The Witch (1966) Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: October 18, 2022 (as part of Gothic Fantastico: Four Italian Tales of Terror)
Video: 1.85:1/1080p/Black & White
Audio: English and Italian LPCM 1.0 Mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 109:22
Director: Damiano Damiani
Note: This Blu-ray is currently only available as part of Arrow’s Gothic Fantastico: Four Italian Tales of Terror four-movie set, which also includes The Blancheville Monster (aka: Horror, 1963), Lady Morgan’s Vengeance (Italian: La vendetta di Lady Morgan, 1965), and The Third Eye (Italian: Il terzo occhio, 1966).
A philanderer named Sergio (Richard Johnson) is lured into a suspiciously specific archival job by an enigmatic older woman (Sarah Ferrati). When the woman falls ill, he meets the woman’s beautiful young daughter, Aura (Rosanna Schiaffino), and is smitten. But nothing is as it seems in the old library and the situation is complicated when the original archivist and Aura’s lover (Gian Maria Volontè) returns.
Comic book artist, screenwriter, and documentarian Damiano Damiani’s The Witch (Italian: La strega in amore; aka: Strange Obsession) was released in 1966 towards the end of the initial Italian Gothic horror fad. Not only was the Italian audience moving on to westerns and gialli, but even the UK and US roots of the movement were fading. Hammer Studios was struggling to connect with younger, hipper audiences – an issue that eventually led to their closure in the mid-’70s – and Roger Corman ended his Poe Cycle series, opting to direct and produce science fiction/horror, like Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood (1966), before diving head first into counterculture exploitation, like Daniel Haller’s Devil’s Angels (1967) and The Trip (1967). Even the progenitor himself, Mario Bava, whose Black Sunday (Italian: La maschera del demonio; aka: The Mask of Satan, 1960) had kicked off the international interest in eerie, black & white costume horror from Italy, had, Baron Blood (Italian: Gli orrori del castello di Norimberga, 1972) and Lisa and the Devil (1974) notwithstanding, mostly moved on to pop art comedies, comic book adventures, and satirically-slanted gialli.
The Witch might not have the lasting cultural cache of Black Sunday or Antonio Margheriti’s Castle of Blood (Italian: Danza Macabra, 1964), in fact, it was a box office flop, but, in an effort to modernize Gothic formulas, it uses dream-logic, which may have informed the quixotic nature of the next generation of Italian horror, namely Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), and Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980) and The Beyond (Italian: ...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà; aka: Seven Doors of Death, 1981). One key difference is Damiani’s focus on the romantic side of the Gothic, eschewing the physical nature of horror in order to focus almost exclusively on the emotional, contrary to Argento and Fulci, who revel in graphic violence and nightmare imagery. Unlike the period’s other Gothic horrors, Damiani and Ugo Liberatore’s screenplay was inspired by a contemporary novella by "the Balzac of Mexico," Carlos Fuentes, entitled Aura (pub. 1962), not a story by Poe, Stoker, or Shelley. In his book, Italian Gothic Horror Films, 1957-1969 (McFarland & Company, 2015), Roberto Curti notes that Aura was a favorite of pioneering surrealist Luis Buñuel and that Damiani’s tonal/technical approach is informed by Roman Polanski’s earliest films “...in the attempt to transplant a cultured notion of the Fantastic into contemporary Italy – something truly unprecedented in Italian cinema.”
The Witch’s supernatural happenings are subtler and can be taken either literally or as the hallucinations of afflicted minds, similar to Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Robert Altman’s Images (1972), or the brain-breaking gialli of the following decade, like Fulci’s Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Italian: Una Lucertola con la Pelle di Donna; aka: Schizoid, 1971). Even the cobweb swept mansion and labyrinthine library appear representative of the protagonist’s disoriented mind. Notably, those films, as well as most of ‘60s Italian Gothic horror, adhere to feminine points-of-view, whereas The Witch is told from a male perspective. Furthermore, there are two lovesick men at the heart of the story, men who call into question typical Italian machismo with their infatuation and frailty. If we’re counting The Witch as the endpoint of the original thread of Gothic movies that began with Black Sunday, it’s interesting to acknowledge that it doesn’t actually change the original themes of feminine retribution or dangerous feminine sexuality, but it does seem to be responding to trope by switching the gender perspective. At the very least, as Curti says, Damiani and co-writer Ugo Liberatore were interested in transferring classic Gothic into the modern day, and that includes exploring how the lustful powers of an old-world witch might affect a contemporary womanizer.
One year after The Witch, Damiani made his greatest contribution to Italian cinema with Bullet for the General (Italian: El Chuncho, Quien Sabe?). That film made its debut in January of 1967, fewer than two months before Sergio Sollima’s similarly themed The Big Gundown (Italian: La Resa dei Conti, which translates to The Showdown), kicking off a string of westerns that used the Mexican Revolution as a framing device for modern political statements, known as Zapata westerns (named for Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata). The next year, Damiani teamed with actor Franco Nero for The Day of the Owl (Italian: Il giorno della civetta; aka: Mafia, 1968), leading to three more politically-charged poliziotteschi pairings for the star and director – Confessions of a Police Captain (Italian: Confessione di un commissario di polizia al procuratore della repubblica), The Case is Closed, Forget It (Italian: L'istruttoria è chiusa: dimentichi, 1971), and How to Kill a Judge (Italian: Perché si uccide un magistrato, 1974) – ahead of an unlikely return to horror with Amityville II: The Possession (1982), an official sequel/prequel to Stuart Rosenberg’s The Amityville Horror. Amityville II had a healthy $5 million budget and was co-produced by Americans and Mexicans under Italian megaproducer Dino De Laurentiis. The only thing it has in common with Damiani’s other work is the fact that it is allegedly based on a true story, otherwise, it is a surprisingly punchy follow-up to the bland original that cribs more from Sam Raimi than Stuart Rosenberg.
The small cast is also remarkable, considering the scope of their combined cult prestige. Richard Johnson, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and star of Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), was an Italian horror regular, appearing in Ovidio G. Assonitis’ shameless Exorcist rip-off, Beyond the Door (Italian: Chi sei?, 1974), Massimo Dallamano’s The Cursed Medalion (Italian: Il medaglione insanguinato, 1975), Sergio Martino’s The Island of the Fishmen (Italian: L'isola degli uomini pesce; aka: Screamers, 1979) and The Great Alligator (Italian: Il fiume del grande caimano, 1979), and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2, 1979). Dubbed “The Italian Hedy Lamarr” by hopeful promoters, beauty queen and wife of producer Alfredo Bini, Rosanna Schiaffino, is best known to cult audiences for Enzo G. Castellari’s randy comedy, Hector the Mighty (Italian: Ettore lo fusto, 1972, co-written by Fulci), Peter Collinson’s Italian-American western, The Man Called Noon (Italian: Un hombre llamado Noon, 1973), and Giuseppe Bennati’s giallo, The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (Italian: L'assassino ha riservato nove poltrone, 1974).
Sergio Martino giallo favorite Ivan Rassimov also pops in as an unnamed third librarian, but the biggest name is Fistful of Dollars (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, 1964) and For a Few Dollars More (Italy: Per qualche dollaro in più, 1965) villain Gian Maria Volontè. A noted Communist, Volontè reteamed with Damiani for A Bullet for the General and with Sollima for a second Zapata western, Face to Face (Italian: Faccia a faccia, 1967), and continued working with politically active filmmakers, including Elio Petri (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion [Italian: Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto, 1970]), Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Cercle Rouge, 1970), Francesco Rosi (The Mattei Affair [Italian: Il Caso Mattei, 1972]), and Jean-Luc Godard/Jean-Pierre Gorin (Le Vent d'Est ).
If you are interested in further discussion of the year that Black Sunday became a watershed hit, please check out the two-part 25th episode of the Genre Grinder podcast, where Patrick Ripoll and I take a look at the Year in Horror: 1960.
Episode 25: Year in Horror: 1960 (Part 1) Episode 25: Year in Horror: 1960 (Part 2)
The Witch was eventually released stateside in 1969, but I can’t find any evidence that it ever hit US VHS (or Beta) tape or English-friendly DVD. It’s a bit difficult to research this, though, given the film’s rather generic English language release title (it’s pretty easy to mix it up with Cyril Frankel’s The Witches, also 1966, or the multi-director anthology Le Streghe from 1967). Previous to this Blu-ray release, the best version was a fan-dubbed/subbed rip of a 1.66:1 Italian Sky Cinema Classics TV broadcast. While that was a decent bootleg option, it is moot, thanks to Arrow’s new 2K restoration of the original negatives, presented in 1080p and 1.85:1. Throughout the film, cinematographer Leonida Barboni’s lush, black & white photography is purposefully soft, which can lead to uneven grain levels, but at no point do things turn snowy or overly noisy. Despite the softness, each frame is brimming with rich texture, tidy patterns, and tonal complexities. Print damage is limited to incredibly minor vertical streaks.
The Witch is presented with two audio options, Italian and English, both in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 mono. As per usual, this, like most Italian films of the era, was shot without synced sound and all language versions were dubbed, meaning that there is no official language version. Based on lip sync, it seems that Richard Johnson was performing in English, while the rest of the major cast was performing in Italian. The English dub cast features familiar voices doing a particularly good job of it, but Johnson doesn’t seem to be dubbing himself (I could be wrong). Overall, the two mixes are almost identical, in terms of sound quality and clarity with the English track exhibiting a little more vocal hiss. The jazzy, dreamy, evocative score was written by Argentinian composer Luis Bacalov, best known for his spaghetti western and poliziotteschi music (including A Bullet for the General), and winning an Oscar for Il Postino (directed by Michael Radford, 1996).
Commentary with Kat Ellinger – The editor-in-chief of Diabolique Magazine, author, and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast offers up another thoughtful and informative track that covers the state of Italian Gothic during the era, the source novella, other literary inspirations, such as magical realism and fairy tales, the contrast between the modern and period, Bacalov’s score, psychosexual and social themes, the careers of the cast and crew, and the fact that a feminine reading of the film is probably a “happy accident,” not a conscious statement on Damiani’s part.
Witchery (3:46, HD) – Italian film devotee Mark Thompson Ashworth admits that, of all the movies in the Gothic Fantastico set, he is least comfortable talking about this film. Still, he gives a nice, quick rundown of the production and work of the filmmakers.
Loving the Devil: Aging and Sexuality in La Strega di Amore (24:25, HD) – Academic and author of the (as of this writing) upcoming Witchcraft and Adolescence in American Popular Culture: Teen Witches (University of Wales Press, 2022) Miranda Corcoran discusses the folkloric, pop culture, and real-world history of witches, and how this informs Damiani’s film.
The Rome Witch Project (18:38, HD) – Author of Italian Horror Movies (Profondo Rosso, 2013) and co-writer of Dario Argento’s Dracula 3D (2012) Antonio Tentori wraps things up with a look at Damiani’s career, the work of writer Carlos Fuentes, The Witch’s contrasting use of antiquity and modernism, the film’s sensuality, claustrophobia, mirror imagery, and the careers of the cast & crew.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.