Wednesday, 6 May 2009

La strega in amore / The Witch / The Witch in Love

Not to be confused with the following year's anthology film The Witches, Damiano Damiani's The Witch AKA The Witch in Love (1966) is a film which, like much of his output, seems to fall awkwardly between the vernacular and arthouse camps.

In relation to the former, it comes across as his version - albeit via Panamanian author Carlos Fuentes's novel Aura - of the strand of Italian Gothic characterised by Bava, Margheriti and company with their characteristic theme of the dualistic female monster, often as not incarnated by Barbara Steele.

In relation to the latter, it's a slower-paced and more self-conscious about being art as well as entertainment, with a contemporary rather than period setting - albeit with almost all the action taking place in an enclosed, palazzo whose glory years are clearly behind it.

While the Ur-text of the Italian Gothic, I Vampiri, also mixed modern and classical Gothic, the two films quickly establish different approaches to their respective monsters and her relationship to their male protagonists.

Freda's film presents a Countess Bathory type figure who is never seen at the same time and place as her niece, because they are one and the same, and who is fixated on the son of her former love.

Here, in contrast, we have two women, Consuela and her daughter Aura, who are almost immediately presented together - albeit with certain uncanny traits, like a shared tendency to appear and disappear almost as if by magic and to make the same characteristic movements and gestures - whose target, whilst carefully chosen, has no evident prior connection to them to speak of.

Sergio (Richard Johnson) purchases a newspaper and finds within it a job advertisement that seems to have been written with him specifically in mind. Arriving at the address he encounters an old woman, Consuela (Sarah Ferrati), whom he suspects is the one who has kept on crossing his path in the last month. The job, she explains, is cataloguing her late husband's books - a task which, whether intentionally or not, recalls Hammer's Dracula and Jonathan Harker's subterfuge there, just as Consuela's appearances prefigure those of the heavy in Four Flies on Grey Velvet.

Somewhat disturbed by these coincidences and the old woman's eagerness to have him take the job, despite his not being a librarian, Sergio attempts to leave.

Two things stop him. First, Consuela, seems to suffer a seizure, possibly drug-induced. Second, her beautiful young daughter Aura (Rosanna Schiffiano) appears.

Remaining in the house, Sergio learns some of its other secrets, including that Consuela's husband's remains are there in a glass case, and the unwelcome presence of the previous incumbent of the librarian's post, Fabrizio (Gian Maria Volonte)...

Well performed by the four leads, on screen in one or other combination for the entirety of the one hour fifty minutes running time, reasonably well directed by Damiani and nicely shot and designed, with some good use being made of the interiors and the compositional opportunities they present, the biggest issue that many are likely to have with The Witch in Love is its aforementioned in-between nature.

By virtue of being dubbed into English for the international market and not bearing the names of any more respected auteurs, as with The Witches and Spirits of the Dead, the film would seem to have been condemned to be seen primarily by a genre audience.

As one commentator notes on the IMDB, there's also a strange affinity between the film and Joseph Losey's The Servant, perhaps suggesting that the film could even have worked without overt supernatural overtones or resolution, with this in turn perhaps indicating why Fuentes was unhappy with Damiani's adaptation and felt Bunuel would have done a better job of it, when we think of the likes of The Exterminating Angel, Belle de jour or That Obscure Object of Desire and their surrealistic confusion of dreams and reality to the point of indiscernibility.

Yet, on account of its slow pace, preference for atmosphere over shocks and the absence of any popular author's name or a star presence that Barbara Steele would have brought to the role of Aura - especially considering her appearances in The Long Hair of Death, Nightmare Castle and The She-Beast around the same time, images from of which are reprised here - it perhaps didn't have particularly obvious attractions for them either.

While Johnson had appeared in Robert Wise's The Haunting in a somewhat similar role, that was Hollywood style cautiously 'respectable' horror. Likewise, while Volonte had appeared in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More by this time and would soon appear in Damiani's own A Bullet for the General and Sergio Sollima's Face to Face, it's probably true to say that he was more enthusiastic about and recognised for his work in more serious political roles than in the latter two 'political' spaghetti westerns, never mind their 'apolitical' Leone counterparts.

But, if I didn't find The Witch in Love to be as effective or enjoyable as Kill Baby Kill or Castle of Blood, it also has to be said that these, particularly the former, do set the bar high and that the presentation of the film in the version I watched, panned and scanned with a somewhat greyish murkiness and with a muffled dub, was hardly the most conducive to proper evaluation.


Anonymous said...

Damiani's adaptation has little to do with the Fuentes novel beyond the basic plot line. There is no equivalent to the Volante character or Ivan Rassimov's later. The main character is chosen because he resembles the woman's dead husband. The novel is a dark romance (I VAMPIRI's underdeveloped love story angle suggests this more than the Damiani film). The Damiani film is stylish and compelling but also misogynistic in its changes to the source material.

K H Brown said...

Thanks for your comments - I hadn't read the novel, so have no idea of how faithful or free an adaptation the film is.

Abuelo Igor said...

By the way, Carlos Fuentes is Mexican.

K H Brown said...

Thanks - his IMDB entry has him as born in Panama City, Panama, so that's why I assumed he was Panamanian. I should have checked another source as well...

Richard of DM said...

I was really impressed with The Witches. Just a great (if overlong) haunting film. It needed more Ivan Rassimov.

Anonymous said...

Not sure why C Fuentes wasn't happy with this movie based on his novel. It is great movie. Schaffiano the most beatiful woman I ever seen. I enjoyed the movie from beginning to end.