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.