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Plot: philandering historian is beguiled by a woman who might, or might not, be a witch.

La strega in amore (or The Witch In Love, released in the Anglo-Saxon world as simply The Witch) is something of a minor entry in the Italian gothic horror canon that marks an interesting stylistic turning point despite its relative but enduring obscurity. Based on the 1962 novel Aura by Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes and not nearly as kitschy/camp as Italian horror was wont to be around this time perhaps the greatest thing that The Witch In Love has going for it is its minimalism approach. At heart more of a film noir (a troubled, philandering man is seduced by a mysterious femme fatale) with a gothic bend rather than a full-on horror there’s much to be had if you know where to look. Just like The Demon (1963) (with Daliah Lavi) before it The Witch In Love is more of a reflection of then-contemporary times and values rather than a contemplation upon it. And just like that film it was one of the many Italian gothics to inspire Anna Bilder’s The Love Witch (2016). The Witch In Love is an elegant fusion of genres, is beautifully multi-faceted and like Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) it becomes that what you want it to be. It’s all here, carefully and seamlessly weaved together into a quiet genre piece.

Damiano Damiani got his start as a cartoonist, illustrator and scriptwriter in comics before eventually moving to screenwriting. Film critic Paolo Mereghetti described him as, "the most American of Italian directors" whereas Pier Paolo Pasolini was less kind in his assessment calling him, "a bitter moralist hungry for old purity." Damiani experienced his personal golden age during the sixties when he alternated between spaghetti westerns, socio-political Mafia crime epics and poliziottesco. While not as remembered as some of his contemporaries he has his share of classics in the form of A Complicated Girl (1968) (with Florinda Bolkan), The Most Beautiful Wife (1970) (with Ornella Muti), Confessions of a Police Captain (1971), and The Devil Is A Woman (1974). North American audiences might remember him from Amityville II: The Possession (1982) that he directed for producer Dino de Laurentiis. Back at home in Italy he famously directed the first season of the long-running Mafia series The Octopus (1984-2001). The Witch In Love was one of those rare instances where Damiani ventured into horror. As always it is photographed beautifully, scored unobtrusively and Damiani permeates it with his impeccable style and atmosphere.

Forty-something historian Sergio Logan (Richard Johnson) is intrigued by a mysterious white-cloaked figure that he keeps seeing wherever he goes. After a number of personal setbacks his girlfriend Marta (Elisabetta Wilding) is content that Logan has given up on his philandering ways. Or so she thinks. One day he sees an ad in the newspaper and talks to his artist friend Lorna (Margherita Guzzinati) about this potential employer. On his way to the interview he asks a local antique dealer (Ester Carloni) about the identity of the figure but answers remain cryptic and elusive. The figure leads him to an aging decrepit palatial mansion hidden deeply in the bowels of Rome. The white-cloaked figure introduces herself as Consuelo Lorente (Sarah Ferrati), the middle-aged matron of an ancient noble bloodline. Within the nighted halls of the mansion the silhouette of another woman appears seemingly out of nowhere. Aura (Rosanna Schiaffino) is the withdrawn and world-weary granddaughter of the domineering Consuelo and she has Sergio instantly beguiled. Consuelo informs him that as a live-in librarian he’ll be expected to clean and organize their dusty, rat-infested and long neglected private library. He’ll be cataloguing manuscripts and compile a personal collection of erotic literature penned by the late family patriarch. Apropos of nothing, Consuelo conveys to him that Aura’s husband Fabrizio (Gian Maria Volontè) volunteered for the job before him but grew slightly mad from isolation in the dark halls and having two seductive women around distracting him. It seems Sergio is in need of an assistant librarian (Ivan Rassimov) to complete the task. As Sergio embarks on a steamy affair with Aura he realizes he’s been lured into a web of seduction and deception on the promise of untold pleasure and fortune. What terrible secret dwells within the ancient library and the halls of their sarcophagal abode?

Richard Johnson was one of those classically trained British actors who never ascended to the level of stardom that they probably deserved. Johnson was a consummate professional who effortlessly alternated between serious fare and high camp. He honed his craft as a cornerstone member and Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Johnson was director Terence Young's preferred choice for the role of James Bond in Dr. No (1962). Johnson intended to play the role as a straight, hard-boiled man of action but had to decline the part due to his contract with MGM. Young then offered the role to a young Scotsman by the name of Sean Connery who played up the innate camp of the role and material. His first foray into horror came with The Haunting (1963) and his second billing in The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965) would culminate in his marriage to headlining star Kim Novak. Johnson shared the screen with Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier in Khartoum (1966) and from there portrayed British special agents Bulldog Drummond in Deadlier Than the Male (1967) (opposite of Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina) and Jonas Wilde in Danger Route (1967). He crossed paths with Schiaffino again in the Terence Young swashbuckling adventure The Rover (1967) before reprising his Drummond role in Some Girls Do (1969). He continued to work in Italy with The Exorcist (1973) imitations Beyond the Door (1974) and The Night Child (1975) before his legendary turn in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (1979). Johnson was married a handful of times with Françoise Pascal as his fourth partner. Pascal had parts in Pete Walker’s School for Sex (1969) and became a cult icon of her own thanks to her association with Jean Rollin and roles in The Iron Rose (1973) and the pandemic shocker (and first French gore film) The Grapes Of Death (1978).

Rosanna Schiaffino was one of the classic beauties from the Golden Age of Italian cinema. While she was off to a promising start in post-neorealist cinema of the 1950s with Piece of the Sky (1958) (where she shared the screen with Marcello Mastroianni) from producer Franco Cristaldi. He cast both again in The Challenge (1958) that won the Jury Prize on the 1958 Venice Film Festival. As the crème de la crème of leading ladies she was positioned as the "Italian Hedy Lamarr" albeit she had more in common with Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren. She relinquished said title to Claudia Cardinale at the dawn of the sixties. Schiaffino’s other more remembered roles are in the peplum spoof The Rape of the Sabines (1961) and the giallo The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (1974). For reasons largely unknown to us Schiaffino never ascended to the international sex symbol status of her contemporaries Monica Vitti, Stefania Sandrelli, or Virna Lisi.

Ivan Rassimov was seemingly part of every major cinematic innovation and genre in Italy. As a character actor he – like Gabriele Tinti and George Eastman – was an irrepressible, immovable pillar that adamantly refused to go away. His appearance here came after his role in the Mario Bava sci-fi epic The Planet Of the Vampires (1965) and before before his enshrining as a leading man in spaghetti western, in giallo during the seventies, and cannibal gutmunchers in the eighties. Rassimov was everywhere and did it all. As such he could be seen in Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), and All Colors Of the Dark (1972) (both with Edwige Fenech); the Me Me Lai cannibal triptych Man From Deep River (1972), The Last Cannibal World (1977), and Eaten Alive! (1980), the amusing The Exorcist (1973) imitation Enter the Devil (1974) (with Stella Carnacina), as well as the Star Wars (1978) knock-off The Humanoid (1979), and Ruggero Deodato’s very enjoyable sci-fi/action romp The Raiders Of Atlantis (1983). Gian Maria Volontè was a peplum veteran known mostly for appearing in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) and For A Few Dollars More (1965).

While not true to the letter of the short novel The Witch In Love stays true to it in spirit. It follows the general outline but isn’t afraid to take aristic liberties (some more drastic than others) with the source material either. Compared to Hammer and some other Italian gothics from around this time The Witch In Love is brazenly post-modern. For starters it completely excises the supernatural elements and medievalism by setting it in then-contemporary times. Compared to other gothic horrors of the day it’s quite minimalist in both setting and story. It does not nearly have the pomp of, say, Antonio Margheriti’s Castle of Blood (1964) and The Long Hair of Death (1964) or the ornate production design of Mario Bava’s The Mask Of Satan (1960). Like Camillo Mastrocinque’s Terror In the Crypt (1964) and An Angel For Satan (1966) its overflowing with atmosphere and its never afraid to turn up the heat, especially when Schiaffino engages in her alluring dance of seduction. In fact the affair that Johnson and Schiaffino’s characters embark on must have been fairly scandalous for the time. Despite being painted as a bitter moralist Damiani wasn’t afraid to push the envelope when and where he could. A lot of the times, less is more. The Witch In Love understands this and while it has no reason to work, it actually does. Perhaps there’s a reason why The Witch In Love is overlooked but quality is certainly not it.

Plot: vampire recounts his life, losses and regrets over the centuries.

There’s no contesting that the nineties were a trying time for horror at large. The genre had been reduced to broad comedy, toyed with science fiction with things like The Lawnmower Man (1992) and Brainscan (1994) and was at its lowest when made-for-television thrillers such as Mikey (1992) were passed off as the genuine thing. While Frankenstein Unbound (1990) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) didn’t exactly usher in a new decade of gothic horror revivalism, it was Jan de Bont’s 1999 redundant remake of The Haunting (1963) that effectively killed the subgenre amidst the deluge of self-reflexive Scream (1996) imitations and pretenders. Interview with the Vampire: the Vampire Chronicles (just Interview with the Vampire hereafter) answers the question what an Andy Milligan or Jean Rollin gothic horror and vampire epic would look like on a mega-budget with an all-star cast and money to burn. Sadly, it’s also terminally unscary and, this being Hollywood, repelled by the naked female form.

Seeing the innate potential of the Anne Rice novel Paramount Pictures optioned the rights in April 1976, a full month before Interview with the Vampire was to see publication. As early as 1978 word broke of a big screen adaptation with either Rutger Hauer, Jon Voight or Julian Sands and Alain Delon in the roles of Lestat and Louis, respectively and John Boorman attached to direct. As these things tend to go, the project spent the next decade-plus languishing in development hell. Actors aged in and out of their intended roles, directors and screenwriters came and went and the project was on the fast track to nowhere. At one point a gender-swapped script with Cher and Anjelica Huston attached to star was considered. As contracts weren’t renewed the rights reverted to Lorimar, and Warner Bros before finally being obtained by producer David Geffen from The Geffen Film Company. It was the box office success of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) that prompted Geffen to give Interview with the Vampire a big budget Hollywood treatment allotting it a lush $60 million, an ensemble cast of present and future superstars and a promising Irish director. After 18 years of being shopped around Hollywood Interview with the Vampire was finally here.

Neil Jordan was the force behind the Little Red Riding Hood fantasy horror The Company of Wolves (1984), he had worked with Irish rock band U2 as he filmed the music video for 'Red Hill Mining Town’ from the band’s landmark 1987 album "The Joshua Tree" and closed the eighties with the comedy We're No Angels (1989). In between his award-winning The Crying Game (1992) and the historical biopic Michael Collins (1996) he was lured to Hollywood for Interview with the Vampire. Jordan would spent the following years distancing himself from horror with, among others, the romance The End of the Affair (1999) and the Showtime series The Borgias (2011-2013). Almost twenty years later he would return to the vampire horror subgenre with Byzantium (2012) where Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton sprouted fangs. Interview with the Vampire proved lucrative, collecting a respectable $223.7 million combined at the domestic and international box office. Producers were looking to adapt the surrounding chapters of the The Vampire Chronicles series, namely The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned. Instead of two stand-alone adaptations the two were clumsily streamlined into one resulting in the often delayed and monstrosity of a sequel Queen of the Damned (2002) with Stuart Townsend and late r&b singer Aaliyah. Understandably, no more The Vampire Chronicles episodes were adapted in the aftermath.

Overzealous young journalist Daniel Malloy (Christian Slater) has been chasing what he believes to be his latest scoop. For that reason he has been shadowing his latest subject for sometime on the streets of New Orleans. When his subject enters a rowhouse and leaves the door unlocked Malloy sees his chance and follows him inside. For whatever reason Daniel has been beguiled by this in no way interesting looking young man and is deadset on interviewing him. He’s in luck as his well-tailored and pallid subject is more than willing and happy to tell his story. He hopes that Malloy’s publication will serve as a cautionary tale to others. Daniel breaks out his tapes and recorder from his duffel bag and encourages the man to introduce himself as he starts recording.

The man introduces himself as Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt), a wealthy indigo plantation owner from 1791 Spanish Louisana who emigrated to New World as part of the Louisana Purchase. Ever since losing his wife and unborn child de Pointe du Lac descended into a cynical and self-destructive downward spiral of gambling, whoring, and drinking heavily inciting brawls in taverns longing for the sweet release of death, either by his own hand or by another’s. On one of his nightly escapades he’s observed by member of the bourgeoisie Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise). Sensing Louis’ desperation and dissatisfaction with mortal life Lestat offers de Pointe du Lac a life free of suffering, frailty and illness. Louis accepts the invitation but comes to regret his decision once the initial euphoria has worn off. De Lioncourt is embodiment of supreme vampyric evil and a paragon of vanity. He’s a suave and fashion-conscious apex predator with a sociopathic streak that sees mortals as mere chattel to be hunted. Louis is far more compassionate instead deciding to drink the blood of animals to sustain his sanguinary needs. In his plantation house the duo’s every need and want is looked after by maid Yvette (Thandiwe Newton, as Thandie Newton) and the houseslaves. Their eccentric, nocturnal lifestyle frightens the superstitious slaves eventually forcing the two to vacate the premises once Louis sets it alight in a moment of desperation.

In a plague-ridden section of the city Louis finds orphan girl Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) among the lifeless bodies of her parents. Seeing a potential mate for Louis Lestat sets his designs on Claudia and decides to turn her. The undead trio find refuge in an opulent mansion and resume their vampiric ways. Lestat initiates Claudia in the art of murder and she quickly becomes the most misanthropic and bloodthirsty of the three. As thirty years pass Claudia grows increasingly resentful of Louis and Lestat for trapping her growing mind into a never changing prepubescent body. He orders Lestat to make her a companion which he lovingly obliges to turning Madeleine (Domiziana Giordano). Claudia’s destestation leads her to betray Lestat, fatally poisoning him with a dose of laudanum, slit his throat, and dumping his exsanguinated body in the nearest swamp. The two immediately take to planning a trip through Europe in search of other vampires. On the eve of their departure by ship a harried Lestat returns and attacks them necessitating Louis to torch him in self-defense.

The two depart for Europe where they after several decades of drifting end up in the court of Spanish vampire Armand (Antonio Banderas). Armand further mentors Louis in the ways of the undead where they hide in plain sight of mortal Parisians in his Théâtre des Vampires where his undead minions perform Grand Guignol-style stage theatrics (“vampires pretending to be human pretending to be vampires” Louis astutely observes). Santiago (Stephen Rea) reads Louis’ mind and realizes his complicity in Claudia’s murder attempt on Lestat, a capital crime against the vampire moral code. Claudia and Madeleine are killed by sunlight and in revenge Louis torches the theater incinerating everyone inside. Ravaged by loss in the years that follow Louis explores the world alone eventually returning to New Orleans in 1988. There he finds a world-wary and tired Lestat. As his story draws to an end has Malloy learned from his interview with the vampire?

Boasting Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Kirsten Dunst with Antonio Banderas, Christian Slater and Thandiwe Newton in supporting slots Interview with the Vampire was blessed with an ensemble cast of sorts. Tom Cruise had formally debuted in Franco Zeffirelli's Endless Love (1981) and the only real skeleton in his closet was the raunchy teen sex comedy Losin' It (1982) (which, all things considered, wasn’t much of a skeleton as it was directed by Roger Corman protegé Curtis Hanson). He had a string of hits to his name with Risky Business (1983), Legend (1985), Top Gun (1986), Rain Man (1988), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Days of Thunder (1990), and The Firm (1993). Cruise had worked with some of the best and brightest in the business, including (but not limited to) Martin Scorsese, Ridley and Tony Scott, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, Barry Levinson, Ron Howard, and Sydney Pollack. In other words, by 1994 Cruise was a legitimate superstar with all the attendant clout and influence that brought. He was able to shape whatever project he desired to his personal preferences. Interview with the Vampire is historically the first time Cruise lowered himself to horror and played what nominally could be called a villain. It wouldn’t be until Collateral (2004) a decade hence where he would play one again. In between The Firm (1993) and Mission: Impossible (1996) this must have been a fun little diversion.

For Brad Pitt this was his first foray into horror since his guest spot on an episode of Freddy's Nightmares (1989) and the tame slasher Cutting Class (1989). Pitt had blindly agreed on the part without fully realizing what it entailed. When he realized his role was mostly passive and expositionary he, understandably, wanted to renege on his contract. As it dawned on him that backing out would cost him 40 million he honored his obligations by giving it his absolute minimum. Kirsten Dunst landed her first big break voicing Kiki in the English-language version of Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). She somehow escaped unscathed from the Brian De Palma box office bomb The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and this was pretty much her only foray into horror. From there Dunst appeared in Little Women (1994) and Jumanji (1995) and in 1996-97 she had a 6-episode arc in ER (1994-2009). At the dawn of the new millennium she became Sofia Coppola’s muse and was one of the major players in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (2002-2007).

Antonio Banderas and Thandiwe Newton were up-and-coming in Hollywood. Banderas rose to fame in his native Spain thanks to his work with Pedro Almodóvar. Newton was a British actress of Zimbabwean descent that had a few small indies to her name and Interview with the Vampire was to be her first big budget production. Cruise and Newton would reunite six years later in John Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2 (2000). Cruise, Pitt, and Banderas all give memorable performances for mostly the wrong reasons. Cruise revels in playing the reptilian predator, Pitt is pretty much a by-stander in his own story and as a joyless, sexless wretch Banderas is the antithesis of kink-male he played for Almodóvar. Dunst, at the tender age of 12, outplays all three of her more experienced peers. Newton for her part is stuck in a mostly decorative part but thankfully she would land better roles later.

For a movie so singularly concerned with beautiful people living an immortally condemned life of hedonism and debauchery Interview with the Vampire effortlessly fails to be sexy at any point. Sure, the gay overtones of the novel have been dialed down considerably but even from a heteronormative standpoint this is a pretty sexless affair. Those hoping for a good scare or two will be left with their hunger too because it never grows tense either. With production design by Dante Ferreti it oozes all the atmosphere you could possibly want from this sort of thing, but sensual it is not. In typical Hollywood fashion Interview with the Vampire avoids nudity for the most part. Louis’ philandering whoremonger segment is surprisingly free of sleaze and at the Théâtre des Vampires what little nudity there is falls on the shoulders of no-name extras.

True to the novel Interview with the Vampire has to contort itself into some pretty amusing contrivances to excuse Louis’ penchant for prolonging his suffering; mortal, undead, or otherwise. For someone so eager to die he sure finds excuse after convenient excuse to continue on living and sulking every step of the way. On a similar note do Claudia and him systematically fail to exterminate Lestat, the closest this thing has for an antagonist. Likewise does Louis have the nasty habit of torching his domiciles whenever things don’t go his way. If one was feeling charitable you could sort of see the incineration of the vampires at the Théâtre des Vampires in Paris that has Louis wielding a scythe as a nod to Jean Rollin’s Fascination (1979), although it’s doubtful either Rice or Jordan were familiar with French fringe and cult cinema of decades past. Whatever the case as gothic horror Interview with the Vampire lacks both the scares and sensuality the subgenre is usually known and loved for. It lacks it direly.

As with anything nothing ever happens in a vacuum and everything has an ancestor. The mopey, self-pitying sadboi vampire isn’t remotely a modern invention by any stretch of the imagination. As an archetypical ur-character it has several decades worth of cinematic precedent and tradition. In continental European and Latin American pulp cinema early examples include Italian kitsch as The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960) and the sensually brooding Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962). Argentina’s kink-horror breastacular Blood Of the Virgins (1967) as well as the underestimated Paul Naschy romp Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973). Before the not-so-epic Twilight (2008-2012) saga there was Interview with the Vampire and that would’ve never been greenlit if it wasn’t for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) that other throwback to gothic horror of yore doing big at the international box office. Whereas Francis Ford Coppola’s horror epic never hid its kitschy inspirations Interview with the Vampire is deadly (and fatally) serious at all times. Those hoping that this would turn into a heteronormative and sanitized Vampyres (1974) will be sorely disappointed. There’s nothing that Hollywood can’t defang and when you defang a vampire don’t expect some, or a lot, of bite.