There are few witches as beautiful and beguiling as Rosanna Schiaffino or as sinister and threatening as Sarah Ferrati in Damiano Damiani’s The Witch (or more correctly, The Witch in Love) aka La strega in amore (1966). In this leisurely paced Italian horror film based on a novel by Carlos Fuentes, Rosanna Schiaffino plays Aura, the daughter of an aging widower (Sarah Ferrati). The two women live alone together in a crumbling old house in the heart of Rome and lure unsuspecting men to their doom with the promise of passion and unimaginable pleasures. After a curious historian named Sergio (Richard Johnson) answers an ad in a newspaper requesting someone to “catalogue manuscripts in a private library” he finds himself face to face with these two mysterious women. Their library is in disarray and they need someone to transcribe the private erotic journals of the long dead master of the house. But their dusty, rat infested, library has been neglected for a very long time and Sergio isn’t the only historian who has tried to put it in order. Before he arrived another man (Gian Maria Volonté) was hired to do the job but it’s not easy to work when the lovely Aura and her domineering mother keep distracting you. Poor Sergio soon finds himself forgetting his duties as well and becoming entangled in the deadly web of secrets and lies weaved by the two women who have entrapped him.
The film is submerged in shadows and light. Surrounded by hazy cityscapes and trapped in a maze of long hallways and twisting corridors. The characters of the film are separated by carefully placed props and bound together by long lingering close-ups. Damiani frames most of the action in windows and doorways so the audience becomes voyeurs as well as observers and the entire production is held together by Luis Bacalov’s brilliant score. Bacalov is one of my favorite composers and I think his soundtrack for The Witch is truly one of his greatest achievements.
The entire cast is terrific and also includes Italian horror film favorite Ivan Rassminov in a brief cameo, but the movie is dominated by the alluring Rosanna Schiaffino as the lovely Aura and her oppressive mother Consuelo (Sarah Ferrati). The enchantress and the hag have populated folk tales for centuries and in The Witch this age old fascination with feminine duality takes center stage. I also appreciate how the film explores the human desire to obtain esoteric knowledge by setting the story in an old Italian villa with an ancient library at its worn down center. The library seems to contain the erotic fantasies of the two witches and Aura and Consuelo use an enchantment or some form of “sex magick” to control anyone who dares to enter it. Besides a few brief flashes of bare skin no one gets naked in The Witch but it still manages to be a very sensual film mainly due to Rosanna Schiaffino’s seductive performance.
The adult themes and cerebral scares found The Witch will only appeal to a select group of horror fans but I happen to be one of them. I think the film is a wonderful example of Euro-horror and a truly bewitching movie but it will probably disappoint anyone looking for solid shocks and lots of gore. The film seems more concerned with nurturing an atmosphere of dread than anything else and it succeeds beautifully. The horrific moments that take place in the film are subtle but disquieting and occasionally bring to mind the work of other Italian filmmakers as diverse as Mario Bava, Fellini and even Vittorio De Sica. Damiano Damiani was working with an impressive crew on The Witch that included cinematographer Leonida Barboni (The White Sheik; 1952, Divorce Italian Style; 1961, etc.), art director Luigi Scaccianoce (Oedipus Rex; 1967, Fellini – Satyricon; 1969, etc.) and editor Nino Baragli (Mamma Roma; 1962, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; 1966, Django; 1966, Once Upon a Time in the West; 1968, Teorema; 1968, Salo; 1975, etc.) but it’s Damiani’s creative direction that really brings this thoughtful horror film to life. I’ve long thought that Damiano Damiani (A Bullet for the General; 1966, How To Kill A Judge; 1974, The Devil Is A Woman; 1974, etc.) was an underrated talent and if you’d like to see the director at his creative best The Witch is a wonderful place to start.
The Witch available on DVD in the US but the print is very poor as you can probably tell from my screen shots. I’ve seen other screen shots of the film from an Italian DVD that appears to be in widescreen but I haven’t been able to find any information about it. Hopefully a better quality widescreen print of The Witch will find its way onto DVD in the states soon. In the meantime I think it’s easy to see from these few shots that The Witch is a beautiful looking film and if you’d like to see more images from the movie they’re available in my Flickr Gallery for The Witch.