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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…

Plot: French students unwittingly awaken age-old Countess from slumber

The box office success of The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968) had abundantly proven that there was a legitimate domestic market for horror. Within the year a follow-up was produced with the Universal Monster/science fiction mash-up Assignment Terror (1969) with an aging Michael Rennie as the lead. The Fury Of the Wolfman (1970) was eventually released after a deeply troubled production period. For the fourth chapter in his El Hombre Lobo saga Naschy, the Spanish Lon Chaney, surrounded himself with professionals. The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman was produced to profit from the gothic horror revival of the early seventies and was written accordingly. In other words there’s plenty of skin and blood to satisfy anybody’s craving. A dashing leading lady and a swathe of ravishing supporting actresses ensured that The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman would become the highest grossing Waldemar Daninsky episode up to that point. Helmed by former Argentinian dentist León Klimovsky The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman made horror into an industry in Spain – and as a throwback to the Universal Horror of the 1930s it is an highly atmospheric genre piece with more than plenty dream-like surrealism to draw in fanatics of the French fantastique.

When we catch up with Polish nobleman Waldemar Daninsky (Jacinto Molina Álvarez, as Paul Naschy) he is lying on a medical slab awaiting to be autopsied somewhere in France by Dr. Hartwig (Julio Peña) and his assistent Muller (Barta Barri). Muller reminds Hartwig to be cautious as Daninsky is rumored to be a werewolf. “It’s a werewolf, right?" Hartwig sarcastically remarks, “According to the legend, if the bullet that killed him is extracted from his heart, he should come back to life.” Hartwig’s skepticism is immediately rewarded with a gash to the throat and Muller doesn’t fare any better despite heeding old folklore. Before the titlecard the wolven Daninsky has slashed a hapless traveling maiden (María Luisa Tovar), but not without ripping her shirt open first – because it’s that sort of production.

Meanwhile in a Parisian nightclub archeology student Elvira (Gaby Fuchs) fills her boyfriend inspector Marcel (Andrés Resino) in on the details on an excursion into the French countryside she and her friend and fellow student Genevieve Bennett (Barbara Capell, as Bárbara Capell) are embarking on in order to do research for their final thesis. As convention would have it the intrepid duo’s BMC ADO16 Sedan breaks down in the middle of nowhere in the rural French countryside. “Perhaps Count Dracula will appear,” Genevieve remarks jokingly in a line that foreshadows Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973), “and he will invite us to spend the night in his castle.” Mere moments later Waldemar Daninsky invites the stranded intrepid student duo to the comforts of his opulent mansion where he’s studying the history and architecture of gothic churches and has been grimly brooding over the lycanthropic affliction that seizes him whenever the moon is full. Over dinner the two girls inform Waldemar of the reason of their excursion into the farther regions of the French countryside. That night Elvira is assaulted and almost injured by Daninsky’s live-in mentally unstable sister Elisabeth (Yelena Samarina).

Elvira and Genevieve are searching for the tomb of 18th century aristocrat Countess Wandesa Dárvula de Nadasdy, who is patterned after Hungarian countess Erzsébet Bathory, in the French coutryside. Daninsky spents the next day exploring the region with Elvira, scouting the location where he believes the tomb of the Countess is to be found. According to the girls the Countess is from the 11th century, even though the etchings on her gravestone put her in the 15th century. In a scene recreated wholesale from Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) Genevieve cuts herself while removing the lid from the unearthed sarcophagus, dripping copious amounts of blood on the Countess’ skeletal remains. Before long the maiden’s blood has resurrected Countess Wandesa Dárvula de Nadasdy (Patty Shepard, as Paty Shepard). Soon Genevieve is seduced and vampirized by Wandesa and Waldemar struggles to protect Elvira from the Countess and Genevieve’s sanguine predilections as well as his own wolven inclinations. It wasn’t the first time the two had met. Daninsky crossed paths with Countess Wandesa Dárvula de Nadasdy earlier in The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968) when she called herself Wandessa Mikhelov and was played by Aurora de Alba. With the spate of murders that the Countess leaves in her wake it isn’t long before inspector Marcel hurries to rural France to rescue Elvira from two very different but equally grave threats…

Greenville, South Carolina actress Patty Shepard - one of the two daughters of retired United States Air Force general Leland C. Shepard Jr., who was stationed air force base in Torrejón de Ardoz, Spain at the time – was tipped as the new Barbara Steele, but she quickly faded into obscurity once interest in Spanish horror started to wane in the mid 1970s. At age 18 she moved to Spain to work as a model. Her modeling work led to her being cast in continental European exploitation movies. In a career that spanned two decades Shepard appeared in over fifty Spanish, Italian and French films from the 1960s to the 1980s. Shepard debuted in Jess Franco’s Dan Leyton Eurocrime caper Residence For Spies (1966) and soon moved up the industry ladder with the gialli My Dear Killer (1972) and The Killer Is One of Thirteen (1976). Among her more enduring efforts were the Bud Spencer-Terence Hill actioner Watch Out, We’re Mad (1974) and Slugs (1988) from Spanish pulpmeister Juan Piquer Simón at the tall end of her career. After retiring from acting Shepard had a boutique in the Plaza de España (whether in Sevilla or Madrid is unclear) that also went out of business eventually.

Barbara Capell was a German import that had been a fixture in raunchy domestic comedies and dramas from Franz Jozef Gottlieb and directors of similar ilk in the late 1960s. Gaby Fuchs was brought in from Austria and like Capell she too had done her share of sex comedies early in her career. Firmly establishing her name were the soft erotic Grimm retelling The New Adventures of Snow White (1969), the British-German Inquisition classic Mark Of the Devil (1970), and Around the World with Fanny Hill (1970) that had Christina Lindberg in a supporting role. Betsabé Ruiz was a few years away from a memorable bit part in Amando de Ossorio’s The Loreley’s Grasp (1973), which made better use of her considerable talents, and Andrés Resino was yet to drive glorious Gloria Guida to the end of her wits in Monika (1974). María Luisa Tovar would encounter more vampires in Léon Klimovsky’s The Dracula Saga (1973), and Curse Of the Vampire (1974) as well as making an uncredited appearance in The Loreley’s Grasp (1973). Hungarian actor Barta Barri on the other hand was an experienced veteran having starred in diverse offerings as Ignacio F. Iquino’s Brigada Criminal (1950), Eugenio Martín’s swashbuckling epic Conqueror of Maracaibo (1961), the Jess Franco spy spoof Kiss Me, Monster (1969), and was yet to star in the highly atmospheric Horror Express (1972) and The Strange Love of the Vampires (1975).

As every Naschy production worth its salt The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman doesn’t shy away from blood, nudity and sapphic love. Moreso than The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968) and The Fury Of the Wolfman (1970), The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman has Fuchs finding herself inexplicably drawn to the diminuitive Daninsky, while suggesting that Capell and Fuchs were lovers at one point or another during their university studies. The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman pushes Capell towards Shepard once Fuchs couples with Naschy and wastes absolutely no time whatsoever in getting to the point by having María Luisa Tovar getting her dress torn open when she is savaged by the wolven Daninsky. Later Capell gets her blouse ripped open by Daninsky’s deranged sister, and Fuchs appears topless in the obligatory love scene. Betsabé Ruiz on the other hand is terribly, and unforgivably, wasted on what amounts to nothing more than a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. She would be put to greater use in The Loreley’s Grasp (1972) and The Dracula Saga (1973). To add to the sleaze factor Daninsky’s creepy handyman Pierre (José Marco), who has a predilection towards kidnapping and raping attractive female tourists that come to town, is violently killed and mutilated during one of Daninsky’s multiple lycanthropic episodes, but only after he has sufficiently threatened life and limb of Gaby Fuchs’ Elvira. At least in the international English language version, whereas in the Spanish original he offhandedly fills Elvira in on some historical peculiarities of their surroundings.

Helmed by transplanted Argentinian León Klimovsky and assistant director Carlos Aured The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman makes full use of the mist-shrouded locales and foggy, candlelit interiors. The slow-motion vampire scenes greatly add to the unearthly, almost surreal atmosphere. As before the werewolf make-up was styled after Lon Chaney, Jr. and the entire production bathes in Boris Karloff stylings. The delightfully creaky score by Antón García Abril is in line with much of the earlier El Hombre Lobo installments, and Carlos Aured would helm his own feature with The Return of Walpurgis (1973). One scene in particular probably served as an inspiration to Amando de Ossorio to write Tombs of the Blind Dead, which was made just a few months later in 1971. While at the ruined chapel where the Countess is buried, Elvira is accosted by a hooded zombified monk. The decomposed cleric bears more than a passing resemblance to de Ossorio’s own famous Templar Knights from the famed Blind Dead franchise. The English-language cut as Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman truncates several scenes, omitting some of the more gratuitous gore and excising a least part of the rampant nudity as well as having a different score and opening montage. In all it trims 8 minutes of footage compared from the original Spanish language version.