This will likely be a long review, so let's cut to the chase right away...the anxiously anticipated release of Maleficarum turns out to be worth the wait. Simply put, it's a real winner. I say this as a totally unbiased fan of this type of entertainment. As many of you know, I'm credited in the film as an associate producer, which means I contributed a sizable amount of money and served as an advisor as to how certain scenes should be filmed. But that's where my input ended. And if I didn't like this film, trust me, I wouldn't have any problem at all bitching about how it turned out.|
The whole reason why many of us like to watch films made about the Inquisition is to see women tortured. And on that level, Maleficarum succeeds far better than any other mainstream Inquisition film I've ever seen. It's literally packed with wall-to-wall scenes of torture to naked women. There are a few scenes that somewhat disappointed me, and unfortunately, those were the 2 most eagerly awaited scenes for me personally...the spit-roasting scene and the burning at the stake finale. More about those later. But with just a few exceptions, the film works beautifully from nearly start to finish.
Maleficarum was made by the people who created the production company Red Feline and it stars their biggest star Jane von Detlefson, appearing here under her real name, Amy Hesketh. It differs from other Red Feline projects in that it's not merely a bondage film, but an actual narrative movie based on the true story of Mariana de Castro, the last woman to be burned at the stake in Peru. Her lover Francisca, played by newcomer Mila Joya, is another real life person who was executed by the inquisition. The plot, for those who care about such things, is that Francisca is persecuted by the church so that they can seize her wealth, and they use the guise that Mariana is a witch and Francisca is her follower. Therefore, they're both guilty and must be tortured until they confess. Hey, that's as good a reason as any in my book. Now let's get to the good stuff.
It starts off as Mariana is stripped of her clothing and chained with her wrists and ankles spread against a stone wall. Amy does an outstanding job portraying the crying, humiliated and naked victim, a role she's excelled in before. She's soon joined by her friend who similarly take her space beside her in the chains. Joya's character is by contrast more stoic and defiant. That may be the reason why she's the first to be taken down and flogged.
They chain Francisca with her arms over her head and lash into her with the whip. She bravely endures each blow of the whip, and part of the strength of the scene is watching Mariana's horrified crying as she watches her lover being tortured. It was a smart move on director Jac Avila's part to let each woman watch as the other is forced to suffer. It adds an extra layer of drama to the proceedings. It's a well-done scene, shot with a minimum of blood so that the marks look realistic and not obviously painted on.
They are much more cruel to Mariana as she is also whipped, because they enhance it by suspending her by her wrists so that her body sways in the air with every lash. She is a lot more vocal and cries out in pain each time the whip cracks against her skin. There's also a bit more bloody marks on her as her limp body is finally taken down.
What would an Inquisition movie be without a scene involving the torture rack? In this case, we get two; first with Francisca and then, again taking turns, Mariana. They don't stretch the girls enough to cause any real permanent damage, perhaps so they can be intact for even more tortures later. But Francisca is much more vocal here than before and appears to be in quite a bit of pain. And both women look incredibly sexy stretched out on the rack and suffering.
At this point of the movie, Mila Joya's character is mostly relegated to the spectator role, as the heaviest tortures are then administered to Amy Hesketh, which is a very good thing in my book. I guess you get top billing based on the number of torture scenes you have. And the next scene is a standout, as Mariana is suspended with her arms spread wide apart and her legs tied together, which looks awfully uncomfortable in and of itself. But then she's lowered over and over onto a plank full of spikes directly onto her feet. Truth be told, I wish the spikes would have been longer and more scary-looking....these are about an inch high...but according to the movie's commentary track, they were quite painful. It's an outstanding torture scene with another anguished performance by Amy.
This segues into yet another nasty torment as Mariana is seated atop the Spanish Horse with her arms tied above her and off to the sides, allowing her no leverage and no way to pull herself up off the pointed edge between her legs. And heavy weights are then attached to her ankles, further anchoring her onto the horse. And if that wasn't enough, she is then given a bloody lashing to her back as Francisca watches helplessly with a full view of the abuse her friend is receiving.
After passing out from the whipping, the Inquisitors revive Mariana by throwing a bowl of water in her face. And in a rather bloody scene, they search for the "mark of the devil" by plunging a stiletto knife into her body several times. It's a nice effect, although if you watch it a few times you can probably guess how the illusion was done.
When we see her again, she's been removed from the horse but is still standing in an uncomfortable spread-eagle position. They follow this up by heating up an iron in a fire and burning her several times. I don't know if they were still looking for the mark of the devil at that time, but they sure make some nice marks of their own, another very impressive torture sequence.
This brings us to the aforementioned roasting scene, where Mariana is taken outside, tied to a giant rotisserie and literally roasted like a live piece of meat over smoking hot coals. This was the scene that I commissioned and paid for, and the one that ultimately got me my producer's credit. Roasting a girl on a spit been done on film a handful of times, but usually ends up looking fake because, well, it usually is faked.
Not this time. Amy agreed to actually perform the scene in real life, literally roasted over coals for hours while the cameras rolled. Before seeing the film, I expressed concerns that the director wouldn't give us an establishing shot of Amy and the coals below her. Well, we see that twice: once briefly at the beginning and then a quick 2 second shot later. That's a total of 5 seconds in the entire scene, and then never again until the final shot when she is removed from the spit, and the coals have mostly gone out. In between, there's just a few brief cutaways of the coals, and nothing that connects the two as happening at the same time. Why make her get up there and do it for real if you're not to going to film it like it's real?
Film is an illusion anyway. But in this case, they didn't have to create an illusion; it was right there, just shoot it documentary-style. And director Avila did Amy a grave disservice by making her go through hours of torture and then editing the film so that 90% of the scene looks like it was faked, even though it wasn't. Most of the shots are tight close ups of the upper half of Amy bring turned, which could have been shot anywhere. Oh, scattered in there are a few awesome shots of her being turned while smoke billows from below, flowing over her entire body. And overall, it's a hot scene. It's even hotter if you listen to the commentary track and hear Amy talk about what she went though to film it. The problem is, I don't think people are going to believe she was really being roasted by the way the scene was put together. I would love to see the proverbial "cutting room floor" to see what we missed. Better shot selection and this scene would have been a classic.
While witnessing her friend being roasted, Francisca can take no more and agrees to confess if they'll stop Mariana's torture. She's forced to sign a blank paper which turns over all her assets to the church, and condemns her and Mariana to death. But after taking them both back to the dungeon, they decide to frame Francisca as a witch and dish out...you guessed it...more torture. Why sure, we always have room for more torture!
For the first time since the beginning of the movie, the girls are now allowed to wear tattered clothing and are no longer chained to the wall. Mariana, now weak after her latest ordeal, can only watch while laying on the ground (but with her hands still tied behind her, I love it) as her friend is bound in a standing spreadeagle position. After stripping her clothing off her, Francisca is given a bloody whipping of her own. This time it's fairly obvious that the paint-covered whip was used as bloody marks appear on her skin with relative ease, giving away the trick way too quickly. But it's followed up with an impressive branding as a cross (how appropriate) is smokily burned into each of Francisca's hands and across her chest.
As if to reward himself for a job well done, the torturer then helps himself to Mariana's body, raping her from behind in a very intense but sadly way too short segment, lasting only about a minute and with no visible nudity. And then the sobbing girl crawls on her knees over to her unconscious friend, now hanging limply in bondage. Mariana is totally defeated and collapses in a heap on the ground, perhaps the most emotionally affecting scene of the movie. If you're not moved by her performance here, you probably don't have a pulse.
In the climactic final scene, the girls are taken out to a field where Francisca is tied to a cross to be left to survive the elements for 3 days, while Mariana is to be burned at the stake. The burning at the stake scene actually starts off great. Mariana is led to the stake, her garment is stripped away, and there's some nice close-up footage of her being tied to it with ropes and chains. Anticipation is building. And then the executioner approaches with a torch...an unlit torch. What? Okay, if you look carefully, you can see a wisp of smoke coming off the tip, but no flame whatsoever. He touches the slightly smoldering stick in several places around the pyre and it's almost like he's play-acting since there's no flame there. I swear, it's like they were going to add the fire afterward in post production but forgot.
In spite of that, the fire somehow does get started, although it seems to be blazing well in close-up but in long shots there's mostly just some smoke. And at this point, the executioner and the rest of the gang simply walk away and leave the girls alone. And I'm thinking, um, guys, that fire is barely going, you sure it's gonna do its job while you're gone? And the biggest problem is the relatively tiny pile of wood at her feet. There's not enough wood there to burn her up...maybe just singe her feet and ankles. Whose idea was it to order the kiddy-sized burning at the stake kit from Toys R Us?
Then there's the inconsistency in editing. I know the flames were added later, that's a given. But they vary wildly from shot to shot. From one angle it looks like they have a decent blaze going. A second later they cut to a slightly different angle and the flames have disappeared. We're talking about common sense continuity editing mistakes that throw the credibility of the illusion right out the window.
The acting in the scene by Amy is, like in all the other scenes, superb. She really sells her distress with some intense screaming. The scene closes out with close-ups of her anguished face as the flames and smoke whip up around her. This is the one time that the burning portion of the scene actually works, but by then, I was already a non-believer. What a shame, I was really looking forward to this scene.
The film's "secret" ending is one I won't reveal here, but there's a bit of a twist. It's seems tacked on and I didn't quite buy it, but then it's very brief anyway and doesn't adversely affect the rest of the good stuff we'd seen previously.
Maleficarum is a handsome production and looks more expensive than it probably is, shot on hi-def video and evoking a medieval atmosphere with gorgeous period lighting and the use of authentic locations. The acting by the two victims, particularly Amy Hesketh, is spot-on and makes nearly every scene work. One criticism I have of the editing is that too often the torture scenes are intercut with talking head interviews, at times even having their dialogue drown out the sounds of the screaming. Cutting away from the good stuff is an annoying aspect of most theatrical movies, and in trying to make his film more mainstream, director Avila yields to those same conventions. But it's a small quibble for an ambitious film with high aspirations that manages to succeed nearly every time. Well done, guys.