Jess Franco’s take on the popular witchfinder genre of the early 1970s pulls in many of his own obsessions and stylistic ideas, resulting in a film that is very much a unique piece of erotic horror.
Jess Franco was not, in general, a man who chased trends. Unlike a lot of his Euro exploitation contemporaries, he rarely made films that cashed in on current box office hits. But sometimes, the zeitgeist caught up with Franco’s own particular obsessions and he was certainly not above using that to his advantage. In 1969, he’d already made his contribution to the brief burst of witchfinder cinema, with The Bloody Judge appearing after Witchfinder General and alongside the likes of Mark of the Devil, Blood on Satan’s Claw and Cry of the Banshee. The Bloody Judge was based around the infamous (real-life) Judge Jeffries, and the character makes an unrelated return in The Demons (Franco liked to reuse characters), though the influence here is more The Devils – itself arguably a late entry in the witchfinder cycle. But to suggest that The Demons is some sort of imitation would be inaccurate – rather, Ken Russell’s film provided the incentive for producer Robert De Neslé to finance the film, while Franco took the basic idea of naughty nuns, inquisitions and religious hypocrisy – all themes that ran throughout his career – and created his own delirious collision of costume drama, BDSM fantasy and soft porn extravaganza.
The film opens with the torture – sorry, interrogation – and execution of an old woman accused (rightly, it has to be said) of being a witch. As she dies, she curses Judge Jeffries (John Foster) and Lady De Winter (Karin Field), who had conspired to accuse her, and threatens revenge by her daughters. But is she referring to the daughters of witchcraft or actual biological offspring? It turns out to be the latter: Kathleen (Anne Libert) and Margaret (Britt Nicholls) are the illegitimate offspring of the witch and Lord De Winter (Howard Vernon), and are currently cloistered as nuns in a convent. This doesn’t stop Jeffries and Lady De Winter tracking them down and – after an intimate examination reveals the girl not be the virgin she claims to be – declaring Kathleen to be a witch. She is put to The Question (a series of tortures, where inquisitors solemnly state “the nipple” while instructing the torturer), before managing to escape. Meanwhile, the seemingly pious Margaret is visited by the Devil and enters a masturbatory relationship with evil, fleeing the convent. But both girls are being pursued by Lady De Winter and Jeffries, while other characters plot and scheme for their own political and carnal desires.
While Franco himself was fairly dismissive of the film (as can be seen on the interview with him included here), The Demons is one of his most impressively lush looking films – very much in keeping with the late Sixties efforts like The Bloody Judge and Justine. Always a filmmaker who knew how to stretch a low budget, here he creates a genuinely sumptuous looking film from limited resources. The costumes and sets certainly look as though they belong in a costlier film, and his eye for locations pays off here (like many of his films, this was shot in Portugal). And while the emphasis of the film is clearly on sex and horror, Franco still manages to find room to explore interesting ideas that tie in with his own filmic fixations. The hypocrisy of religious leaders and followers is a major theme here – it’s clear that neither the corrupt Jeffries nor the smug Lady De Winter actually believes any of their victims to be actual witches, and express surprise when that turns out to be the case – instead, they are consolidating their own positions, fulfilling their own desires (Lady De Winter wants to use the girls to fulfil her own sexual needs, while Jeffries is motivated by both power and lust) and treating the lower orders as little more than puppets in their own little games. There’s a lot of class power at play here, and the film has a subplot about the coming invasion of England by William of Orange that will sweep out the old guard who are clinging desperately on to their own power.
It’s interesting that in this film, the witches are not just actual witches, but also possess genuine supernatural power. They are not innocent of the accusations and have the power to destroy their enemies (in crude but effective moments, Margaret’s kiss reduces several characters to skeletons), yet you get the idea that Franco still doesn’t see them as evil – they are certainly not the villain of the piece.
But let’s not get too caught up in the socio-political. Essentially, The Demons is a cracking slice of salaciously sleazy horror. The extensive – almost continual – nudity, sex and torture scenes would probably seem excessive to viewers unfamiliar with both Franco and Euro cinema of the time, and it certainly qualifies the film as softcore porn as much as horror, but in truth, that was a combination that created some of the most interesting films of the 1970s, be they by Franco, Jean Rollin or other filmmakers. The lack of restraint on display here is refreshing and you have to appreciate the sense of liberation that filmmakers of the time must’ve had. The torture scenes, it must be said, are rather tame – at least if we compare them with the atrocities shown in Mark of the Devil. The acts of torture are certainly brutal enough, but Franco isn’t going for realistic pain here – clamps on nipples are clearly not making contact and there is no emphasis on mutilation. The flesh in this film is to be savoured, not destroyed. Nevertheless, their presence in this release shows how far we’ve come in censorship terms – the film was banned by the BBFC on original release and until recently, the scenes of nipple abuse and torture of naked girls would certainly have fallen foul of the censor’s rules on sexual violence.
And that flesh, belonging to Franco stalwarts Libert and Nicholls mostly, but also displayed fetchingly by Field – is certainly easy on the eye. Nicholls, in particular, impresses with her switch from wholesome innocent to sexually voracious witch, while Field is both sexy and sinister as the film’s primary villain. Franco had a genuine knack for softcore erotica (his hardcore films, on the other hand, are oddly unerotic) and it is on full display here.
The Demons is not one of the Franco films that his supporters often cite as a classic, but it probably deserves some re-evaluation. While far from perfect, it’s a consistently entertaining, intriguing film with a glorious psych-prog score by Jean-Bernard Raiteux that should be up there with the famed Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack in every groovester’s record collection.
The new Nucleus release of the film is a lovingly restored version that is probably as definitive an edition as you could hope for. As well as the fully uncut 118-minute French version, there is an 88-minute English dub, along with six minutes of outtakes, alternative opening credits, the afore-mentioned interview with Franco and a featurette with Stephen Thrower. It comes packaged with the original UK Go Video cover – a deliriously crude (in all senses of the word) bit of nostalgia.
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