A Witch (1942)- later the inspiration for the 1960's sitcom Bewitched- that stands alone in this era of popular cinema as having the subject of the witch hunts for a major plot point. Witches, Jennifer (Veronica lake), and her father are condemned to death by the inquisition only to rematerialize in modern times, to exact vengeance on the male descendent of the head prosecutor, Wallace Wooley (Fredrick March), a community pillar who is running for local office. Lake accidentally drinks the love potion she intends for Wooley, and falls madly in love with him, much to her warlock father's distress. The endearingly troublesome witch does manage to lay waste to Wooley's short political career and drive away his frigid fiancé, but she ends up marrying Wooley herself, and is forced to banish her father back to the astral plane for threatening to spoil their poison-induced marital bliss.
The Mask Of Satan (released in America as Black Sunday), marked the horror maestro's directorial debut, as well as the film that launched Barbara Steele's career. One of the roles Barbara Steele plays in Black Sunday, a 17th century Ukrainian princess named Asa, is, as the movie begins, about to be condemned to death by the Inquisition, for consorting with a known, local warlock, Igor Javutich. Asa swears satanic vengeance on her killers before a hideous bronze mask lined with spikes is hammered onto her face. As the two malefactors are about to be put to the torch, however, there is a fortuitous cloudburst, and the inquisitors elect to bury Javutich in unconsecrated earth, while entombing the princess in the family's castle. This establishing scene is striking and evocative, and has been mimicked by many horror productions great and small since. The story leaps forward to the late 19th century, as one of the protagonists manages to stumble upon Aja's crypt, removes her mask and inadvertently revives her by getting cut on glass and bleeding into her sunken eye-sockets. Igor crawls up out of his grave in dramatic fashion that night, but Steele's witch character is largely immobile for the rest of the movie, able only to issue commands to fellow vampire/witch Igor and grimace freakishly from her slab, her face still scarred by the spikes of the mask. In the stories conclusion, the rejuvenated Asa is tracked down by the peasantry, tied to a ladder, and burned once and for all, reverting back to her original state as she succumbs to the flames.
It's so hard to justify a witch threatening the distant descendents of her Inquisitors, that it's no surprise that the device isn't seen much in good horror movies. Asa, at least, intended to steal her descendant's body for her own. Why a witch would want to come back as a severed head, as in The Thing That Couldn't Die and Horror Rises From The Tomb, challenges the imagination. In the shlocky Mexican horror The Brainiac, the evil warlock Baron Vitellius returns to earth as a hideous, brain-sucking beast , dropped off by a passing comet after 300 lonely years in space. Why does the witch never use her awesome power to save herself from being put to death in such a horrible manner as burning at the stake? How many inquisitor descendants would be found living in the same basic area centuries later? Would the prospect of harm coming to these strange, far-flung, descendents make the inquisitors regret their actions in any tangible way?. How do you bring your witch, or other gothic horror, to the present day to threaten protagonists we have some chance of identifying with? Alas, seldom very convincingly.
1960's City Of The Dead opens in the square of the dismal and fog-enveloped colonial town of Whitewood, Massachusetts, where a torch-bearing mob has brought condemned witch, Elizabeth Selwyn for sentencing and execution. Selwyn, an older woman, is grimy, haggard and has clearly endured weeks of torture at the hands of her captors. She is secured to the stake, and the tinder is lit. A man in the crowd, evidently Elizabeth's consort, quietly beckons Lucifer to come to her aid. With unnatural speed, storm clouds gather and darken the sky. Even as the flames rise up to envelop her, Selwyn utters a curse upon the village and it's inhabitants, and vows to live eternally in service of Satan.
This curious tableau is revealed to be a mental evocation of creepy, present-day anthropology professor Christopher Lee, a man who clearly feels strongly about the subject of witches, and visibly bristles at the suggestion that witchcraft isn't real. One of Mr. Lee's students, a lovely blonde named Nan, is intrigued enough to accept her teacher's invitation to write her term paper on the witches of Whitewood. She finds Whitewood to be unusually desolate; a veritable ghost town, aside for the strange people who stay at the local Raven's Inn, an abode at the site of the infamous burning of the professor's story. It turns out that the professor is in truth one of a coven of modern Whitewood witches, lead by the not-so-modern Elizabeth Selwyn herself (who hasn't aged a day in 300 years), and has cleverly lured his student to the remote town for sacrifice in a satanic ritual. Unfortunately, Nan's little excursion wasn't a secret to her boyfriend and her science-professor older brother, both of whom have a natural suspicion of her oddball teacher. The boyfriend goes off of the road on the way to Whitewood after the illusory image of Elizabeth Selwyn, burning at the stake, appears in the road in front of his car. He eventually makes it to the town, just as the coven is about to take another victim at the cemetery there, at the clock strike of thirteen. Learning that the shadow cast from a crucifix can kill the witches, the mortally injured boyfriend picks up a grave marker and uses it to immolate them in it's shadow before perishing from his wounds.
The fictional town of Whitewood is obviously modeled after Salem, Massachusetts, though no witch cult was known to exist in the Americas. Nor, in fact, is there substantial evidence that any such religious movement existed in the seventeenth century, or was in any way at the roots of the witch hysteria at large. Witches were usually, low, ill-reputed women, completely helpless in the face of their politically advantaged accusers. Their stories of black masses and intercourse with the devil were merely lurid fabrications made under torture, likely scripted by the inquisitors themselves.
Salem, Massachusetts is today celebrated for it's infamous Witch Trials of 1692, the cornerstone of the city's tourism trade. The last great witch hysteria began when a pair of pre-teen girls, minister's daughter Elizabeth Parris and her older cousin Abigail Williams began to exhibit signs of demonic possession, starting a panic that ultimately sent 20 accused witches to the gallows. Hundreds of people were accused and over 200 arrested and interrogated before the incident drew to a close.
There is no witch cult or black magic hexes in AIP's The Conqueror Worm (1968); the monster of the story is rather a corrupt magistrate during the chaos and anarchy of the English Civil War, who exercises his authority in the practice of witch-hunting, for fun and profit. Mathew Hopkins (Vincent price), was indeed a dreaded inquisitor of the period, and the movie does portray him, as far as I can tell, as no more villainous than he must have been in life. That said, The Conqueror Worm (a.k.a.: Witchfinder General) is basely exploitative, indulging in scenes of torture and violence, where any real dialogue or character development would be drowned out by piercing screams, anyway: A priest under question is repeatedly stabbed with pins by interrogators looking for his "devil mark"; a woman is beaten to a pulp before being burned alive in front of an astonished township; "witches" (actually just people deemed to be Catholic sympathizers) are bludgeoned, whipped, stabbed, drowned, hung, raped and burnt. In between is mostly men engaging in fisticuffs and gunplay, along with occasional tidbits of historical exposition. It's outlook is pointedly nihilistic, with children with sticks poking the bones of the burnt witch in the embers, and a climax in which it's made clear that there are no winners, and nothing better to hope for.
To be continued...