Thursday, May 02, 2019

THRILLER Thursday: LA STREGA

SEASON 2: LA STREGA

The spider web fills the screen, it's Boris Karloff's THRILLER!



Season: 2, Episode: 17.
Airdate: January 15, 1962.

Director: Ida Lupino.
Writer: actor Alan Caillou.
Cast: Ursula Andress, Alejandro Rey, Jeanette Nolan. Frank DeKova, Ernest Sarracino, Ramon Navarro.
Music: Morton Stevens.
Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline.
Producer: William Frye.



Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “Strega. A witch. Dreadful word for a horrible creature. In Italy, where just over a hundred years ago the events you are about to see took place, witchcraft is called even today ‘The Old Religion”. The pious peasants who feared it fought it. And sometimes they employed measures which were. Well. Quite extreme. But witches, too, could fight back. And when they do, my friends, beware! For the witch can wreak a fearful vengeance in those who dare to stand in her way. She’s outcast, unwanted, feared, and the image of her that has come down to us through the ages is a fright, indeed. The title of our story is ‘La Strega’, and our players are: Ursula Andress, Alejandro Rey, Jeanette Nowlan, Raymond Navaro, Frank DeKova, and Ernest Sarracino. La Strega: you can see her now as prepares to cast a spell of death. She’s old, lame, evil eyed and cruel. And her familiar - the animal chose to bridge the gap between herself and the devil? (A black cat) Is ready to help her perform the devil’s work. As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, someone is about to die.”



Synopsis: Italy, early 1800s: A beautiful woman named Luana (Ursula Andress) is doing her laundry at the side of a lake... with a man watching from the hillside above. Creepy. He yells “Strega!” and she turns around. And sees that the man is part of a group of angry men on the hillside yelling “Strega!” They walk down the hill and surround her - she is trapped by the lake. She tries to escape, but they grab her and beat her and throw her into the lake to drown...

An old woman doing her laundry by the side of the lake as Tonio (Alejandro Rey from THE FLYING NUN) - a painter - comes up with his laundry bag and they have a conversation about laundry day... and then hear a noise from the lake. Luana clinging to a log. Tonio jumps in the lake to save her against the protests of the old woman. He pulls her to shore. She wakes up and asks if the men are gone, and he tells her that it is only him. She is scared to death that they will return, and he is protective of her. Tells her that he is an artist that lives in the next village over - and broke. She tells him that she has run away from home - her parents are dead and she was living with her grandmother... who is a witch. Nobody will help her, because they believe that she is also a witch. She cries on his shoulder... and it’s Ursula Andress... so he offers to take her home with him and give her a place to stay for a while. He’s no dummy.



Outside his flat, he explains that his place isn’t cleaned up right now and... She doesn’t care. She finds one of his paintings and thinks that he’s very talented. He gives her a robe and she steps behind a folding screen to change out of her wet clothes. Because Tonio is pervy - there is a mirror behind the screen so her can see her nude reflection (and the TV audience gets to see Ursula’s naked back). Tonio asks to sketch her - he is falling in love with her. He suggests she spend the night with him until he can talk with his best friend and mentor Giuliano who might be able to help her find a place.

Luana screams - she feels the presence of her Grandmother close by. Tonio takes her to the window to prove that nobody is there... and there is her grandmother the witch! The Grandmother begins pounding on the door to get in! Tonio hides Luana in a trunk and puts a painting over the charcoal sketch of her on his easel... then opens the door.

The Grandmother (Jeanette Nolan) - a pretty danged ugly old woman who looks like a witch - enters looking for Luana. Tonio says he doesn’t know who she is talking about - and the Grandmother knows *everything* and pulls the painting off the easel exposing the sketch of Luana. Tonio says that Luana is an adult and can do whatever the heck she wants, and he is not going to tell the Grandmother where she is.



Grandmother tells him, “When the moon is down and the night is dark, the blood in your veins will boil and burn. Your hands will do the work of the devil. Those you love will be taken away, A curse will lie on you day and night - a madman, kept in a darkened cell for the rest of your life! A madman! Only a grave for the ones you love.” And then she cackles and splits. Because that’s just what witches do.

As soon as she’s gone, Tonio goes to the trunk to release Luana... but the latch is stuck! Luana is dying of asphyxiation inside. Some suspense as he fights to get the latch open! He gets the latch open just in time, and holds Luana close. Which leads to them laying in bed together. When he has fallen asleep, she paints a cross above his bed and casts a protection spell on him. Maybe she does take after her Grandmother?

Meanwhile the Grandmother is finding eyes of newts and various other witch needs in the forest. These things aren’t found in a supermarket.

When Tonio wakes, Luana wants to know exactly what the curse was - so that she can help. He still isn’t sold on the whole witchcraft thing. That’s old fashioned. But she is beautiful and he believes that his painting of her will sell and make him a pile of money.

Meanwhile, the Grandmother is doing some sort of Voodoo doll thing.

Tonio finishes his painting and... it’s a painting of the Grandmother! He throws it in the fireplace... and the flames erupt from the front! And the image of a black cat appears!



The Next Day: Luana is cleaning up the flat - TV code that she has moved in and is now Tonio’s lover - when there is a knock at the door and Tonio’s mentor Maestro Giuliano (silent film heart throb Ramon Navarro) comes in. Tonio half heartedly asks if Giuliano might know of somewhere Luana can stay... and is slips that her Grandmother is La Strega - the witch. They discuss witchcraft - which Giuliano believes is not just superstition. He has seen a black cat in the woods and believes that means tonight there will be a Witch ritual in the woods. Tonio still doesn’t believe in witches, and Giuliano agrees to take him to the ritual so that he can see for himself that witchcraft is real. Luana is against all of this.

The woods at night. Dark, spooky, windy. The three hide behind a rock and watch the witch ritual - in a scene right out of THE WIZARD OF OZ. The ritual is basically a bunch of people in black bodysuits doing modern dance in the woods - which isn’t scary enough for Giuliano to look away and cross himself over. But the dancing has a sexual element that fits with witchcraft legends, so I wonder what the script was like? Naked people? The Grandmother and her black cat watch over the ritual. Luana says they need to leave *now* before it’s too late. She and Giuliano leaves, but Tonio thinks it’s just people dancing and yells for them to stop. He runs into the middle of the ritual = and the Grandmother points her finger and Poof! All of the dancers are gone. The Grandmother and her cat are gone. Antonio is standing in the middle of a field alone at night. WTF? He searches - but there is no one there.

Then he hears Luana scream... and runs to the trail, where she is leaning over Giuliano’s body. He has been killed by the curse that all Tonio loves will die.



Tonio begs Luana to tell him where her Grandmother lives so that he can beg for her to lift the curse. When Tonio and :Luana leave, the Black Cat comes from the darkness and sniffs at Giuliano’s corpse.

The Village Church: Tonio and Luana talk to the Priest (Ernest Sarracino) - who tells them it is a pity that the townspeople have decided to make up all of these dreadful lies about Luana’s Grandmother. Poor old women living alone are often ostracized by the village. Tonio wants toi know if Luana can spend the night in the church - there are evil spirits at work tonight. “Evil spirits is no way to talk, my child. The evil is in our minds, nowhere else.” Ut he allows her to spend the night... while Tonio does what he must do. Tonight. “Whatever you do, don’t leave the church until I come back.”

Grandmother’s House: Tonio sneaks in and spots Grandmother and her cat in a rocking chair... and she says he came for nothing. She will not lift the curse. He will go mad and all of those he loves will die. The only thing that will satisfy the Grandmother is if Luana is returned to her to carry on the family tradition. Tonio offers to marry Luana - but that isn’t what Grandmother wants. Tonio loses his temper... and strangles the old woman! Strangles her to death! He realizes that he will be executed for this - you can’t just kill an old lady. So he grabs a shovel and digs a grave in the dirt floor of Grandmother’s house, buries her.

The Next Day: Policeman Vincoli (Frank DeKova) is questioning him about the death of Giuliano. The Policeman is not buying the whole witches ritual thing, and hints that Giuliano died in the company of Luana. Maybe they should question Luana to see if she saw this alleged witch ritual. Where is she? They go to the Church...



Where the Priest tells the Policeman that Luana vanished in the night. When the Priest woke up, she was gone. The Policeman wonders if she has gone back to her Grandmothers? The Priest says that can’t be - this morning after he discovered Luana was gone, the Priest ran into the Grandmother just outside the Church looking for Luana. Tonio says that can not be (he knows that he murdered the Grandmother last night). Tonio grabs a knife and escapes from the Policeman - running like a madman across town.

He runs to the Grandmother’s house... to the grave in the floor... and begins digging. To make sure the Grandmother is still there, still dead.

The Policeman and a bunch of other Policemen race to the Grandmother’s House.

Tonio uncovers the body and cries in shock! The dead body is there... but it’s Luana! The Policeman shows up and slaps the cuffs on him.



Review: This is actor and sometimes screenwriter Alan Caillou’s third script for the series and his second script about witches (HAY-FORK AND BILL-HOOK previously). The problem is - it isn’t very scary. Part of that is due to this being a story with no Act 2 - it is a set up and punchline story. The set up being the witch’s curse, the punchline being when Tonio digs up the witch’s body and discovers that it’s Luana... and the curse has become true. But in between those two scenes, not much happens. There is that modern dance scene, and taking Luana to the church so that she will be safe, but neither of those things is particularly scary or contains much conflict or suspense. Yes, Giuliano is killed at the modern dance show - but off camera. No suspense or build up. He’s just dead. So the middle of the story is padding.

The story has similarities to season 1's PAPA BENJAMIN, based on a Woolrich story, which does a better job of creating suspense in the middle... more due to the source material than the episode’s writing. But this episode needed more conflict, more scary scenes. The witch ritual was more silly than spooky - and even if frolicing in the woods might be factual (usually naked frolicing, but I’ll be the black bodysuits were pushing the limits at the time), it’s just not scary. In doing a little research for this entry, I watched the Finnish film “Noita Palaa Elämään” (1952) (“The Witch Returns To Life”) which shows witches as a form of temptress - and naked dancing in the forest fits with that aspect. If the story had run with the idea of being possessed and helpless against a sexy witch, lured to your death, and that happen to Giuliano, that could have created some suspense and a frightening scene where he was powerless to stop himself from walking to his death, and Tonio and Luana could not stop him nor look at the witches. Though, the idea of Jeanette Nowlan naked is more frightening than anything in the episode.

Witchcraft includes not only casting spells, but raising the dead and conjuring demons. Those things might have added some fear in the middle of the story, but even if you just stuck with casting spells - there should have been a couple more spells or more threatening manifestations of her original spell. I like to make lists of possible scenes, so I would have started with all of the things that a witch could do to you that would scare the crap out of the TV audience - loss of free will is one of those things. Once you make a list, you pick the most frightening things and the most frightening scenes that use those elements, and pick the best three for the middle of the story. But after introducing the cat, it basically does nothing in this story!



This may be Ida Lupino’s weakest directing in the series - it’s competent, and has a couple of great shots - the ending shot where the police are taking Tonio away is great - they haven’t shown what he has dug up, yet, only his reactions. In a single shot the police drag him away and then the shot moves down to where he was digging to expose Luana’s face in the dirt. Very cool shot. But she has done so much great work in past episodes that this is kind of a let down.

Though that cute guy from THE FLYING NUN does a good job, the real draw for this episode is Ursula Andress before her big breakout role in DR. NO - and she was dubbed in DR. NO because they thought he accent was too strong for UK and USA audiences, but here she speaks with her own voice and is easily understood. Yes, the character is supposed to be Italian, but she sounds like an American actress doing an Italian accent. Do I even have to say that she is beautiful? When this episode was made she had done a couple of Italian movies, and wasn’t famous - she hadn’t made a movie in seven years due to contracts with Paramount and Columbia where they refused to cast her due to that alleged accent. So this episode was her American debut.

The other draw for this episode is Ramon Navarro, a silent era Latin Lover type who was billed as the new Valentino... and played Ben Hur in the original silent BEN HUR. He was a huge star, who hit a slump in the 1940s and returned as a working character actor on TV in the 1950s until his murder in 1968 in North Hollywood during a home invasion robbery. Here we see him in the middle of this second career as a character actor, and he’s charming as Giuliano.

This is an okay episode, but both writer and director have done better work on the show. Next week, that black cat is back! In a story about a storm... and strange noises coming from the storm cellar.

- Bill

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