2020 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 18: Witchhammer (1970)

Day 18: Resurrectionist: Watch something that came out on a reissues label

Courtesy of AIP Studios’ Witchfinder General (1968), everyone knows of the exploits of British witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins (as portrayed by Vincent Price) and his fictionalized counterparts in Count Christian von Meruh and Lord Cumberland (as portrayed by Udo Keir and Herbert Lom) in Mark of the Devil (1970) and Mark of the Devil II (1973). And now you’ll learn of the even bloodier exploits of Witchfinder Inquisitor Boblig von Edelstat.

Witchcraft was born during Europe’s transition from the Dark to the Middle Ages. For over five hundred years, fueled by ignorance and religious paranoia, governments decreed their countries be cleansed of evil and immorality. Thus, through armies funded by churches, soldiers hunted down the witches who carried the pestilence. Entire villages were laid waste, in acts analogous to the social cleansings committed by the third world countries of modern society. In fact, the acts committed by Witch Hunters in the name of the Lord surpassed the body count of modern day serial killers. Thus, the witch hunts led by General Cromwell and Matthew Hopkins begat McCarthy’s Red Scare in the nineteen-fifties. And the witch hunts begat the gathering of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the Nazi regime shipping Jews, Pols, and Slavs on trains to their deaths. And the burning of witches at the stake begat African-Americans tormented with religious symbols wrapped in gas soak rags. The brutal truth of the world’s current sociopolitical system: these same hunts and killings, based in ignorance, continue. In today’s world of light and knowledge, men continue to invest in fear, ignorance, and greed. Will man ever be capable of conquering the delusions, the urges, and the ugliness? When will witchcraft disappear from our society?

Born in Austria-Hungary, Czech Republic filmmaker Otakar Vavra ranks alongside Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer (1928’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and 1932’s Vampyr) as a first-rate director with a career that is, sadly, outside of their respective homelands (and the most discriminating, international film aficionadi), fading from our celluloid memories. Vavra’s IMDb page, while cataloging his oeuvre in full, the individual pages for those films are barren; not only are no plots or synopses offered, there’s no user or critic reviews.

Vavra is the cinematic equivalent of Polish futurologist and sci-fi writer Stanislaw Lem (Solaris, The Astronauts, The Magellan Nebula*): for as many of Lem’s books that have seen English adaptation, many never will—and many of us will never experience all—if any at all—of Vavra’s films. Across his 53 directing and 56 writing credits from the early ’30s up until his 2011 death, less than twenty of his films have expanded outside of Europe into the English-domestic marketplace. Some made the transition to the VHS format and later DVD format, but most have not been honored with digital preservation.

After three shorts, Vavra made his feature film debut as a director with the comedy Camel Through the Eye of the Needle (1937) and followed with the drama Virginity (1937). He closed out the 1930s with his two best-known and revered films: the historical dramas The Merry Wives (1938; hailed by the U.S. film trade Variety) and the working class-morality tale The Magic House (1939). Prior to those directing efforts, he wrote seven screenplays: the most notable of those is the comedy Three Men in the Snow (1936); the film’s homeland success initiated his directing career. His career culminated with a teaching position at Prague’s Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts, a position he held since the 1950s. He was awarded the Czech Lion in 2001 and a presidential Metal of Merit in 2004 for his contributions to Czech cinema.

His other widely-distributed, directorial works include:

  • The Masked Lover (1940) — a romantic comedy concerning a Czech General
  • Enchanted (1942) — a romantic comedy
  • I’ll Be Right Over (1942) — a slapstick comedy
  • Happy Journey (1943) — a romantic comedy
  • Rozina, the Love Child (1945) — a historical drama
  • Against All (1957) — a historical war drama; part of the “Hussite Trilogy,” which are three of the most expensive Czech films ever made, with Against All as the most expensive at 25 million Czech Koruna (1.2 million U.S.)
  • August Sunday (1961) — a comedy
  • Night Guest (1961) — a drama
  • Golden Queen (1965) — a psychological drama
  • Romance for Bugle (1967) — a drama that won the Special Silver Prize at the 5th Moscow International Film Festival
  • Days of Betrayal (1973) — a historical war drama that won a honorary diploma at the 8th Moscow International Film Festival
  • Sokolovo (1974) — A Soviet co-production about the ’43 Battle of Sokolovo
  • The Liberation of Prague (1977) — a historical war drama; the third of a trilogy that began with Days of Betrayal and preceded by Sokolovo
  • Dark Sun (1980) — a crime drama that serves as Vavra’s rare foray into sci-fi that serves as a remake of his own 1948 film Krakatit
  • The Wanderings of Jan Amos (1983) — a biographical drama about 17th century Christian crusader Jan Amos Comenius

And that brings us to Vavra’s lone foray into the horror genre, a historical-drama concerned with the brutal inquisition of witches during the medieval era—a film that is heralded as Vara’s chef-d’œuvre and won several awards at Argentina’s Mar del Plata International Film Festival in 1970. One of those wins was for cinematographer Josef Illik who, after watching Witchhammer, you’ll wonder why Illik’s name is not as revered in international film circles as Hungarian-American cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

Based on the best-selling Czech history novel Kladivo na čarodějnice (1963) by Vaclav Kaplicky, the 17th century tale chronicles the real-life, human rights atrocities of the North Moravia Witch Trails of the 1670s by Witchfinder Inquisitor Boblig von Edelstat in which 100 people were murdered. The book’s main protagonist, Priest Josef Lautner (Kryštof Lautner in the film), is a cleric who tries to help his people, but soon falls victim to the trails for opposing “God’s Law.” The book is heralded as an important to literary lesson of man’s ills in political-based paranoia and political prosecution on-level with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) (required high school reading; at least it was for me).

The resulting film adapted by Vavra was banned, ironically, not for its graphic nature, but for Vavra adapting the film as an acidic allegory to the Communist show trails that rocked Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. While the film was banned from showing by the Czechoslovakian government, it was accepted by the international marketplace as a cinematic masterpiece.

The atrocities began with an altar boy observing and reporting a destitute old woman hiding the bread given out during Holy Communion—a theft that she admits to, with the intend to feed it to her barren cow to re-enable its milk production. The indiscretion of hoarding holy bread, according to Witchfinder Inquistor Edelstadt, smacks of “witchcraft,” as based on his interpretation of the Catholic treatise The Malleus Maleficarum, aka Hammer of Witches (thus, the film’s title). The thumbscrews and other torture devices are dispatched in quick succession—and a young priest who opposes the trails soon finds himself among the wrongly executed.

Even if you’ve watched the admittedly more sensationalistic, West German-produced Mark of the Devil, aka Witches Tortured til They Bleed (1970), its sequel Mark of the Devil II, aka Witches Are Violated and Tortured to Death (1973), and the more reserved, Gothic-slanted AIP film that inspired its production: Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General, aka The Conqueror Worm (1968), you’re not going to be prepared for this horrifying lesson in the absolute corruption of power. We won’t sugarcoat: Witchhammer, as was Pier Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, isn’t pleasant (Pasolini’s film even more so), but it is an exquisite example of perfection in cinema.

You can watch Witchhammer on You Tube, but there’s a far superior, superb DVD rip available on the European F Share TV free-with-ads VOD platform. There’s an account sign-in viewable trailer on You Tube (due to graphic content). DVDs are readily available in the online marketplace at a wide variety of eRetailers or you can buy direct from Arrow Video.

Other classic witchcraft films to supplement your viewing of Witchhamer are the Sweden-Denmark co-production Haxen (1922) and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s own forgotten classic, Day of Wrath (1943).  We also examine the life of another Middle Ages’ serial killer of the von Edelstat variety, Gilles de Rais, and his inspiration behind two films by Spain’s Paul Naschy: Panic Beats and Horror Rises from the Tomb.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies and publishes on Medium.

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