Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Raúl Artigot's The Witches' Mountain (1972)

Raúl Artigot's The Witches' Mountain (1972) has a very bizarre pre-credit sequence: lovely Carla arrives to her wealthy villa after a few days stint away. She notices immediately a wig on her lawn with a large butcher knife stuck into it. She goes looking for her cat and finds its corpse under her bedding. Carla is startled by her young daughter, Greta, who looks like a china doll with black fingerless gloves on, and the little girl is mad at her mother. The cat, who Greta dispatched while Carla was away, scared Greta's favorite pets. Greta goes running around the villa grounds looking, and the two end in the garage. Greta's pet is a large snake, and Carla opens a can of gasoline, setting a fire, and killing the child.
Post credits, The Witches' Mountain remains quiet yet unsettling. Mario walks into his dark apartment and turns on the lights to find Carla sitting on his couch. He's not happy to see Carla, either, and presumably the two were married. The child's death has ceased the marriage. Carla asks to take a vacation with Mario, but he calls his employer, telling him that he doesn't want a vacation. Give me an assignment, he says, anything. You want me to do what? asks Mario. (The viewer, smartly, is not yet privy to Mario's assignment.)

Mario is at the seaside overlooking a cliff with a large camera. He spies a bikini-clad beauty on the beach and snaps her photo. He walks to the shore to introduce himself, and the young woman introduces herself as Delia (Patty Shepard). He invites her to lunch, and she accepts. He tells her that he has an assignment at the mountain. (Mario is a photographer.) Delia does not know the location. Would she like to accompany him? She declines but asks for a ride home. At her doorstep, Delia has a change of heart and accepts Mario's invitation. As she is gathering her things inside, Mario begins hearing a haunting and chanting tune. He queries Delia about it but she says, "You must've been dreaming."
Upon arrival at the mountainside during the evening at a local inn, Mario keeps his presumptuousness in check by requesting two rooms from the creepy innkeeper. Delia disrobes in her room and is frightened by a dark figure at her window, accompanied by the lights suddenly going out. Mario asks if the innkeeper has a ladder. Why? asks the innkeeper. How else would someone get to the window? It's only five feet from the ground, says the innkeeper, and the lights often go out at this time of night, because of flubs at the power station. Mario and Delia take shelter by the fire in the alcove of the inn, and in the morning, Delia is gone. Mario finds her outside not very far from the inn. I don't know how I got here, says Delia. Maybe you were sleepwalking, says Mario. The creepy innkeeper thinks Mario and Delia are a weird couple and he suggests to Mario to allow the lady to stay at the inn instead of going to the mountain. Thanks all the same.
Mountainside. Lush green grass. Cool wind. Mario snapping, what should be, beautiful photos. Delia spies their jeep being driven off, and the two give chase on foot. An elderly shepard is asked by the pair if the jeep was seen. The shepard cocks a finger behind him and then disappears within a second. The jeep is resting with nothing missing inside and the keys in the ignition. The jeep is also in the shadow of a house, located slightly up the mountainside. Let's go ask the inhabitant of the house if he/she know who took their vehicle.
The Witches' Mountain is film with a series of escalating encounters. Because Mario and Delia are so normal and unassuming, the viewer encounters these situations and asks the same questions. (To be fair, to the modern viewer, Delia's more normal. Mario's hair, clothes, and mannerisms are wonderfully dated but put the viewer slightly outside the narrative.) Do you believe that everything, asks Delia, has a logical answer? Mario believes so. If Mario is wrong, then the series of escalating encounters in the film might answer the question as to the existence of the folks alluded to in the English-language title. In my opinion, neither question is answered, and the narrative doesn't serve solely an intellectual exercise. The Witches' Mountain is an organic, slow-moving film. In adept hands, quiet moments can give resonance to loud scenes. Artigot is often successful. Over the course of the final two-thirds of the film, Mario and Delia are often separated. In one sequence, Mario is alone in a cabin and searching its contents. In a series of contrived, static shots, Artigot shoots a meowing cat in various places within the frames. The viewer's focus is on Mario and especially, the revelatory photos that he is finding. It's impossible to ignore the cat despite its arbitrary framing, because of the continuous meowing. As Mario wraps up his investigation, the shots become tighter and the editing quickens. The biggest revelation of scene (and an effective disorienting jump scare) then comes.
If The Witches' Mountain weren't so carefully and effectively constructed, then Patty Shepard as Delia would be worth viewing the film alone. The American-born actress made some fantastic films in Europe. Shepard is a natural beauty and she plays her character with little effort. Her sometimes aloofness gives her a mysterious quality. It was very hard for me to take my eyes off of her. The film also has some haunting sequences, excellent use of music, and an exciting conclusion. The Witches' Mountain is a film which seemingly asks nothing from the viewer in its execution then surreptitiously queries its viewer through its action. Along the way the film is simply and elegantly entertaining.

1 comment:

Mr.LargePackage said...

Super review, Hans. I went to the Witches' Mountain on holiday about 4 years ago. Did you know they have a theme park? Supernatural shit happens on the rides, and that is large and in charge.