Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Witches Mountain / El monte de las brujas (1973)

Cover art by Justin Coffee

 “A woman will sometimes forgive the man who tries to seduce her, but never the man who misses an opportunity when offered.” – Charles Maurice de Talleyrand

I’m hoping that in the coming months and years, more and more people discover, and hopefully enjoy, the unfairly banned and relatively forgotten Spanish horror Raúl Artigot’s The Witches Mountain thanks to Mondo Macabro’s recent release of the film. Lured by its title and because Patty Shepard was in it, I first saw the film as a VHS rip on YouTube back around 2013, and was really floored by how atmospheric and beautifully haunting it was despite the low picture quality. I’m usually easy to please in this area, but every DVD-R and download of this film I came across was quite soft looking and really showed the film’s age. Anytime I thought to review it, I was discouraged, and mildly depressed, by how much the poor-quality screengrabs undersold the film, so I kept holding out for a decent release someday. Years went by, and I personally started to give up hope, so it was miraculous news for me when the HD upgrade of The Witches Mountain was finally announced. There was a significant delay after the Halloween presale, but I thought it was worth the wait.


Spanish filmmaker Raúl Artigot only directed three films, and of those three, The Witches Mountain is the only one I’ve seen. Artigot worked more extensively as a cinematographer, who I was already familiar with as director of photography for Eloy de la Iglesia’s The Cannibal Man (1972), two Jess Franco films, Les démons (1973) and La maldición de Frankenstein (1973), and Amando de Ossorio’s The Ghost Galleon (1974). The Witches Mountain, his first movie as a director, which he also co-wrote, is an interesting and ill-fated one, as it was never released in Spain. 

According to an article by Ismael Fernandez included with the Mondo Macabro release as well as David Flint’s humbling commentary track, some of the extras playing witches in the film felt they weren’t being paid enough for night time shoots and decided to take it to the authorities and additionally make allegations that they were forced to appear nude in the film. With nudity in film at the time being prohibited in Francoist Spain, the film was put under investigation. Nude scenes, although not of the actors making the allegations, were supposedly discovered or revealed to be planned (the details are hazy here) for the export version of the film, and it was enough for the film’s release to be prevented in Spain. However, a US print made its way to the US and illegitimately fell in to the public domain.


It takes a hot minute before getting to some of the film’s more delicious sequences, but The Witches Mountain really is a delightful witchy folk horror that is quite spooky at times with a certain magic to it that for me is a little bit Suspiria in the mountains, partially in the way the movie draws you in to its otherworld of sorts. This is done to tremendous effect thanks to the natural locale of the Asturias mountains (Picos de Europa) that in the film seem isolated and mysterious but are very much occupied by an arcane and, at first, mostly unseen witches’ coven, with rightly ambiguous motives. It’s obvious to viewers that the two lead characters, Mario (Cihangir Gaffari) and Delia (Shepard), are caught in a siren song (I like to think of the main vocal theme as that same siren song). The anxiety slowly builds, as they venture further into the natural environment, however seemingly accommodating, of whatever predatory force might be luring them in. 


I can’t say that the sensational and disturbing, yet misleading, opening scene doesn’t get your attention. It’s a false start in tone, but it does help to give a little more noteworthiness to the early presence of a certain character who will have significant relevance a lot later. 

The first lead character, the admirably ‘70s photographer Mario, is introduced after the opening stinger. His deal is made known early on. Desperately blowing off an offer from his ex-lover, Carla (Mónica Randall), Mario cuts his vacation short by calling his publishing firm and demanding a solo photography assignment, which just so happens to involve travelling deep into the film’s title mountain. On his way there, he manages to meet and befriend the second lead character, writer Delia, after photographing and approaching her on the beach.


I imagine Mario was meant to be seen by viewers of the era as a kind of it-guy, or a role model of sorts: the stylish, free loner, untamed, out in the wild landscapes, with his mojo camera and epic ‘70s stache, frequently clutching a cigarette in his teeth. If they put him on a horse, I would’ve easily thought of him as the European Marlboro Man. It’s hard to tell if we’re supposed to like him, but I kind of like him. 

(Men, what’s stopping you from bringing this look back???) 


Delia does reject Mario’s request to visit the mountain with him initially, but, as if a spell has overtaken her, she oddly changes her mind, and the two head towards the mountain in Mario’s Jeep. 

The stop at the Inn at the base of the mountain is a further mood builder, slowly introducing the mountain as something ominous and better avoided. And it’s an excuse to really utilize Victor Israel in his relatively limited but memorable role as the creepy Innkeeper. 

Delia seems to be lured by an entity sourced from the mountain, causing her to exit the inn in a trancelike state while Mario is asleep. Noticing she is missing, Mario has to drive out and fetch the dazed Delia, still in her nightgown, and bring her back for breakfast before they make their ascent.


While out taking photographs on the mountain, Mario’s Jeep is stolen by an unseen individual/ghost, a plot device that leads them to a supposedly abandoned village where they eventually come upon Mario’s stolen car on the side of the road. It is here where they are welcomed in to the drab home of an accommodating elder woman, Santa (Ana Farra), seemingly living all alone. 

It’s been a slow buildup up to this point, and the slow buildup continues, but things start to get more interesting, creepy, and novel, particularly Mario’s photography exploration of the village where unseen figures show up on film, and a late-night funeral procession (my personal favorite part) that’s like right out of a dream.


Being primed by seeing Patty Shepard as an evil vampire queen in Paul Naschy’s The Werewolf Vs. The Vampire Woman (1971), I was expecting her to be the main villain when I first watched it. This isn’t quite the case, but she does seem to be given the May Queen treatment for esoteric reasons that appear to involve possibly mating her with some kind of male sex slave who the witches keep chained up in a cave nearby (I do wish the movie explored this aspect a little more). The scenes with the chained man are brief and mostly just hinted at. I have a hard time recognizing him here, but the male slave is played by the hulking Spanish horror regular Luis Barboo


The witchy chanting in the main musical theme (by Fernando García Morcillo) is both spooky and lovely. It sounds like it flits between Latin and English (sung by Alicia González, sometimes in multi-layered vocals that reach some seriously epic heights at times), and I swear I hear a new phrase every time I watch the movie. It’s been rightfully compared to Antón García Abril’s chanting theme from The Blind Dead films, and it is equally effective here.


It’s fair to say that The Witches Mountain is slow and uneventful for the most part, but it does have some key haunting moments, and I really like the gloves-off climax. It’s one surprisingly gorgeous and mesmerizing horror film where a couple of modern ‘70s folks essentially find themselves in a dark fairytale, and something about it does get under your skin a little. I can’t help thinking that if Mario went around with a movie camera instead, I could also imagine this somehow working as a found-footage film, had those existed yet. 

It’s too bad that this film was banned before it was released in Spain. One can’t help wondering if it might have helped kickstart a more prolific directing career for Raúl Artigot. I only had to see it once to know there was something special here, but it was hard to watch again in the former low-quality version that was only available for a while, which just seemed tragic for such a visually bewitching film. Again, I’m definitely grateful for the new release from Mondo Macabro (released in its original widescreen format for the first time). It’s been an absolute delight rewatching it now. 

© At the Mansion of Madness



Thursday, March 2, 2023

Zelda (1974)

“You came to watch this movie just to see two naked women… You have a colonialist mentality.” – Alberto Cavallone on the ending to Le salamandre*  

“I would like, as I said, for the lover’s place to be in the middle of the couple.” – Emmanuelle Arsan**    

Alberto Cavallone’s films are not fun. I can’t think of one I’ve seen that does not have a depressing ending. Whether or not they are entertaining might depend on the viewer’s mindset, but they are almost always enthralling in a way. You might think you’re being lured in for an erotically fun time, with films like Le salamandre (1969) and Blow Job (1980), or a film with a notorious reputation that precedes it like Blue Movie (1978), but that’s just to get you in front of the screen so the film can put a mirror in front of you, whether or not you realize it, and call you a colonizer or a degenerate (who Cavallone referred to as the “raincoat crowd”), crudely interrupting your titillation. Basically, if the film upsets or antagonizes you, then it was made for you. What’s fascinating is that the films nevertheless did well with the audiences Cavallone was hoping to annoy.  

Cavallone dismissed his own erotic thriller Zelda as a commercial effort, lacking the sociopolitical content of his previous films. On the surface, the movie does have an erotic pull to it, with the promise of interracial lesbian scenes, in a manner similar to Le salamandre. Like Le salamandre, the erotic pull ends up not being the main point of the movie, and with Zelda, Cavallone is critical, or at least dreadfully pessimistic, of the loose sex lives of married couples and the en vogue erotic film of the era while also making his film look very much like one.