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Plot: young couple are haunted by ghosts in their new home.

Midnight Hair (夜半梳頭 or Comb your Hair in the Middle of the Night, released in some markets under the more simple title of Fatal Beauty), is another in a long line of, frankly, featureless and virtually interchangeable Mainland China ghost horrors that - two decades removed from the infinitely superior Ringu (1998), and a decade-plus from such diverse and atmospheric genre pieces as The Eye (2002), Ju-on (2002), and even Dark Water (2002) – bears more of a resemblance to Netflix fodder as We Are Not Alone (2016) and Verónica (2017). It’s anybody's guess why China insists on churning out these things en masse and it beggars belief why the Film Bureau insists on greenlighting so many of these things since they’re all the same anyway. Not even Cold Pupil (2013), Lift to Hell (2013), and Haunted Sisters (2017) were as desperate and convoluted as this flaming trainwreck of a production. It has the ominous shadows, the stereotypical synth score, and enough completely telegraphed jumpscares to scare the non-horror fan witless. Much scarier of a prospect, however, is that Midnight Hair is so unbelievably uniform in its conformity that not even Daniella Wang Li Danni’s ample (and often gratuitously displayed) cleavage is able to offer any solace.

Daniella Wang Li Danni (王李丹妮) is a fashion model that was discovered on the 2010 China Fashion Underwear Model Contest. Wang is perhaps best described as the Amy Yip Ji-Mei of the Instagram generation. Chinese netizens have crowned Daniella “China's Goddess of Boobs” (never mind that Wang’s of Mongolian descent) because China has something of an obsession with boobs. Not that we mind. Whereas Yip became famous for her “Yip tease” (where she went to great lengths not to show anything in her contractual nude scenes, kind of like Chingmy Yau with Jing Wong) Wang’s early fame was built on exactly the opposite. Daniella did famously expose her bust (and pretty much everything else) in Due West: Our Sex Journey (2012) and Due West 2: Our Sex Vacation (2015). Unfortunately Daniella won’t be letting her famous puppies loose here with this being a Mainland China production. That doesn’t stop Midnight Hair from exploiting Wang’s presence and curvature to the fullest. Say what you will about Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜), Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (胡梦媛), Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang (潘霜霜), Pan Chun-Chun (潘春春), Miki Zhang Yi-Gui (张已桂), Yang Ke (杨可), and Zhu Ke Er (朱可). They never had to lower themselves to the assorted indignities of the Category III genre. Believe it or not, Wang has actually managed to eke out a very respectable career on the big and small screen.

A Mu (Lee Wei) moves with his two months pregnant wife Le Xiaomei (Daniella Wang Li Danni) into the villa of his friend A Ming (Dai Xiang-Yu). Once they are settled in Xiaomei begins to see the apparition of a ghostly woman in the house, a painting that keeps reappearing no matter how many times she disposes of it, and a creepy doll that keeps turning up in the strangest places and times. The situation doesn’t get any beter when a series of boxes with threatening messages arrive at their doorstep. One day the couple visit the orphanage where A Mu and A Ming grew up together. Aunt Zhang (Sun Gui-Tian) tells Xiaomei how he maintained a long relationship with Gingqing (Yang Zi-Tong) that lasted well into adulthood, but acrimoniously ended when Gingqing left him for another man. Xiaomei comes to the realization that they ghosts that have been haunting her abode aren’t ghosts in the metaphysical sense, but ghosts from the past. Now that the secret of A Mu and A Ming is out, who can she trust?

Usually there are two types of Chinese ghost movies: those made in Mainland China and those produced outside of it. Typically (but not always) those made outside of the Mainland are far stronger in every aspect that matters. Places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and the Koreas have a good enough pedigree in that respect. Generally they are subject of laxer regulations and government censorship, and thus allow for more unbridled creativity, irrespective whether they are based on ancient folklore or more urban examples of the genre. Mainland China, being the hermetic and isolationist society that it is, is bound by a completely different set of government-sanctioned regulations than the rest of the country and its culturally similar neighbors. To dispense with the obvious (at least to anyone who has seen one or two of these things), Mainland China ghost movies never feature any actual ghosts, unless they are adapted from old folkloric tales. Anything in an urban setting typically never does. A good writer and director might be able to skirt around these regulations, but more often than not these productions are helmed by inexperienced younglings.

It’s easy to blame Daniella Wang Li Danni for this debacle, but in truth she’s merely a symptom of a far bigger problem that director Liu Ning and writer Tang Jia-Qi have allowed to fester. That is, despite all the convoluted plot twists and last-minute revelations, Midnight Hair is a garden-variety thriller (and not even a very good one at that) masquerading as a supposed ghost horror. It has all the basic hallmarks of a ghost horror (creepy dolls, ominous portraits, cryptic notes; dark shadows, plenty of telegraphed jumpscares, et al) yet by all accounts is a by-the-book thriller that isn’t exactly very riveting or thrilling, for that matter. The ghost aspect is preposterous to begin with because Mainland China doesn’t allow for ghosts per government rule. As a result many of these features tend to be on the vanilla side of perfunctory and bland in their stark utilitarianism. Often, once you have seen enough of these things, the most interesting part is guessing which convoluted excuse the writers used in whatever feature you happen to be watching to explain the non-appearance of a ghost. The writing isn’t exactly terrible with Midnight Hair, but it makes you wonder why they insisted on making this a supposed ghost horror when it worked beter as a thriller.

This being a general market release Daniella Wang Li Danni isn’t allowed to do much in terms of nudity and as such isn’t able to steam up these exceedingly dull proceedings the way you’d expect. There’s a strange duality to the way Midnight Hair treats its sole star. She painted as the stereotypical innocent ingénue and prerequisite damsel-in-distress for the majority of the feature, yet in the same breath she’s hypersexualized and (often for no discernable reason whatsoever) an unwilling victim of groping and extensive near-softcore cleavage shots and simulated lovemaking scenes. The obligatory shower scene is accounted for, and just like Bollywood filmmakers in the eighties director Liu Ning shows unexpected creativity in finding ways of keeping Daniella covered without resorting to optical fogging or having her wear a swimsuit. Unlike those ancient Spanish fantaterror flicks no nudity-heavy international market versions seem to exist and Midnight Hair is strictly aimed at the domestic market.

Just like Three On A Meathook (1972) or the more recent Mainland China ghost horror Haunted Sisters (2017) this one is also heavily indebted to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterclass in suspense Psycho (1960). It speaks to the inventiveness of Hitchcock’s most enduring work that filmmakers from every corner of the world and across genres are still imitating his innovations some 50 years after the fact. Midnight Hair does have the obligatory shower scene, but Chrissie Chau Sau-Na’s in Cold Pupil (2013) was at least somewhat in the general direction of the famous Janet Leigh scene. Neither offers up a gander of either actress’ figure in silhouette the way old Alfred did. The similarities with Psycho (1960) continue with the third act last-minute revelation as to the nature of the killer’s homicidal psychosis. Just like in Three On A Meathook (1972) there’s an amateurish info dump towards the end after which Midnight Hair abruptly ends, Italian style. William Girdler wasn’t able to handle it in the seventies, and neither is writer Tang Jia-Qi some four decades later. There’s a throwaway scene in the beginning where Midnight Hair implies it’s going to be a Chinese version of Candyman (1992), but that would require, you know, actual effort from the writer and director.

Were Midnight Hair to play to its mild giallo-lite strengths it might have been a whole lot more interesting. Since this is a Mainland China feature no such thing will be forthcoming. Had this been a straight-up whodunit or hyper-stylized murder mystery perhaps Midnight Hair could have been something. It would have certainly given Daniella Wang something to do. Had this been produced in Hong Kong it could have been a contemporary Amuck (1972), Strip Nude For Your Killer (1975), or The Killer Must Kill Again (1975) or even a lesser example of the form as The French Sex Murders (1972), Naked Girl Killed in the Park (1972), or The Sister Of Ursula (1978). The script from Tang Jia-Qi is certainly convoluted, labyrinthine and filled with enough familial dysfunction, kink, and mania to warrant comparison to the average giallo. Short on both suspense and pretty much bloodless Midnight Hair is closer to Cold Pupil (2013), Lift to Hell (2013), and Haunted Sisters (2017) than to any of the classic Asian ghost horror of yore. Like so many of these Mainland China ghost horror features it is competently made but barely tends to leave any impression at all. It’s competent and featureless, just like the ghosts that typically inhabit this strangely popular subgenre.

Plot: photojournalist and writer explore Cantabrian mountains and find witches.

The Witches Mountain (released back at home as El monte de la Brujas, for once released on the foreign market under its native title and not unnecessarily saddled with half a dozen alternative titles) is a wonderfully overlooked curio that perhaps deserves a bit more love than it usually tends to get. As a minor entry in the continental European witchcraft canon at the dawn of the wicked and wild seventies it’s ostensibly described as either boring or uneventful. While not entirely untrue it’s exactly that reservation and moderation that makes it so strangely compelling and hypnotizing in its minimalism. Mired by problems and legal complications during and after production The Witches Mountain didn’t make much, or any kind, of a splash. It immediately and unceremoniously sank to obscurity. While not a classic or mandatory fantaterror by any stretch of the imagination The Witches Mountain is a chilling little shocker if you approach it with measured expectations and are prepared to meet it halfway.

The men behind The Witches Mountain are Raúl Artigot and José Truchado. In the pantheon of legendary Iberian horror directors Raúl Artigot is a forgotten footnote. He wasn’t a one-hit wonder the way Claudio Guerín was with his A Bell From Hell (1973) before his premature death (or suicide, as some sources allege) forever enshrined him a cult legend. Neither was he a Miguel Madrid Ortega who helmed a few features before fading into irrelevance and never to be spoken of. No, Artigot (whether deserved or not) was and remained a complete nobody not really remembered at all. Artigot was a cinematographer who started in 1964 and in that capacity worked with Eloy de la Iglesia, Francisco Lara Polop, Germán Lorente, Javier Aguirre, and Mariano Ozores. Unfortunately their talent for shooting great looking movies on small budgets didn’t rub off on him. Producer José Truchado had experience in front of the camera as an actor and behind it as a writer and sometime director. It seems only natural that eventually the two of them would want to write and produce their own feature. When production company Azor Films (a subsidiary of Paramount with funding primarily coming from France) offered them the chance to produce their own horror. They took to shooting in and around Artigot’s native Asturias in northwestern Spain and wrote a screenplay incorporating the then-popular Eurocult subjects of diabolism and witchcraft that were popular at the drive-ins and grindhouses with titles as The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971), Blood Sabbath (1972), and Erotic Witchcraft (1972) as well as Asturias most famous landmarks. While ambitious and timely in its own way, there were troubles ahead for The Witches Mountain.

Allegedly two actresses (their identities were never revealed) filed a complaint for a night shoot which required nudity. The claim was debunked but the production was heavily fined and on the basis of said complaint was denied a domestic theatrical release. The exact year of release is murky and subject of some speculation but most contemporary sources agree on 1972. What is known is that The Witches Mountain never had an official premiere - either domestic or abroad - except at the Sitges Catalonian International Film Festival in 1973 where it would have been in the good company of Harry Kümmel’s Malpertuis (1971) and Václav Vorlícek’s The Girl On the Broomstick (1972) as well as Ivan Reitman’s Cannibal Girls (1973), and Juan Luis Buñuel’s Expulsion Of the Devil (1973) had it actually made the selection that year. Alas, that didn’t happen because of the blacklist (and its resultant nonexistent domestic release, theatrical or otherwise) and it received but a special mention from the jury. In North America it was picked up by Avco Embassy Pictures which had a hit with Mike Nichols' Carnal Knowledge (1971) but was in steady decline on every other front. It has been given sporadic screenings by Filmoteca Española. After The Witches Mountain Artigot would work as a director of photography on Jess Franco's The Demons (1973) and The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein (1973), Amando de Ossorio's third Blind Dead installment The Ghost Galleon (1974) as well as the giallo Perversión (1974) and The Pyama Girl Case (1977). Truchado would later contribute to the screenplay of Hundra (1983). Assistant director Andrés Vich would go on to work with León Klimovsky on The Dracula Saga (1973) and The Vampires Night Orgy (1973). Suffice to say, not everyone grows up to be Paul Naschy, Amando de Ossorio, or León Klimovsky.

After a particularly difficult breakup with his longtime girlfriend Carla (Mónica Randall) photojournalist Mario (Cihangir Gaffari, as John Caffari) calls up his employer demanding his vacation days be revoked and he be given an, or really any, assignment. He’s given the order to photograph the mysterious famed The Witches Mountain in the Cantabrian Mountains in Asturias in the north of Spain. He takes a stroll around Ribadesella coast (most likely Playa de la Atalaya) where from a hillside he spots Delia (Patty Shepard) sunbathing (topless, of course). He strikes up conversation learning that Delia is a freelance writer and on a whim he invites her on his planned excursion. Delia has to pick up a few things from her house and while waiting outside Mario hears sinister choral chants. Delia shrugs it off and says he must be imagining things. As the shades of night descend they take up lodging in an ancient, dilapidated inn run by a semi-deaf, half mad local (Víctor Israel) who spouts ominous cryptic warnings about folklore of a coven of witches having taken up residence and warns them to stay far from the cursed mountain. The two push on regardless and the next day they’re making their way up to the next town. Mario’s car is suddenly stolen by an unseen figure and the two are stranded.

In a decaying and mostly abandoned village they are mystified to not only find Mario’s car but also the complete absence of any inhabitants. They are taken in by elderly Zanta (Ana Farra) who dresses in all black and is even more superstitious than the mad innkeeper they met earlier. Mario goes on a photo-shooting excursion and becomes lost in the woods. That night he spots what he believes to be a procession (or witches sabbath) as Delia succumbs to the hysterics of local superstition, peninsular folklore and mythology. Mario is an adherent of the empirical method and believes there’s a rational explanation for all the strange occurences they’ve been experiencing. Not that that helps Delia any as she grows more anxious as their journey progresses. Only one blonde villager (Soledad Silveyra) seems to be remotely within their age bracket. As the night grows darker Zanta reveals her true intentions of initiating Delia into their cult as she’s a spitting image of the head witch they venerate. In a hitherto undiscovered obscure corner of the dwelling Mario finds a bunch of dusty arcane grimoires, brooms, candles, a voodoo doll only to be mercilessly stalked by an aggressively meowing black cat that materialized out of the darkness. He’s startled even more when said black cat transforms into a comely blonde (Inés Morales) that aggressively, almost sexually, attacks him. Realizing that all he has experienced is not a figment of his fevered imagination he’s mortified when he learns that the high priestess of the coven is none other than his Carla…

The ensemble cast has both experienced veterans and the hottest starlets of the day. The biggest names here are probably Mónica Randall, Patty Shepard, and Víctor Israel. Multiple award-winning and nominated actress Randall was a pillar in macaroni western, Eurocrime and Eurospy and in the early 1970s had commenced her entrance into and eventual ascension on Spanish television. Randall could be seen in My Dear Killer (1972), The Devil's Cross (1975), and Inquisition (1977). She twice won the Prize of the National Syndicate of Spectacle (once in 1968 and then again in 1978) and was given the TP de Oro and Fotogramas de Plata for the work in television and in more recent years was given lifetime achievement awards. Shepard was an American expat and one of continental Europe’s many Barbara Steele wannabes. She primarily worked in Spain and can be seen in Assignment Terror (1969), The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971), My Dear Killer (1972), The Killer Is One of Thirteen (1973), Crypt Of the Living Dead (1973), and the Bud Spencer-Terence Hill actioner Watch Out, We’re Mad (1974).

In much smaller roles are Inés Morales and Soledad Silveyra. Morales was in Feast For the Devil (1971), Curse of the Vampire (1972), The Return Of Walpurgis (1973), and Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1974). Why cast someone as beautiful as Inés Morales in a role so inconsequential and then don’t do anything with her? She plays a bit part usually reserved for Loreta Tovar, María Kosty, or Carmen Yazalde. Beggars can’t be choosers so don’t expect any actual big names like Bárbara Rey, Dyanik Zurakowska, Cristina Suriani, or Anulka Dziubinska. Silveyra was an Argentinian import that remains popular and active to this day. Cihangir Gaffari was in Jess Franco’s The Demons (1973), The Curse of Frankenstein (1973), and Amando de Ossorio’s The Ghost Galleon (1974). Luis Barboo was in The Case of the Scorpion's Tail (1971), Female Vampire (1973), The Loreley's Grasp (1973), Return of the Blind Dead (1973), Night Of the Assassins (1974), The Pyjama Girl Case (1977), Supersonic Man (1979), The Return Of the Wolfman (1980), and Conan the Barbarian (1982). The most recognizable easily is character actor Víctor Israel, he of Horror Express (1972), The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975), The Wicked Caresses of Satan (1976), and Hell Of the Living Dead (1980). Inés Morales and Víctor Israel both were in Necrophagus (1971). The average moviegoer might recognize Israel as the Confederate sergeant from Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966).

First and foremost The Witches Mountain contains some of the most gruelling and jarring hard cuts, not to mention that it regularly feels like two movies stitched together. Take, for instance, the pre-credit opening gambit that has Mónica Randall chasing Conchita Linares around an opulent mansion. Upon first glance you could easily mistake this for a continental European Village of the Damned (1960) imitation. It’s eerily prescient of the The Exorcist (1973) imitations that soon would flood the market. To make matters worse it’s immediately followed by Mónica Randall and Cihangir Gaffari discussing their amourous incompatability in a scene of social dysfunction that would be right at home in a giallo murder mystery. Apropos of nothing, both scenes will never be referred to (or referenced) again. Patty Shepard and Gaffari are the most unlikely on-screen couple this side of Sherry Buchanan and Franco Garofalo in Mario Gariazzo's Eyes Behind the Stars (1978), Laura Trotter and Hugo Stiglitz in Nightmare City (1980), or Antonella Interlenghi and Giovanni Lombardo Radice in City Of the Living Dead (1980).

No matter how hard and loud the English dubbing tries or no matter how many times Shepard takes her top off, there’s just no chemistry. During the second act Shepard wears a yellow suit, something Evelyne Kraft would do also in in Lady Dracula (1977) some five years later. While none of the four writers come up with any explanation for the witches’ motivations at least they have the decency to have their leads act not as clueless and complete morons. At various points the screenplay lifts plot elements from The Mask Of Satan (1960), Night Of the Damned (1971) and to a lesser degree The Wicker Man (1973). The eye-bleeding color and the reddest of blood so innate to Spanish horror are notably absent and the entire thing looks sort of earthen and brownish. Alfonso Brescia’s The Battle Of the Amazons (1973) suffered much of the same. Unfortunately there’s no Paola Tedesco to soften the blow. Fernando Garcia Morcillo’s score is simultaneously unobtrusive and completely overwrought as it alternates between atonal choral chants and laidback chanson.

The stars of The Witches Mountain are not so much Mónica Randall, Cihangir Gaffari, or Patty Shepard but the Ribadesella coast (most likely Playa de la Atalaya), the Cantabrian mountain range, the La Hermida gorge (El desfiladero de La Hermida) named after the Cantabrian municipality of Peñarrubia that it crosses, the Deva river as well as The Picos de Europa, the province of Covadonga and its two Lagos or lakes, Lake Enol and Lake Ercina. Whether the cave seen here is the actual Cuadonga (or "Cave of Our Lady") is anybody’s guess. Whereas Giorgio Ferroni used the sprawling natural environment to utmost effect in The Night Of the Devils (1972) here the enormous panoramic views of the Cantabrian mountains and wider Asturias aren’t properly captured nor fully exploited. Ramón Sempere and Fernando Espiga photograph them good enough but there was definitely more here. Judging by the jarring cuts and hard scene transitions The Witches Mountain feels as if it was subject to some extensive cutting by the censors/distributors. This implicitly suggests the existence of some vaunted nudity-heavy foreign market version, although there never have been any reports explicitly stating of one such cut even existing. When the movie got its creepy poster art (worthy of an 1980s South American extreme metal band or an early American or European death metal band) is anybody’s guess. Whatever the case, The Witches Mountain deserves more love than it’s currently getting.

Being remembered for something is better than not being remembered at all. When it fires on all its cylinders The Witches Mountain can actually be pretty suspenseful when it wants to be. Unfortunately a lot of the time it’s just kind of meandering and never really sure how far it wants to push some of its more identifiable elements. Take, for instance, the thematically similar Sukkubus (1989). It did more with less and had the good fortune of a feral and permanently undressed Pamela Prati. The Witches Mountain wants to be occult but never pushes its pagan aspect the way The Wicker Man (1973) so brilliantly did. Neither does it for that matter commit to the witchcraft so central to the plot. It borrows from The Night Of the Devils (1972) but never quite gets there. What a waste to have Mónica Randall, Patty Shepard, Soledad Silveyra, and Inés Morales at your disposal and not do anything worthwhile with them. Night Of the Damned (1971) only had Patrizia Viotti and somehow was much sexier. There’s even an argument to be made that Satan's Slave (1976) (with Candace Glendenning) told pretty much a similar story and did it much, much better. If it wasn’t the case already The Witches Mountain is one of those little cult curios begging for a grand high-definition 4/8K restoration. If anyone’s up for the task, here’s your chance…