It’s difficult to say that I liked this notorious 1970 Czech drama. Witchhammer is about subjects that are too grim and unpleasant to really like, even while, at the same time, it is basically impossible to argue that the presentation isn’t brilliantly done.
Witchhammer has the unfortunate distinction of being based on a true story, that of the Northern Moravian witch trials of the 1600s. Indeed, if the text at the beginning of the film is to be believed, transcripts from those trials were used in writing out the (harrowing) trial scenes of the movie.
But, like most witch hunt movies, Witchhammer is also about more contemporary events, specifically show trials held following the then-recent “Warsaw Pact invasion,” when the Soviet Union, Polish People’s Republic, People’s Republic of Bulgaria, and the Hungarian People’s Republic all invaded Czechoslovakia. Writing for The Independent, Richard Chatten called the film “possibly [director] Vavra’s indirect disclaimer to a paper to which he was obliged to lend his name in 1968 endorsing the Soviet invasion.”
So, its subject matter is tough, and Witchhammer is perhaps one of the most uncompromising films I have ever seen take on the material. It is a film about brutality, about human inhumanity, about the power of a grift, and the way that the guiltiest are those who never suffer. It has, unfortunately, probably never felt more timely than in our current political moment, and it would make an amazing double-feature with Witchfinder General or The Devils, assuming you wanted to feel like absolute shit afterward.
It’s not really a horror movie, though, even while it deals with some truly horrific subjects. I called it a drama up above – which is also what Wikipedia calls it – and I think that’s probably the most accurate tag. Like Witchfinder General, it is almost certainly not actually a folk horror, using any of the working rubrics that we’ve created to define what that is.
For all its torture and brutality, the most gothic element of Witchhammer comes in the form of a sort of Greek chorus; an unnamed monk with bad teeth who recites a steady stream of not-quite-narration about sin and witches and what the devil gets up to on the Sabbath. His are the first words we hear in the film after a very cool and grim opening theme that repeats (sans lyrics) through much of the rest of the picture. Whenever he appears, it is entirely divorced from the film’s action, shown in closeups, lit ominously from below, with no connection to the people or places we are observing, as he mutters his weird obscenities about how women are sinful and the devil does this and that. It’s very effective.
Indeed, pretty much everything in Witchhammer is effective. The torture scenes are unbearable, even while they are seldom particularly graphic. There’s one sequence of the use of thumb screws which is a bit graphic and is also just… yeesh. But more unsettling than the torments themselves are their results, as they leave their victims credibly broken and pliant.
Few movies have ever made being burned at the stake more haunting by showing less, with repeated cuts to the same shot of a field decorated with stakes, the stakes increasing in number each time. When the first batch of accused witches are burned at the stake, one of them shouts to the crowd to flee, or else “the same thing will happen to you!” And, of course, she’s right.
Like Witchfinder General, though, there are no actual witches here. No monsters, except those of greed and hypocrisy, which lurk in the hearts of men. The film makes it very clear that the trials are truly about politics and greed, as the inquisitor seizes the property of the accused to pay for the trial, surrounding himself with luxury in the process.
And yet, for all its brutality, Witchhammer is also somehow a less judgmental movie than Witchfinder General. Its villainous inquisitor may be despicable in the extreme, but he never becomes the larger-than-life monster that Price’s Matthew Hopkins is in that film. Witchhammer seems to somehow understand all of the people who get caught up in this terrible plot, even the most culpable among them. In fact, perhaps its most damning indictment is saved for the idea of some sort of universal justice or happy ending, as a text card at the end of the picture tells us that the monstrous inquisitor lived a long and happy life.
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.