Color, 1972, 86 mins. 19 secs. / 82 mins. 6 secs.
Directed by Raúl Artigot
Starring John (Cihangir) Gaffari, Patty Shepard, Victor Israel, Mónica Randall, Ana Farra
Mondo Macabro (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Francisco Herrera (BD-R) (Spain R0 HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
One of the more mysterious entries in the Spanish horror boom of the 1970s, The Witches Mountain was officially banned in its native country but managed to briefly get some play (mostly on TV) in Europe and the U.S. However, for decades the film (incorrectly presumed to be public domain) has been impossible to really assess given the hopelessly dark, blurry, and heavily cropped presentations out there, though to some degree its eerie qualities have always shone through. Though devoid of any graphic sex or violence (especially compared to the export versions of Paul Naschy films around that time), it's an atmospheric supernatural chiller that slots very neatly into the folk horror wave that became part of the genre conversation later on.
After a puzzling but spooky prologue involving a creepy little girl, a dead cat, and some impromptu arson, Carla (Randall) seeks help from her photographer boyfriend, Mario (Gaffari), who's distracted by his current mission of visiting and photographing a mysterious witch mountain in the Pyrenees. Going solo, he finds his eye (and spectacular mustache) drawn to another young woman, Delia (The Werewolf vs. Vampire Woman's Shepard), who accompanies him on a journey deep into the wilds of the haunting countryside. With inexplicable witches popping up in his photos and strange forces making noises at night, Mario comes to believe that maybe the legends around the area might be true... and Delia herself could be next in line as an initiated member of the local coven.
Though the storyline is threadbare and often doesn't hang together in any logical way, The Witches Mountain has that certain special something from Euro horror of the period including a striking climax filled with occult dancing and random caveman interludes. As mentioned above, the violence level is so slight this aired uncut on TV at the time, but there's at least one fantastic shock sequence near the end and the uncanny locale is really used to the hilt. However, the most valuable player here is easily composer Fernando García Morcillo (The Howl of the Devil) who delivers a wild, incredibly effective score complete with ominous chanting and insane instrumentation you won't here anywhere else. Thankfully the powers that be eventually arranged a soundtrack release paired up with The Night of the Sorcerers, so snap it up if you can find it.
Spanish censors were none too amused at the film setting its nefarious supernatural mayhem on Spanish soil (a big no-no during the fascist Franco era), and the limited distribution overseas led to those aforementioned substandard video presentations that hampered this film's reputation for ages. In 2022, rights holder Francisco Herrera issued a BD-R in Spain (circulated worldwide via Ebay) featuring the Spanish and English tracks (no subtitles) in lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 options, plus an unsubtitled featurette, bonus unsubbed featurettes on A Candle for the Devil (25m24s) and La isla de la muerte (19m54s), a new trailer, a "Coleccion Fantaterror" promo, and numerous galleries devoted to Patty Shepard, Monica Randall, Victor Israel, Raul Artigot, and posters. The presentation of the film itself was frustrated on numerous fronts; on the positive side, it finally restored the original scope framing (essential to appreciating it at all) and had actual color and detail. On the other hand, it's interlaced at 30fps and also runs way too fast, clocking in at 82 minutes -- and the soundtrack on both versions has inexplicably been ruined with a slew of new, very distracting, loud sound effects (a la the vandalism on Eye in the Labyrinth). The film is advertised as being transferred from the original negative, which seems suspect as this looks more like a DNR-ed theatrical print. At least it's finally in full scope though, resulting in a radically improved viewing experience all around.
In 2023, Mondo Macabro provided the first pressed Blu-ray release ever, first as one of their limited red case editions and then a general retail option. The transfer is the same as expected (albeit now running at the correct speed for a total of 86 minutes), but the audio is much better with the DTS-HD MA English and Spanish 2.0 mono tracks featuring optional English subtitles; the Spanish track is in better shape (and helps make the prologue more coherent), but most importantly, the original sound effects are back and were sorely missed. A thorough new audio commentary by The Reprobate's David Flint does a very admirable job of filling the track with lots of info about the film (especially given how few actors there are, or how little actually happens), including notes on the film's fate in Spain, the backgrounds of the actors and director Raúl Artigot, and other relevant local films around the same time. The making-of featurette (24m27s) from the earlier BD-R is ported over here, this time with English subtitles; it's comprised of interviews with actor Victor Israel and film experts Armando Medina Calvo and Andres Padron about the making of this film, its remote shooting the Pyrenees to get around government interference, and its important in the history of Spanish cinematic horror. A video interview with Gaffari (30m5s) is priceless stuff, covering his birth in Azerbaijan and initial flight to Iran, his memories of fellow actors like Howard Vernon, his acting experiences in Turkey, and the making of films like Hundra, Yellow Hair and the Fortress of Gold, They Call Me Shmil, and his mostly deleted role in Bloodsport. He only touches on this film a bit, mainly recalling the pleasant working experience and eventually getting a residual check when it ran on Los Angeles television. A second archival interview with Gaffari (36ms) comes from the Mithat Alam Film Center and was conducted by film students as part of the Cinema of Turkey Visual Memory Project, covering some of the same ground (especially his family background) but delivering a few unique stories about his film career and some additional biographic info that's nice to have. The Chris O'Neill video essay "An American Actress in Madrid" (7m52s) assesses the career of Patty Shepherd from her start in TV commercials through her heyday of European films ranging from lightweight comedies to horror and violent westerns. (It'll also make you even more frustrated that one of her best films, Eloy de la Iglesia's The Glass Ceiling, is still being held hostage somewhere.) Also included are a newly created "producer's trailer," an English credits sequence (also digitally created), and the usual Mondo Macabro promo.
Reviewed on June 13, 2023