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Plot: schoolgirls dabble in witchcraft….

Contary to popular belief The Craft (1996) didn't immediately spawn a decade's worth of made-for-television imitations and direct-to-video rip-offs even though it arrived at the right time for such a thing to happen. Alas, the big home video boom of the 1980s had come to an end and continental European and South American exploitation had all but dried up in the wake of the market dominance of tentpole big budget Hollywood bilge. The coven and witchcraft (lesbian or otherwise) movie was very much a product of the 1970s Satanic Panic and its attendant hysteria that lasted well into the 1980s. The Craft (1996) took the gist of those psychedelic and psychotronic movies and distilled them into a herbalist wicca and alternative gothic lifestyle envisioned for the enlightened and empowered Lilith Fair crowd. It spoke to a generation of girls that grew up on strong, eloquent and enterprising young singer-songwriters as Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole, Liz Phair, Jewel, Fiona Apple, Sheryl Crow, Jann Arden, and the grandmother of them all, Suzanne Vega. Needless to say, The Craft (1996) became something of a commercial juggernaut that has continued to resonate with audiences and its legacy has long since overshadowed the movie itself. And then… nothing happened.

Well, there was Little Witches (1996) and that was about it for direct imitations. Or at least for the next decade. The Covenant (2006) was another imitation whose biggest novelty was the gender-swapping of the coven. Then there was the British equivalent The Coven (2015) about nine years later. Whereas that one got lost somewhere along the way and ended up stumbling into The Blair Witch Project (1999) territory (and never really recovered from that), Coven is more blatant (or is that honest?) about its thievery. Call it a homage, a reimagining, or a modern day remake. Call it what you will. Either way these rip-offs aren't what they used to be. This one has school girls (whether they’re Catholic is never made really clear) that are witches but demons and spirits of darkness aren’t anywhere to be seen. Starring nobody in particular and written as an almost scene-by-scene imitation of The Craft (1996) this Coven is neither scary nor very occult or pagan. The girls are pretty enough but none are Fairuza Balk or Sheeri Rappaport. You have a problem when Terri Ivens is your biggest star. Ivens is probably best known to the world at large for playing “Girl #2” in Marked for Death (1990). Coven will make you wish for the faithful recycling of Little Witches (1996).

A coven of undergrad witches – ringleader Ronnie (Jennifer Cipolla, as Jenny Cipolla), her second-in-command and girlfriend Jax (Miranda O'Hare), hormonically-charged Taylor (Jessica Louise Long), psychic Emily (Sofya Skya) and meek and complacent Beth (Margot Major) – has gathered for their nocturnal invocation to Ashura, a powerful witch that was defeated by another coven some 200 years before. During the Calling of the 4 Quarters Ronnie loses her patience and accidently kills Christy (Sara Stretton). Requiring the full power of the coven to complete the ritual Ronnie instructs Beth to find and recruit a suitable candidate. Her eye falls on Sophie (Lizze Gordon) who has lost her mother (Jill Deluca) but shows no immediate interest in joining the coven. An enlighting séance with Emily helps opening Sophie’s mind to the idea. On the campus history professor Dr. Lynn (Terri Ivens) has suspicions of mystic going-ons at the faculty. The girls have their own lives too. Taylor wants nothing more than to do the horizontal mambo with stoner Zak (Aaron James) and Sophie is far more interested in getting into the pants of James (Adam Horner) than with any of the boring day-to-day matters of the coven. When Ronnie kills another member of the coven to absorp her powers Sophie and Beth bundle their forces to stop her once and for all…

For a movie proudly written and directed by women Coven spents inordinate amount of time gawking at these witches and their skimpy black lingerie at virtually every turn. For a supposed clan of misfits, quirky goths or a random assortment of social pariahs all them are conventionally beautiful blondes, brunettes, and gingers. As expected, the depiction of witchcraft is goofy and cartoony. This one has its witches throwing around and launching their spells as if they’re in a DC or Marvel superhero movie (or a video game, whichever you prefer). Authenticity wasn’t high on the list of priorities and if you expect the herbalist/nature worship of The Craft (1996) – look elsewhere. The problems pretty much start from the first scene with the summoning of Ashura. Unlike what Coven would want you to believe Ashura is not some obscure or arcane pagan deity but a day of commemoration for Shia Muslims and one of celebratory fasting for Sunni Muslims. Likewise, there’s no autumn solstice, the closest thing there is is the equinox. Good to see that these movies still couldn't be bothered to Google what they're talking about. There isn’t a lot of meat to Lizze Gordon’s script and it very faithfully follows every major plotline and/or character arc of The Craft (1996). For whatever reason, this one has a distinctly Caucasian cast and there isn’t a minority in sight. Where in The Craft (1996) the girls actually wore what you’d expect of social outcasts here they sport fashion of the y2k futurist aesthetic. Why? Are these witches or rave chicks? The pounding club score admits as much. Admittedly, the Mario Bava and Dario Argento inspired blue-red lighting is a nice touch. Oh yeah, and apropos of nothing, the witch cult scenes in Lucero (2019) were more convincing and there they had practically nothing to do with the mainplot.

Thank fuck none of the girls is named Faith. Movies like this are giving critics a crisis of faith and there’s nothing graceful about that. Don’t expect any Shakespeare or Baudelaire quotes. Gordon’s script is not nearly smart enough for that. If you’re expecting Catholic school girls in plaid skirts, knee-high socks and half-open shirts corrupting a wholesome, studious Christian girl, you’re shit out of luck. The sapphic allusions or suggestions are extremely mild and timid. Whereas Little Witches (1996) had Sheeri Rappaport unbuttoning her shirt, spilling out her breasts, and lifting her skirt before ferociously dry-humping a confessional with whorish aplomb, none of that will be happening here. Coven is so tame it doesn’t even have the gall to include the girls doing any skyclad incantations from dusty, leatherbound Latin tomes around smoke-filled cauldrons in mouldy caves. There’s not even a rubbery demonic monster in the finale to this. Coven will make you wish it so much as had Sheeri Rappaport dancing around in the nude in an apartment window. For all its posturing Coven is dreadfully bereft of bare-naked Catholic schoolgirls, heresy, blasphemy or even anything remotely transgressive or provocative. Coven doesn't even have the guts to commit to the sleaze, heresy, and lesbian histrionics the way The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973), Black Magic Rites (1973), and Alucarda (1977) had the cojones to. None of these girls seem ready to commit to the role in the ways Rosalba Neri, Rita Calderoni, or Tina Romero were back in the old days. Oh, the good old days of witchcraft movies. You know a movie is pretty fucking terrible when Don't Deliver Us From Evil (1971) and even Blood Sabbath (1972) did this whole spiel better half a century ago.

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…