The Squeaky Reel

An outlet for my thoughts on film, music, books, and various off-topic ramblings.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

...And on the other hand...

There's The Blood On Satan's Claw.
While Witchfinder General evokes the despair of a left-wing progressive who has had his faith in humanity shattered, The Blood On Satan's Claw is a much more conservative take on the matter of witchcraft in pre-industrial pastoral England.
In a nutshell, TBOSC assumes that the influence of Satan is a real (and very physical!) thing, and reflecting establishment fears in the post-Manson era, assumes that the kids are all wrong. Sexuality, defiance and rebellion, growing your hair out (well, in small patches or one's eyebrows at least) -- these are all sure signs of the guiding hand of el Diablo, and it takes the hard-line Christian activism of a Brave Old White Man to keep these youngsters in tow.
The thing is, though, that the film takes a very wide stance, and in the most Larry Craig-ish way. While condemning the Younger Generation for its excesses, the film simultaneously leers lasciviously at the same things it pretends to protest. It solidifies its conflicted take on things from the beginning: a wholesome young bride-to-be falls under the influence of Satan's power and must be carted away to an asylum. As she is taken from her bedroom, she gazes lustily at her betrothed, who responds in kind after his fear and dread subside a bit. We're supposed to fear her, but her appearance wind up being titillating instead...until she puts her hand on the banister, and we see that it's a (rather poorly-designed) claw. Instead of the surprise shock it's meant to be, it winds up just being a bit confusing (or confused).
This attitude is carried over throughout the film. Lead actress Linda Hayden as chief villainess Angel Blake is consistently and insistently portrayed as being almost impossibly sexy, despite her being cast in the Charles Manson role (as leader of the proto-hippie cult of witches). Again, we're supposed to fear her (and her attractiveness does give credence to the notion that evil can manifest itself in the most appealing of guises), but the film also seems to revel in the exploitative aspects of having this lovely young lass shuck her garment in a church in order to seduce Anthony Ainley, or in images of a buxom redhead dancing nakedly with a knife. You're left with an uneasy feeling of what you're viewing not quite knowing what it wants to be, and as a result exhibiting a kind of hypocrisy almost completely by accident; kind of like walking in on a priest reading a Playboy.
However, I feel that this inner conflict (along with the film's almost fractured narrative; this was originally planned as a 3-part portmanteau film along the lines of Amicus' anthologies, but wound up shoehorning everything into one storyline) works in the film's favor, creating an unresolved tension that gives it a strong sense of momentum. Without this aspect, the film could become bogged down and lethargic, but the unease created by the conflict keeps the audience on its toes even if they don't recognize the movie's inherent contradictions. It's a marvel that it pulls this off, but the movie works like gangbusters.
The movie is available uncut and letterboxed from Anchor Bay UK (and the version packaged in their Tigon Collection set is graced with a bonus commentary by The League of Gentlemen's Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson alongside the extras offered on the standalone), and the transfer is head-and-shoulders above the murky VHS transfers I've seen in the past, but it is unfortunately non-anamorphic (and zooming in on the image either degrades the image more than I'd like, or there is some awfully distracting edge enhancement going on here that becomes more apparent in the zoom). This deserves a stateside R1 release, and needs desperately to be 16:9 enhanced. Until then, this'll have to do.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

"Men sometimes have strange motives for the things they do."

STAHL: If someone’s in custody, as in Abu Ghraib, and they are brutalized by a law enforcement person — if you listen to the expression “cruel and unusual punishment,” doesn’t that apply?

SCALIA: No. To the contrary. You think — Has anybody ever referred to torture as punishment? I don’t think so.

STAHL: Well I think if you’re in custody, and you have a policeman who’s taken you into custody–

SCALIA: And you say he’s punishing you? What’s he punishing you for? … When he’s hurting you in order to get information from you, you wouldn’t say he’s punishing you. What is he punishing you for?

60 Minutes, 4/27/2008


"I will find out the truth for you, have no fear."

--Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General


Quick notes on a recent viewing:

Michael Reeves' masterpiece, Witchfinder General, is set at a time when the line between church and state has been almost completely blurred. When a political operative stirs up the "average Joes" with fear of The Other hiding among them, using their now-brought-to-the-forefront xenophobia to justify the use of torture, and capitalizing on this to solidify his own power and wealth.

In short, it's a film with absolutely no parallels to modern life whatsoever.

It is one of the most common clichés in writing about movies to claim that this film or that is "as relevant now as when it was released," but it is no less true when said about this film. The movie follows the exploits of Matthew Hopkins, the titular Witchfinder General, and his assistant Stearne as they travel the British countryside cynically locating and punishing "witches" for profit. It's made fairly clear early on that neither actually believe the charges that they're leveling, but are instead charging the innocent without conscience for their own reasons. In a telling early exchange, Hopkins questions his assistant, asking, "you enjoy torture, don't you, Stearne?" Stearne replies "and you...sir?" Hopkins looks coldly forward. It's not a matter of enjoyment on Hopkins' part; it's a matter of power. On the other hand, it's nearly impossible in this day and age to watch Stearne's gleeful participation in their "enhanced interrogation techniques" and not see echoes of the images from Abu Ghraib prison.

If the film had been made today, it would be seen as a heavy-handed comment on the Bush administration's support of torture (under an "it's not torture if we do it" rubric) and its blatant attempts to break down the barrier between church and state. However, its 1968 release date makes it all too easy to make claims of its prophetic nature, ignoring the obvious end-of-the-'60s anti-authoritarianism of the piece. The looming dark autumn following the previous year's Summer of Love weighs heavily on the way the events are depicted in the film, much in the way Peter Watkins' Punishment Park is a direct comment on the Nixonian era. But I feel that both views -- tying its commentary solely to the time in which it was filmed, as well as ignoring its ties to the turbulent year of 1968 in favor of looking at it solely through the prism of the War on Terror -- are approaches that do the movie a serious disservice and ignore the deeper themes of the film, which are both timely and timeless.

There's a certain air of fatalistic inevitability pervading the film, with its matter-of-fact handling of violence as a means to an end, with its period setting and its challenge to the audience (either in 1968 or some 40 years later) to draw comparisons to the present. It seems to be saying "all of this has happened before; all of this will happen again" (to lift from Battlestar Galactica). The propensity toward violence as a way of establishing or reinforcing one's power is a built-in part of our nature, always lurking beneath the surface, and easy to summon and/or exploit, no matter what era you are looking at. This is reinforced in the final moments of the film, when the ostensible hero Richard Marshall finally takes his revenge on Hopkins, punishing him with multiple axe blows. When his soldier compatriots arrive on the scene and put Hopkins out of his misery with a gunshot, Marshall repeatedly cries out "you took him from me!" He has been robbed of his power, the power that seemingly only violence can provide. And when all humanity is stripped -- whether in the tyrannical oppression seen in the character of Hopkins, in the sadistic indulgence of Stearne, or in the theft of Marshall's humanity at the hands of both Hopkins and Stearne -- this motivating force of violence as a means to assert power is all that remains.

It's a bleak view of humanity. It's purely misanthropic. There is no hope for anyone in the film's universe; even Marshall's wife Sarah is driven to the brink of insanity by what she has seen and endured. The townsfolk of the film's population are easily driven by fear and a lust for violence; the soldiers advance and prosper from acts of violence. Violence is simply an inescapable and corruptible aspect of life, and can be manipulated and exploited toward any nefarious ends if we are not careful to keep this aspect of our selves in check, and reject anyone who wishes to capitalize on this part of our natures for their own benefit. Reeves is pessimistic about our ability to pull that off, however; a viewpoint that recent and repeated events have only supported.

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