Last night I saw something really cool. It sent me bouncing around my room, clapping my curry-stained hands together, and cackling in glee. Witness the majesty below:
Drab title aside, Black Death looks like a throwback to one of my favorite sub-genres: “witchsploitation.” Not familiar with that brand of sleaze? Here’s a brief explanation:
Witchsploitation is an exploitation subgenre dealing with witch hunts. They are generally set in England and Europe, during the 17th century. The films had their heyday in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and were notable for their extreme violence (most were banned, protested, and heavily censored) and sometimes-dubious historical basis.
(Speaking of historical inaccuracies, Black Death’s 1348 setting is a good 300 years too early for its witch-hunting plot. The Black Plague was rarely blamed on witches, but rather on heretics and Jews. A more accurate depiction would have a village infested with covert Hebrews—and would star Mel Gibson. Just saying.)
So, does Black Death herald a return to the grim and gritty glory days of witchsploitation? Probably not. Just as modern America has little use for the old west (despite some terrific western throwbacks like True Grit and 3:10 To Yuma), the subversive themes, religious tone, and sickening violence of witch films have little place in modern cineplexes. These movies had their heyday at a particular time in cinema history, when audiences were most receptive to their unique variety of sleaze.
Although witchsploitation began in 1922 (Häxän: Witchcraft Through The Ages), the late ‘60s/early ‘70s were the subgenre’s golden age. This era birthed Witchfinder General (1968), Mark of the Devil (1970), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Devils (1971). The genre got a modern treatment in The Wicker Man (1973), and a surreal Mexican incarnation in Alucarda (1978).
(Warning: while I’ve seen lots of films from this era, I wasn’t alive back then. I’m not an expert on the ‘70s, nor even on witchsploitation films. I mean well, but I talking out of my ass.)
Witch exploitation was born from the wreckage of the hippy movement. People put down their hash pipes and picked up coke spoons. Rebellious idealism gave way to disaffection (as evidenced in period-defining films like Easy Rider (1969), Midnight Cowboy (1969), and Vanishing Point (1971). Angry ex-hippies sought “far-out” depictions of violence and debauchery, and found it in both mainstream films (The Wild Bunch, 1969) and “midnight movies” (Pink Flamingos, 1971). Like all rebellious movements, the sexual revolution became a packaged commodity, leading to the porno chic craze set in motion by Deep Throat (1972). This period simultaneously spawned raw proto-punk bands (Iggy and the Stooges, the New York Dolls) and the coked-up hedonism of disco music.
This festering sleaze-pit was a perfect breeding ground for witchsploitation. The sub-genre is a perfect mirror of ‘70s ex-hippie angst. Here are many tenets of hippie-dom (spiritualism, sexual liberation, distrust of authority) blended with the gruesome excesses of the grindhouse (torture, sex, revenge, gore). The films take place in an amoral universe. All of them depict the struggle between folk religion and Christianity, generally with the Church as the villain. Despite the plots’ religious focus, these flicks rarely feature the supernatural, holy or unholy. The villain is not the devil, but corrupt authorities motivated by lust and greed.
So witchploitation was a product of its time. But make no mistake. Pedigree or no pedigree, these are still films for sleazoids and perverts. Exploitation films (like drunken black-outs) are judged by how awful you feel afterwards. I can barely wait.
Black Death will infect select theaters (sadly a limited release) on March 11.