Sunday 19 May 2024

The Witch (La strega in amore, 1966)

La strega in amore is a 1966 Italian gothic horror movie in a contemporary setting, directed by Damiano Damiani. It was released in English-language markets as The Witch, The Witch in Love and Strange Obsession.

Sergio Logan (Richard Johnson) is a writer although he appears to be more interested in women than in writing. He replies to a newspaper advertisement placed by an old lady. She is looking for a live-in librarian to organise a huge manuscript collection. Sergio is intrigued because the qualifications outlined in the advertisement could only apply to one man in the whole of Italy - himself. Why is the old lady so interested in employing him?

The old lady is Consuelo Lorente (Sarah Ferrati). Sergio considers the possibility that she is merely looking for a toy boy. But the manuscript collection exists, as does the library. Then things get a little odd, and then Sergio meets Aura (Rosanna Schiaffino), the old lady’s daughter.

He had already decided to decline the job offer but now he thinks it might involve the possibility of persuading Aura into bed, and that interests him a lot more than old manuscripts. He decides to take the job.

Sergio is a somewhat amoral character. He’s a womaniser and he’ll do whatever it takes to get a woman into bed. He isn’t bothered by the idea of lying or manipulating people. When it comes to women he’s used to calling the shots and it doesn’t occur to him that someday a woman might turn the tables on him.

He encounters Fabrizio (Gian Maria Volontè), his predecessor in the librarian job, and his predecessor in others ways that Sergio doesn’t yet fully understand. Fabrizio has apparently been given his marching orders but he’s still there and seems to intend to stay. Sergio’s mistake is to make certain very obvious assumptions about the setup. He assumes that Consuelo is a middle-aged woman terrified of getting old and looking for young male bed partners. That’s not what is going on, and Sergio will come to regret making such blithe assumptions.

It’s obvious to Sergio that Fabrizio has been sharing Aura’s bed. It looks like a classic romanic triangle, with Sergio as Aura’s new lover and Fabrizio as the displaced lover. There’s plenty of tension between the two men.

The audience will immediately recognise that there’s something wrong about this strange household. Consuelo lives in what is virtually a palace, hidden away in the middle of an ordinary street in Rome. There’s an atmosphere of decay and decadence, we suspect there are some dark secrets concealed here, the stories Consuelo tells of her marriage to her late husband should ring alarm bells for Sergio but they don’t. There’s an unhealthy overheated excessively enclosed atmosphere.

Sergio of course doesn’t know that he’s a character in a horror movie so he assumes Consuelo is just a rich crazy old eccentric trying to convince herself that she’s still the sex kitten she once was. A viewer who didn’t know that this was a gothic horror movie might well make the same assumptions. Until very late in the movie there are no overt signs of anything supernatural. The movie seems to be a psychological or perhaps an erotic thriller, with a film noir tinge (enhanced by some quite noirish black-and-white cinematography). It might even be a twisted melodrama.

The viewer will however start to suspect what’s going on long before Sergio does. There are subtle clues, and things that don’t quite add up. We start to think that Sergio has involved himself in something very strange and very perverse and most viewers will doubtless figure out the secret long before the final reveal.

Richard Johnson was inspired casting. He’s so over-confident and arrogant that he misses all the red flags. At the same time Sergio is not actually evil and Johnson makes him just sufficiently sympathetic that we don’t want anything too terrible to happen to him. Rosanna Schiaffino is excellent. She makes Aura seem slightly mysterious without overdoing it. Sarah Ferrati is wonderfully disturbing as Consuelo. Gian Maria Volontè gives a strange unsettling highly strung performance as Fabrizio, who could just as easily be a villain or a victim.

When things get really weird and the gothic horror elements kick in they’re done quite subtly. The horror is all the more effective for being low-key. This is not grand guignol stuff.

If you’re expecting conventional gothic horror you might be disappointed. Until very late in the movie it has the feel and tone of a noirish psychosexual melodrama. It never does become a conventional gothic horror movie. It does however have a protagonist put into a situation which threatens psychological and emotional destruction. The threat is to the psyche, and maybe the soul, rather than the body. As to whether there’s a threat to his physical existence as well, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

This is a movie that includes some classic gothic tropes but it goes out of its way to avoid dealing with them in a routine horror film fashion. It’s creepy and disturbing rather than scary. If you can accept those things then it’s highly recommended.

This film is part of Arrow’s Gothic Fantastico Blu-Ray boxed set. La strega in amore gets a lovely transfer. Kat Ellinger’s audio commentary is as fascinating as the movie. I liked her unexpected comparison of this movie with both Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity and her placing of the movie within the context of decadent literature.

1 comment:

tom j jones said...

Sounds fascinating, and what a cast