If no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, how is anyone gonna deal with the French Inquisition? That's the challenge of Jacinto Molina's directorial debut, a vehicle for his on-screen alter ego, Paul Naschy. Filmed in Spain while longtime dictator Francisco Franco was still dead, the production probably was careful not to give Spanish Catholicism a bad name. Naschy plays itinerant judge Bernard de Fossey, a hammer to witches who takes too much pleasure in his work. He struggles to suppress the sexual arousal he feels reading accounts of witches consorting with the Devil, and takes his distress out on accused witches who are almost invariably attractive and tortured in the nude. Bernard's not after your typical hag; that would kill his buzz more than he actually wants it killed.
Bernard stirs up hysteria when he arrives in town, especially when the boyfriend of Catherine (Daniel Giordano), a comely local lass, is murdered by hooded highwaymen. Obsessed with getting justice, Catherine consults an actual witch (Tota Alba) who shows her how to get in touch with Satan, who may, if he's in the mood, give her the key to the mystery. It's not quite that mysterious to us, because we've seen how Bernard looks at Catherine -- and veteran Naschy fans may have noticed something familiar about one of the highwayman's leaping attack on the victim. Sure enough, under the influence of a potion -- if not also Satan! -- Catherine envisions Bernard removing the hood. She decides to take the fight to him, fulfilling his own fears of temptation, but events quickly spiral out of either person's control.
One of the subplots in Molina's screenplay follows Renover (Antonio Iranzo), a one-eyed professional informer who spreads rumors of witchcraft out of misogynist resentment of women who won't give the poor scumbag a chance. When his aggressive advances on Catherine's friends end with two women dead and himself mortally wounded, he uses his ante-mortem statement to denounce Catherine and her witchy mentor. Bernard actually has tried to protect Catherine from prosecution but has no choice now but to put her through an ordeal. He seems taken by surprise when Catherine confesses, and then denounces him, after which damning corroborating evidence promptly appears to seal his fate. While Catherine goes to her death screaming in terror, Bernard seems resigned to his fate, if not relieved by it.
For an actor-turned-director Naschy/Molina was unusually self-effacing. I don't know how many people knew that Naschy and Molina, who'd already written many Naschy pictures, were one and the same, but I'd expect exploitation film producers not to take chances and tout director Naschy as the next Cornell Wilde or something similar. Make what you will of his creative split personality, but Inquisicion is clearly an ambitious work for a first-time director. Visually it's quite attractive in the way of many Euro horror films that take advantage of ancient locations, but also effectively expressionist in cinematographer Miguel Fernandez Mila's use of lurid reds in Catherine's vision of the Sabbat (with Bernard as the Devil) and Bernard's vision of Catherine as a crimson temptress. As a writer, Molina plots things fairly well, though his conclusion, with Catherine's denunciation following Renover's fatal encounter, feels anticlimactic, if only because we expect something more hair-raising from Paul Naschy. That he closes the film that way suggests that, despite the sleaze of the torture scenes, Molina saw this as something more than the typical Naschy vehicle.
Naschy's film is a late entry in a continental cycle of witchfinding pictures, a subset of a larger "history of cruelty" genre. While its torture scenes put it in the exploitation category alongside pictures like Jess Franco's Bloody Judge, Inquisicion sustains a more subtle ambiguity on the subject of witchcraft and the devil. The old witch is plainly a witch in the most mundane sense, knowledgeable about potions and such, but we're left to judge for ourselves, prompted by the film's one voice of reason, whether Catherine saw the Devil or not -- or whether Bernard even was in on killing Catherine's lover. Our only evidence for his guilt is Catherine's vision, the authority of which we're forced to question. If Catherine's community is cursed by anything, it's by a common human malice and hypocrisy that consumes clergy and laypeople alike. Overall it's an impressive debut, though it came a little too late in the history of Spanish horror for Naschy to build on it as he might have had he stepped up a few years earlier. It still goes down as one of both Molina and Naschy's best efforts.