Friday, July 24, 2009

Inquisición (1976): or, Rack 'Em, Boys

As a hardcore or even softcore Paul Naschy fan, you come to expect certain things when you sit down to watch one of the Mighty Mighty Molina's movies. Mad monsters, gorgeous Eurobabes, every genre trope that can be squeezed into an hour and a half, and megadoses of testosterone from the Man Himself sufficient to power the International Rugby Union Football Association for three seasons and a World Cup. This is what you expect, and this is what Naschy delivers, time and time again.

But a painstakingly researched historical epic addressing issues of poverty and class/gender inequality set against one of the darkest examples of zealotry run rampant in Western history? THAT you might not reasonably expect.

But then, this is Inquisición (1976), Naschy's first directorial effort.

Naschy, as you might be aware, is Spanish.

I'm sure you can take it from there.

UPDATED! Now with Color-Fast screengrabs!

Note the tented fingers, the arched eyebrows, the frilly cuffs. Textbook, people.

Naschy loves to start a film with a good oxcart procession, and Inquisición is no exception. In this case the cart is stacked to the driver's seat with the corpses of plague victims, bound for a modestly sized mass grave. Yes, the Black Death is rampant in these parts, giving us both a historical frame of reference and a possible metaphor for the society sickness that will be the subject of the film.

Next we cut to a craggy, desolate Iberian landscape, where we meet Bernard de Fossey, Magistrate of the Spanish Inquisition--Naschy, naturally. Flanked by a couple of ecclesiastical flunkies and toting a copy of the Malleus Maleficarum, de Fossey rides across Europe, flushing out witchery and Satanism wherever it may hide--kind of like a medieval Batman, except even more inclined to maim and dislocate the joints of his adversaries in order to get information.

A brief but very well-realized stop in the plague village allows Naschy the screenwriter/director to show off some of his historical research--nice details include the uniform of the officiating monk and the death houses marked with a large red X. It also affords the opportunity for the first of many many gratuitous boob shots, as de Fossey and his young sidekick examine two topless victims of the scourge. Convinced that the presence of the plague is a symptom of Old Scratch's influence in the area, the Inquisitor heads down the road to the city.

"I caught a fish THEEEES big!"

Meanwhile, Catherine (Daniela Giordano), the daughter of a local aristocrat, is making out with her boyfriend Jean (Juan Luis Galiardo), unbeknownst to the girl's father. We learn that the girl has opened her treasure box to the young rogue, and is rightly worried about the whole free dairy/bovine purchasing conundrum. Uncowed, John promises his devotion, and says he'll marry her just as soon as he gets back from a business trip to Toulouse. Catherine doesn't seem udderly convinced.

Back home, Catherine's dad's house is crawling with boobalicious babes in cleavage-accentuating period gear, among them her sister Elvire (Julia Saly, who would rock the house as Countess Bathory in Naschy's 1981 flick Night of the Werewolf) and servant girl Madeleine (Mónica Randall). Also on hand is scruffy monocular peasant Rénover (Antonio Iranzo), who does odd jobs for the master and has a roving eye for the two beautiful sisters. When de Fossey and his possey show up, dad welcomes them in with open arms, and Bernard falls in lust at first sight with Catherine, which is the sort of thing that just never ends well in these situations.

With a powerful outlet for their personal gripes and grudges, it's not long before the peasant classes start flocking to de Fossey, accusing their friends and neighbors of witchcraft. One of the most creative accusers is ol' Stinky McOne-Eye himself, who after spying on four bodacious servant girls skinny-dipping in the river (zang) runs to the Magistrate and somehow makes it sound like something evil. A nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat, and next thing you know the fanatical Inquisitor has the girls naked and sweaty, one strapped to the rack and another belly-up to a wheel of whirling blades. Of course they quickly start singing like Beverly Sills, confessing to all many of deviltry if it means getting out of the dungeon and on the bonfire already. Bernard is more than happy to oblige.

Naschy forces a confession by sheer power of Molina Musk™

While Naschy has proven himself very un-shy about having actual witches cast actual spells with the help of actual devils in his scripts, in Inquisición he takes a more realistic historical approach, as the evil here is all decidedly human in origin. A scene with a jealous husband ratting out his wife to the Inquisition as a form of pre-Protestant divorce is strangely chilling, as is the delight with which a young girl repeats a fantastical tale of witnessing a witch's sabbath attended by several of her elders, obviously having been coached by the treacherous Rénover. It's all fun and games to her, but in this era of rampant unreason and religious zealotry, games are deadly.

Catherine's father's surgeon Émile (Eduardo Calvo) serves as the voice of modern-day reason here, explaining to the superstitious patriarch that the real evil in their midst is poverty and feelings of powerlessness. Unable to control any aspect of their own lives, subject to disease, famine, and the whims of an all-powerful church, the desperate populace might well turn to an imagined Satan if it means the chance at some kind of self-determination. Women are especially likely to make a grab at such power, since they have even fewer rights and protections. Catherine's dad doesn't buy it, but it's clear that Paul has an axe to grind here against the evils of a totalitarian Establishment kept afloat on the backs of the poor--which could reflect his own experiences as a child in Franco's Spain, in addition to the likely ambivalence toward the church itself.

When Jean is waylaid by highwaymen (what are the chances?) and brutally murdered on the road back from Toulouse, Catherine falls into a deep depression that de Fossey's sanctimonious advances do nothing to ease. In a dream she sees a faceless man paying the robbers to assassinate her lover; convinced that this is a vision from Jean's spirit, she pledges herself to find out who the real culprit is. Her servant Madeleine just happens to be friends with the one REAL witch in the village, Mabille (Tota Alba) who initiates her into the service of Satan with the promise of power and vengeance.

He looks rather easy-going to me. Like, "Welp, I guess I better go tempt somebody!"

The movie hasn't exactly been action-packed up to this point, a couple of stand-out "interrogation" scenes aside, but once Catherine throws in with Mabille's crew, Naschy jumps into the fantastique with both feet. In a dream, Catherine travels to a very crowded Sabbat, where a goat-headed Satan oversees a blasphemous feast. Later she attends another dream ceremony in which Satan--now a handsome, bearded gent in a red cape and skullcap (Naschy, who else?) has her stretch out naked on a stone slab and promise to become his "living altar." The foggy studio sets and odd lighting give these scenes a very nightmarish feel, and first-time director Naschy handles them well.

Also notable here is the level of historical detail Naschy packs into the flick. Whether it's the previously mentioned plague village, the morality play a troupe of mummers performs in the town square (complete with a dwarf jester--that's class, people), de Fossey's fiendish methods of interrogation, or the blasphemous costumes in which the condemned are dressed prior to burning, everything is painstakingly researched and as accurate as the budget would allow. Further adding verisimilitude is the fact that, according to the indispensable Mark of Naschy website, the copy of the Malleus Maleficarum Naschy studies in the flick was actually a museum piece he got on loan--which is way cool, I don't care who you are.

With all the pieces in place, things start to go south for everybody involved. In a final dream, Satan reveals to Catherine the identity of Jean's killer: Bernard de Fossey himself! Totally on the Satan-Bus now and bent on bloody vengeance, Catherine seduces the clergyman in order to ensure his damnation, and de Fossey, being as virile as a musk-ox, can hardly say no. Meanwhile Rénover gets greedy and tries to rape Elvire, revealing his motives for condemning all the beautiful girls, which are about what you'd expect.

"Is it hott in here, or is it just ME?"

Naschy implies throughout the movie that none of the supernatural happenings take place anywhere but in the characters' diseased imaginations, but wisely holds off until the end before confirming things one way or another. This makes Catherine's closing scene on the pyre all the more poignant, as she realizes too late that Satan can't help her, and all her imagined powers were just so much delusion and sex appeal.

This was Naschy's first directorial effort, and it doesn't seem quite as go-for-broke as the stuff we're used to seeing him in. Whether this was a function of first-time director's reticence or his desire to treat the subject with historical seriousness is unclear, but the result is a flick that tends toward the overly talky. However, this leisurely pace makes the slam-bang torture and Satanic ritual sequences stand out in even more stark relief, so maybe it's just what was needed.

In other ways, Naschy the director is not reticent at all. This is definitely the most BOOBTASTIC Naschy flick I've seen yet, with more female flesh on display than you can shake yer Holy Water Sprinkler at. Sure, a couple are plague victims and a few more are being tortured, but in terms of quantity and overall quality, you can't fault it. Naschy is remarkably un-hands-on for the most part, though he does get a nice love scene with Satanic Catherine near the end. Effects-wise, the goat-head Satan is a standout, and the most gruelling interrogation scene includes a truly shocking bit of nastiness that I really shouldn't spoil for you. You'll know it when you see it, believe me.

Julia Saly. Just 'cuz.

As for Naschy the actor, he turns in a really great performance as the conflicted man of God, sadistic and fanatical on the one hand, at war with his manly desires on the other. A scene where he prays to God for strength (including some bare pecs and self-flagellation for the ladies...and the Duke...) is quite effective, and seems to imply an equivalence between his appeal to a supernatural agency for self-determination and those of the women pledging themselves to Satan. And his final scene, disgraced and shaven-headed on the pyre, looking heavenward with regretful tears in his eyes--well, it's some of the finest acting in his career, for my money.

In the final analysis, Inquisición strikes me as a very personal statement on the part of Naschy as a filmmaker, combining his passion for history, his love of the fantastique, and perhaps even his own life experience into a successful historical drama that even non-Naschy fans can enjoy. While not as much off-the-wall fun as the monster mashes he's rightly revered for, it's a good film and worth a look for fans of the Price/Corman classic Witchfinder General and other flicks of that ilk. And for Naschy fans, Paul delivers the goods and a fantastic performance. 3 thumbs up from me--it's not had an official stateside release yet, but get yourself a collector's copy off the Internets and enjoy.

Jacinto D'Arc


The Duke of DVD said...

Dear god! *wipes tear from eye* That was beautiful, Vicar. So many fantastic moments. Molina Musk. A Duke-celebrated self flagellation scene. Naschy as Satan!

It can never be understated: Paul is our raison d'etre.

Some observations, if you'll permit me. One can discern fairly quickly that Jacinto went all out on the historical accuracy, given the surely restricted budget that constrained the film it seems he did a great job. I would think that Paul's Spanish upbringing would lead to making this film perhaps more accurate than most, no? As a conessuer of Inquisition-based films, where in the spectrum do you feel this one lies, dearest Vicar?

I could talk at length about the connection between Church-repressed sexuality in those early times and the rise of Inquisition-based happenings, but instead I'll just say that I never get tired of movies pointing out this hypocrisy, and this one looks to do that very well indeed.

Bravo, sir.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thank you, my friend! I think you may be right about the heightened accuracy of Naschy's vision, given his upbringing. From my knowledge of the history I'd say his accuracy is to be lauded in the subgenre of Inquisition-related movies. Of course you'd expect nothing less from Sr. Molina. :)

The repressed sexuality subtext here is of course very important, particularly the way Naschy's character sublimates his natural manly urges into Church-sanctioned violence against women, who are blamed for tempting men to sin with their naughty bits. The torture scenes in particular have an icky sexual aspect to them, part of which is a function of historical accuracy of course, but also serves the themes Naschy-as-writer/director wants to explore. You should definitely check it out at your earliest opportunity.

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