My favorite thing to do with film censorship is to make fun of it, and the Forbidden Fruit series by Kino Lorber has given me plenty of material to work with. The latest release in that series is The Lash of the Penitentes, which actually includes two movies: the title film, which runs 36 minutes and was a perennial on the exploitation circuit, and the 48-minute The Penitente Murder Case, which is the original and uncensored version of the same film. Watching both of them, and listening to the audio commentary by Bret Wood on The Penitente Murder Case, offers a unique window into not only these two films, but also the history and conventions of film censorship and the exploitation movie business.
Lash of the Penitentes is volume 9 in the series Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture, and in case it’s not already clear, this is not a film for the easily offended. As did many exploitation pictures, The Penitente Murder Case begins with scrolling text known as a “square up,” which introduces the subject of the film and makes a claim for its educational value. In this case, it purports to show “the actual secret rites of the Penitente religious cult,” and incorporates documentary footage of those rituals within a fictional film about the murder of writer “George Mack.”
To further convince you of the filmmakers’ good intention, the introductory crawl ends with a dedication to “those venturesome, intrepid newspaper men and writers who brave the forces of the unknown and the mysterious that we might gain their knowledge, be entertained, and live vicariously with them through their thrilling and death-defying experiences, where sometimes death is the victor.” Got that? No exploitation here—this is a noble film that uplifts and educates its audience…and if you believe that, I can get you a great deal on a bridge in Brooklyn.
The hype is part of the fun, of course, and as was the case with many exploitation pictures, there’s a “ripped from the headlines” aspect to The Penitente Murder Case, which was written by Zelma Caroll and directed by Harry Revier, and incorporates previously-shot documentary footage by Roland Price. Audiences in 1936, when this film was released, would likely have heard the accusation that the religious cult Los Hermanos Penitentes had murdered Carl Taylor, a journalist who had been camping near their territory. In truth, although the Penitentes were real, and they did perform extreme penances including flagellation and binding themselves to a cross, but they didn’t kill Taylor, and their religious beliefs had nothing to do with his murder. Of course, you don’t make a successful exploitation picture by letting the truth get in the way of a good story.
You may wonder what objections the Hays Office had to the original version of The Penitente Murder Case. Just the usual stuff: nudity, violence, and offense to Christians. Today, it mainly seems exploitative of a cultural group that mainly kept to themselves, and certainly didn’t deserve to have their religious practices distorted for outsiders to gawk at. Be that as it may, neither version of this film ever got a certificate of approval, which relegated it to the exploitation circuit. We’ll never know why people paid to see it, but some might have come for Price’s documentary footage, which can be quite poetic, and which offered viewers a chance to travel vicariously to a part of the country they would likely never visit in person. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Lash of the Penitentes is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include trailers for this and three other films in the Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture series, an audio commentary by series curator Bret Wood, and a shorted and censored version of the film (running 36 minutes, as opposed to 48 minutes for the complete film The Lash of the Penitentes. His commentary provides background on the film and how it fit into the exploitation circuit, and analyzes the differences between the two versions.