Saturday 12 March 2011

The Witch (1966)

One of the reasons I like genre films is that as long as a few basic 'rules' of the genre are followed, there is a tremendous amount of freedom in terms of where they can go and what they can do.  THE WITCH, directed by Italian film-maker Damiano Damiani in 1966 and originally released as LA STREGA IN AMORE, is a good example.  It has a fairly standard plot - a man goes to an old dark house to work for an aristocratic old lady and meets a mysterious young woman - using some familiar horror elements but is really an exploration of sexual politics, chauvinism, masculinity, vanity and even time and memory.  Those themes, together with its claustrophobic setting, few characters and oppressive atmosphere in which violence always seems about to erupt, at times the film seemed to me to be almost Pinter-esque.

Essentially the film charts the transformation of Sergio Logan (played by Richard Johnson) from sexually arrogant womaniser to discarded plaything, a transformation brought about by his increasingly jealous obsession with a beautiful young woman.  That she is merely a phantom, conjured by a vain old woman who is herself obsessed with recapturing her youth, says much about Logan's inability to see beyond the superficial, about his idealised conception of women.

Logan surveys his playground
A book I refer to frequently is Phil Hardy's "The Aurum Encyclopedia of Horror", a massive volume which summarises and appraises hundred of horror films from the 1920s to the 1990s.  It was probably the first film reference book I had that treated horror as a genre that could be subjected to, and deserved, academic levels of analysis.  As such it made quite an impression on me when I first read it in my early twenties.  However, looking back on it today, I see that many of the crits are written from a psychoanalytic / feminist film theory perspective, meaning they are relentlessly harsh on anything they consider to be misogynistic (for which their threshold is incredibly low) and too eager to praise anything which foregrounds and critiques what they consider to be the predominantly male aggressive sexual fantasies which drive cinema, not just horror.

Mirror image: Rosanna Schiaffino (L) and Sarah Ferrati

Hardy's reviews are clearly influenced heavily by film theorist Laura Mulvey's seminal 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", which set out her ideas about the three "gazes" around which narrative cinema is based.  In Hardy's defence, he wasn't alone in taking the position he did; much academic film writing was influenced by Mulvey and continued to be so well into the 1990s, when I was studying Film.  I imagine that if a new edition of Hardy's book was to published it would take into account the developments in film theory over the last 20 years, including Mulvey's revision of her own essay.  In particular, I would say that psychoanalytic film theory is perhaps not as prevalent as it used to be.

Anyway, I digress.  The reason I mention Hardy's book is that its review of THE WITCH is one I particularly disagree with.  It claims the film is merely one of several "virulently misogynist pictures" that Damiano directed and that "it posits the questionable thesis that men can only relate to each other satisfactorily when women are destroyed."  This is a classic psychoanalytic reading which, to my mind, is totally unsupported by the film.  Leaving aside the fact that Logan has a perfectly satisfactory relationship with his doctor friend, his 'destruction' of Consuelo (played by Sarah Ferrati) is borne out of self-preservation.  I think Hardy's review is predicated on his belief that the audience is encouraged to identify with Logan, and to see him as the hero.  My belief is that it is quite clear from the outset that Logan is an objectionable character who come-uppance at the hands of an elegant old lady is richly deserved.

The review concludes that the film is "in spite of professional shooting and acting, a depressingly bigoted and woman-hating effort".  Again, I can't find anything in the film to support that view.  If anything, the film is misanthropic: seeing men and women equally vain and manipulative, equally prone to jealous and obsessive behaviour and equally capable of vindictive or violent behaviour.

Richard Johnson as Sergio Logan
I agree though about the acting.  Richard Johnson is good as Logan, relishing the chance to display the full range of his acting chops.  Johnson has appeared in many delirious films over the years, despite (or maybe because) never truly reaching film star status.  Sarah Ferrati is excellent as Consuelo, prisoner of her own vanity.  Also in the cast is Gian Maria Volonte as Logan's ill-fated predecessor.  It's worth mentioning that although the film is dubbed (including Johnson's voice), for once the standard of the dubbing actors is good, so the power of the physical performances is not diminished.

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