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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: American actress inherits time-worn castle in Transylvania.

Gebissen wird nur nachts - das Happening der Vampire (or Biting is Only Done at Night - the Happening of the Vampires, released in Italy as ½ Litro di Rosso per il Conto Dracula or ½ Liter of Red For Count Dracula and abbreviated for the international market to simply The Vampire Happening) is the most beautiful sort of trainwreck. Not the stillborn magnum opus of a tortured (and creatively stifled) genius or the mad vision of a misunderstood savant butchered by bovine and hare-brained studio execs. No, The Vampire Happening is something better. Something wild. A misguided vanity project willed into existence through sheer cynicism and nepotism by a delusional (and, allegedly, full-blown alcoholic) producer as a platform to consolidate the fledging career of his much younger trophy wife and to launch her to international superstardom. Alas, history would decide otherwise. For a supposed horror comedy it’s shorn of both scares and laughs. Thankfully there’s acres of skin. Before Nai Bonet’s Nocturna (1979) killed both disco and the 1970s vampire spoof there was The Vampire Happening.

To truly understand how The Vampire Happening came to be and went so disastrously wrong we need to look at who produced it and the sort of people he consorted with. The culprit? Pier Andrea Caminnecci. Caminnecci was an actor who in mainland Europe orbited around both Jesús Franco in Spain and Adrian Hoven in Germany. As an actor Caminnecci was in Franco’s Succubus (1968) as well as Hoven’s In the Castle of Bloody Lust (1968), both of which he also associate produced. During the production of Succubus (1968) Caminnecci had an affair with French model Janine Reynaud that probably goes a way into explaning why he associate produced the Red Lips duology Two Undercover Angels (1968) and Kiss Me Monster (1969). On the set of Kiss Me Monster (1969) Reynaud met actor Michel Lemoine, a year later the two were married and would remain so for the next 12 years. In 1969 fate would sent petite Swedish beauty Pia Degermark his way. The fact that Degermark managed to stumble into an acting career is just as unlikely as jetset figure Pier A. Caminnecci being considered a legitimate and respected film producer. Love is the strangest of drugs and before long the two were engaged in a stormy romance that resulted in their civic and legal union. What better way to celebrate putting a ring on Sweden’s hottest export than to envision her own movie feature and starring vehicle? And so it was that Caminnecci set up an international production and assembled a motley crew of British, German, and Spanish talent in front and behind the camera. Somehow, some way in 1970 cameras rolled and principal photography on The Vampire Happening commenced in Austria. All of which is as good a time as any to see who was involved.

Described as alternatively an “adult vampire film” and “a satyrical horror comedy” it was helmed by British cinematographer-turned-director Freddie Francis. During the previous decade Francis was associated with Amicus and Hammer for which he filmed, among others, The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), The Skull (1965), and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968). In 1970 Francis was recovering from Trog (1970) that had landed at cineplexes with a disappointing thud. Not only was it the swansong for Depression-era Hollywood leading lady Joan Crawford (who was drunk off her head all the way through, and who could blame her?) but also the one that Francis regrets directing. Following the unlikely box office success of Jean Rollin’s The Rape Of the Vampire (1968) and The Nude Vampire (1970) the sexy Euro-vamp craze was in full swing. Caminnecci had instructed writers August Rieger and Karl-Heinz Hummel to concoct something halfway funny in the vein of the Roman Polanski gothic horror spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Rieger had over a decade’s experience writing and producing. In that capacity he was responsible for penning lovably bovine brainfarts as the Franz Josef Gottlieb Schlager-Komödie Wenn die tollen Tanten kommen (1970), the Franz Antel comedy The Hostess Exceeds All Bounds (1970) (headlined by the always enjoyable Teri Tordai) and the slightly insane The Exorcist (1973) ripoff Magdalena, Possessed by the Devil (1974). None of which stopped Rieger from getting his Rollin on and including a subplot borrowed from Théophile Gautier’s La Morte Amoureuse.

Besides his wife Pia the cast was rounded out by American actor Thomas Hunter, German-British screen pillar Ferdy Mayne, and Spanish starlet Beba Novak. Hunter never had much of a career in America but was lucky to find steady employment in the German and Italian shlock circuit from 1966 onward. Mayne had starred in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), the World War II epic Where Eagles Dare (1968) and Hammer’s glamour romp Vampire Lovers (1970). Novak was perhaps the greatest Eurobabe never to have a career worth mentioning. According to the late Paul Naschy she was slated to star in the unmade second (and largely believed to be fabricated) El Hombre Lobo episode The Nights of the Wolf Man (1968) and the thriller The Vertigo of Crime (1970). For the remainder of cast and crew he pooled talent and resources from Adrian Hoven and his Aquila Film Enterprises. The Vampire Happening derives most of its production value from Burg Kreuzenstein in Korneuburg and Burg Liechtenstein in Maria Enzersdorf in Lower Austria, both of which feature prominently. Also not unimportant is that Pia Degermark’s wardrobe was designed post-war German fashion icon Uli Richter. In one of life’s great ironies Degermark spents at least half the movie getting out of her clothes rather than showing them off and when she isn’t getting naked she’s fighting off bad special effects and even hokier dubbing. Res ipsa loquitur, The Vampire Happening had disaster written all over it and was destined for infamy. It premiered in Germany on June 4, 1971 and was subsequently laughed out of theatres by critics and audiences alike. Caminnecci never produced anything again.

American actress Betty Williams has returned to her ancestral home in Transylvania to finalize the details of her uncle's inheritance. She plans to sell off Rabenstein Castle once she has properly inspected the property. Williams is really Elisabeth von Rabenstein (Pia Degermark). Her administrator/butler Josef (Yvor Murillo, as Ivor Murillo) nearly scares himself half to death when he first lays eyes upon Elisabeth. Having regained his composure Josef informs her that she bears a striking resemblance to her long-dead great-grandmother Clarimonde Catani (Pia Degermark) who he once served and whose portrait (topless, of course) is the centerpiece of the royal suite. Clarimonde, Josef explains, was found dead (naked, of course) one night with two peculiar bite marks adorning her neck. The official explanation from authorities was that she was killed by a rabid fox but superstitious locals claim she was bitten by a vampire. You see, Josef’s confusion is understandable. Elisabeth is a dead ringer Clarimonde, except that she’s blonde and vivacious and Clarimonde was ravenhaired and pallid. That night Clarimonde visits Elisabeth in a dream and this awakens the voice of blood in Elisabeth and she feels destiny beckoning. She takes to seducing pious brother Martin (Joachim Kemmer) from the nearby seminary. The following night Elisabeth manages to draw Martin into the castle only to discover that her great-grandmother is in fact very much alive. Clarimonde, of course, feeds on poor Martin.

At Martin’s funeral strapping boarding schoolteacher Jens Larsen (Thomas Hunter) strikes her fancy. As Elisabeth drags Jens in between her sheets Josef takes to defending the castle from the undead scourge, specifically that of Clarimonde. Hijinks ensue when the undead Martin rises from the grave in search of warm blood. At the boardingschool students Gabrielle (Lyvia Bauer) and Kirsten (Daria Damar) enjoying nothing more than pulling practical jokes on their teacher fraulein Niessen (Ingrid van Bergen). Martin recognizes a snack when she sees one and vampirizes one of the girls while keeping the other one from breakfast. Confusion arises when Clarimonde dons a blonde wig and Elisabeth dons a black one and both head for the Ochsenstein ball organised by family partriarch Count Bernhard (Raoul Retzer) to which the younger von Rabenstein was invited. At the ball, or happening rather, esteemed and honored guest Count Dracula (Ferdy Mayne, as Ferdie Mayne) is expected to make his arrival by helicopter. In the costume department Elisabeth and Clarimonde agree to exchange costumes and trade their respective lives with the promise to live happily ever after. Shenanigans of just about every variety ensue and before long the masked ball is beset by a torch – and pitchfork-wielding mob of angry villagers tired of constant vampire attacks and the attendant mayhem. Josef, mistaking Clarimonde for Elisabeth, stuffs her in her Mercedes and sends her off to Hollywood. More hijinks ensue when Jens repeatedly fails to stake Clarimonde (who he still believes is Elisabeth). As the real Elisabeth runs towards them at their airport Jens and Josef realize they sent Clarimonde off to Hollywood.

If all of that sounds familiar, that’s because it does. Even by 1971 standards The Vampire Happening is a pastiche rife with clichés and painfully aware of the conventions of the genre it’s spoofing. If you condense and merge Amando de Ossorio‘s Malenka, the Vampire’s Niece (1969) and Mario Bava’s The Mask Of Satan (1960) into one this is what you’ll get. There’s the pretty funny castle tour segment that kind of recalls The Devil’s Nightmare (1971). The entire thing is enlivened by a dash of pretty innocuous Italian schoolgirl comedy that Silvia Dionisio wouldn’t be out of place in. The rest is lifted from The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). This one has it all: styrofoam boulders and rocks that would have looked questionable a decade earlier, skeletons on literal strings, a Dracula throwing the “devil” horns and car with the license plate “VM-1PR”. According to Radio Transylvania one Dr. Frankenstein works at the local bloodbank. Prescient of what direction gothic horror was going to take The Vampire Happening lays on the sexual innuendo and double entendres thick with things like boob-shaped pudding, peculiar moss growth on tree barks and rampant phallic imagery. Then there’s the fourth wall breaking glances at the camera. At one point a character says, “I’m getting completely mixed-up” before throwing an understanding glance at the viewer, continuing “I’ll bet you are, too.” The score from Jerry van Rooyen alternates between mock Bond and standard gothic horror fare. Some Bruno Nicolai or Nico Fidenco would have worked wonders here. This has bare-arsed monks, bare-breasted schoolgirls, and Edwige Fenech or Barbara Capell are nowhere to be seen. The tone is German, the style Italian, and the execution British. Thankfully 25-year-old Pia Degermark is naked. A lot.

This, of course, raises the question: who was Pia Degermark? In the grand scheme of things and even in the pantheon of Scandinavian starlets of the 1970s, she’s but a footnote. Pia Degermark was born in Stockholm on 24 August 1949 to affluent rural family that afforded her a privileged but sheltered upbringing among society’s higher echelons. Her grandfather Rudolf Degermark had made his fortune in wholesale and as a member of the Swedish jetset she attended Sigtunaskolan boarding school in Sigtuna, Stockholm. It wouldn’t be until 1980 when Sigtunaskolan merged with Sigtunastiftelsens Humanistiska Läroverk to become Sigtunaskolan Humanistiska Läroverket (SSHL). Notable SSHL alumni include former prime minister Olof Palme and current current King of Sweden Carl XVI Gustaf. Pia was discovered dancing with Swedish Crown Prince Carl Gustav at a society ball when a newspaper photograph fell on the desk of director Bo Widerberg. He instantly cast her in the title role of his Elvira Madigan (1967). Legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman heavily opposed Widerberg's choice describing Degermark as someone who could, "neither walk, neither stand nor speak."

That Bergman was accurate in his observation would be putting it very, very charitably. For her performance in Widerberg’s film she won a Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Actress and was nominated for a Golden Globe in the category Most Promising Newcomer – Female as well as a nomination at the British Academy Film Awards for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles. History would note that Degermark weighed but 28 kilograms when she came to pick her award in Cannes. Pia was beautiful. Pia was going places. There was no question about it but she was no Helga Liné, Candace Glendenning, or Soledad Miranda. She wasn’t even a Birte Tove, Yutte Stensgaard, or Leena Skoog. To say that she wasn’t up to scratch would be putting it very, very mildly. After graduating Degermark consolidated her early success with A Brief Station (1969) and The Looking Glass War (1970), the big screen adaptation of the John le Carré thriller. Pia suffered from anorexia since childhood and was battling with it still. In 1970 Pier Andrea Caminnecci cast Degermark and a romance between the two blossomed. By the time The Vampire Happening rolled into cinemas and grindhouses the two were married. What better way to show off your mid-twenties trophy wife than to have her cavort around naked in a horror comedy?

As is so often the case things like these act as a harbinger of things to come. At least for some. Ferdy Mayne would turn up in Val Guest's amiable sex comedy Au Pair Girls (1972) (with Me Me Lai) and the Stanley Kubrick historical drama Barry Lyndon (1975) among many others. Director Freddie Francis would continue his career as a cinematographer working with the likes of David Lynch, Martin Scorsese and Edward Zwick on The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984), Cape Fear (1991) and the UK version of All Saints 'Never Ever' music video. Pier Andrea Caminnecci no longer was the flamboyant playboy and his hard-drinking, philandering lifestyle started to catch up with him. When he failed to procure 900,000 kroner to pay Pia’s father for their villa is said to have led to their seperation. After two years the marriage was dissolved as Pia Degermark filed for divorce. Having failed in business and embarrassed the family Caminnecci could no longer lay claim on the considerable Siemens empire. Degermark remarried, became addicted to amphetamines, and fell into drug abuse eventually ending in fraud, litigation, and homelessness. Everything culminated when Degermark served 14 months in Färingsöanstalten state prison for a slew of charges including gross fraud, drug offenses, and violence against a public servant. She eventually recovered and wrote her autobiography Gud räknar kvinnors tårar (or God Counts Women’s Tears) in 2006 and was the subject of the Tanja Stern book She Only Played One Summer: The story of Pia Degermark in 2017. As the legend goes, Pia is alleged to have said, “Sooner or later someone will make a film of my life. My story is too good to be forgotten.” If you insist on seeing what Germany contributed to the gothic horror that year you’re far better off with The Horrible Sexy Vampire (1971).