Kicking off our season Witchy Wonder and Demonic Delight (just in time for everyone’s favourite time of the year, Samhain), comes a spicy little Witchsploitation number from Spanish horror legend Paul Naschy- Inquisition (1976). The film at first glance follows a typical Witchfinder General type riff but then finds itself wandering into some very interesting territory as the plot moves on. Naschy manages to melt in some extra flavours before the climax hits its final note, to produce something of a memorable piece with strong elements of good old euro-sleaze to ease things along.
Naschy stars as Bernard de Fossey, a man on a mission to rid the world of witchcraft. Cruising from town to town with his merry (read sadistic) band of cohorts, woe betide anyone who gets in his way. Witchcraft is lurking around every corner, and with the bubonic plague also tracking the voyagers, it would appear God is sending out the message that all those who do not repent will suffer the consequences. Armed with support from the church Bernard is a powerful man, and one who will go to great lengths to get what he wants, even if that means bending the rules a little- and of course indulging in a little torture for those who resist his demands.
After arriving and settling into a sleepy rural town our central antagonist Bernard takes quite a liking to the Mayor’s daughter Catherine (Daniela Giordano), after the family take him in for the duration of his trials. The question he must ask himself is, how far is he willing to go to achieve his goal in winning her hand- will he stop at murder? Will he forsake his faith? As the saying goes, fair heart never won fair lady, but just how far will Bernard test his limits to claim the woman whose heart belongs to another man?
For a low-budget number, the production values here really aren’t too bad. The film is set in rural France, and the use of the Spanish countryside for exterior scenes makes a decent substitute. The interiors have that B grade cardboard castle look to some extent, and are slightly stripped down from the usual baroque gothic associated with a lot of these films, but reflect the time and place in history as authentically as possible on such a limited budget. An extra plus point has to go to the cackling wise woman Mabille’s secret lair in terms of design, which represents an Aladdin’s cave of OTT witch-type artefacts; such as skulls, dissected toads, and a huge bubbling cauldron.
The effects on offer are a delight, when necessary there is no skimping on the grue, and there is a nipple ripping scene that remains a firm highlight. Although the torture scenes aren’t as frequent as they could be- Naschy instead employs a multi-faceted approach to building his story, which involves a lot of character development- when the violence does appear it is, however, suitably gratuitous and doesn’t disappoint.
What lets the film down overall is the meandering approach in the first act. Although Naschy employs the usual ‘throw in a ton of naked ladies to distract the audience’ euro-trope, the script is slightly uneven as it gathers up its central elements. I can see what the director was attempting here, and it does work out all for the good when the shit really starts to fly, but some patience is needed to allow it to pan out. In fact I would go so far as to say at one point I wondered where everything was going, my attention just about held in place by the charismatic Naschy donning his ominous Witchfinder garb and looking suitably threatening when required.
Cast and Crew.
This is Naschy’s directorial debut, and the film is also written by the star, who casts himself in a leading role. That is not to say Naschy is seen at any point hogging the limelight however, and each of the central characters are given opportunity to develop their roles. I don’t know if it’s just me, but as with Boris Karloff, I find there is something strangely likable about Naschy, even when he is playing the most abominable villain he manages to remain in my favour. But then this isn’t difficult when it comes to Inquisition as it comes loaded up with a clever set of plot twists that manipulate the viewer into seeing the main characters in a different light as things progress, and this is the films strongest element. Naschy isn’t just your normal pious Witchfinder without redemption here, running through a myriad of faces which range from staunch protector of the faith, to master manipulator, and right down to moments where you can feel real sympathy for him as he struggles with his inner demons.
Daniela Giordano as Catherine is a good co-lead. Following the same path as Naschy’s lead, the actress gets put through the mill when it comes to portraying a number of emotional facets for her role. Giordano is not afraid to get down to the nitty gritty for some of her scenes either, and is seen in a very compromising position featuring a chalked ritual circle and a skull. There is something about her appearance that makes it difficult to see her as the innocent and light, young star struck lover during the initial stages of the film, however this works in her favour as matters develop into darker territory.
For the supporting cast members, they all do a pretty fine job, but stand out mention has to go to Antonio Iranzo as the one-eyed Renover, who turns witch trial snitch in order to wreak revenge on locals for the way he has been shunned for his physical appearance. Although Iranzo has a minimal role to play, he is particularly dastardly and unlikeable throughout.
From reading this you would be correct in thinking this film does bear some relation to its predecessors, especially Witchfinder General (1968) and Mark of the Devil (1970). But when you consider the grand scheme of things, this is nothing more than a passing resemblance. Given the limits of the plot structure when it comes to covering historical witch trial material as the basis for a horror film there are going to be some similarities no matter how you tackle things. Nothing, in my humble opinion, could quite hit the heady highs in terms of torture sequences than the aforementioned Mark of the Devil, but to be fair Inquisition does give a pretty good crack of the whip- filling in the gaps with ample nudity to smooth out the bumps in the road.
While, as I have already pointed out, the plot does tend to get bogged down in the first half all can be forgiven when you consider where Naschy steers his vehicle as matters start to come to a head. Usually Witchfinder films concern themselves with the hypocrisy of religion, carving out the church leaders as the aggressors, and their victims as innocent bystanders. Naschy goes further than this though by introducing actual elements of occultism into the mix. This gives the piece an edge that helps it stand out on its own two feet from similar sub-genre cousins, creating something of a hybrid that straddles the divide between historical realism, and fantastical elements. This aspect also allows for one of the stand-out set pieces in the film to occur- a fully hallucinatory Satan summoning, on a set which looks partly inspired by Alberto De Martino’s bonkers exorcist clone L’anticristo (1974)– minus the simulated goat rimming.
All in all, while not outstanding, Inquisition is a memorable and solid piece of witchsploitation that successfully blends elements of both the occult and historical witchfinding in impressive fashion. For all its flaws the strong performance by Naschy, the more out there plot elements and some of the striking design when it comes to summoning up the occult aspects make this an extremely enjoyable romp into witchy territory, and another fine entry into Naschy’s impressive catalogue of contributions to the genre.