Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Witch's Mirror is an even better picture from the new DVD label CasaNegra than The Curse of the Crying Woman. The difference is in a more uninhibited script and superior direction from Chano Urueta, one of the better Mexican purveyors of weird film fare. As is typical with Mexican horror films of this time, transgressive concepts treated with finesse in European films are here presented with a sordid directness: Your mother would call the movie irredeemably trashy. The Witch's Mirror isn't as misogynistic as The Crying Woman but it still places as much blame as possible on the female of the species.
"Good" witch Sara (Isabella Corona) is a disciple of the demon Adonai, and uses a magic mirror to watch over her goddaughter Elena (Dina de Marco), the loyal wife of Sara's employer Doctor Eduardo Ramos (Armando Calvo). Sara dutifully follows Adonai's orders not to intercede when Eduardo poisons Elena to make way for a new wife, Deborah (Rosita Arenas). Prretending not to object, Sara takes revenge on Eduardo through his new bride. She greets Deborah with spells and potions; flowers wilt and spectral evidence appears of Elena's spiritual presence. Eduardo and Deborah are so spooked that, when Sara tricks him with an illusion of Elena in the mirror, the doctor throws a gas lamp at Deborah. Her face and hands are horribly burned, and to restore them, Eduardo and an assistant take to stealing corpses from the morgue and cemetery.
The Witch's Mirror helps itself to a liberal assortment of ideas from other films. It combines Hitchcock's Suspicion (the poisoned milk) with Rebecca (the resented 2nd wife; the witch as a Mrs. Danvers substitute) and a Mad Doctor motif. Although the timing may make us think that the film is yet another rip-off of 1959's Eyes Without a Face, the researchers in Phil Hardy's Encyclopedia of Horror Movies assure us that medical horror films centering on abominable operations were practically initiated by the Mexican wing of the genre. Director Chano Urueta (instantly recognizable as the old villager in The Wild Bunch) reportedly directed the first of these, 1953's El Monstruo Resucitado. Although Mexico is a predominantly Catholic country, its fantasy movies often have distasteful gore elements, and even some nudity ... going back to the 1930s.
This original version begins with a disturbing lecture on black magic and witchcraft illustrated with lurid imitations of classic illustrations showing demons and witches at their profane work. To give two examples, one of the drawings substitutes a hissing cat-head for male genitalia, and another image shows a witch-like character hefting the empty skin of a beautiful woman on her back.
No political ideas intervene in the Alfredo Ruanova and Carlos Enrique Taboada's chosen fantasy; the witches are presented as dangerous mainly because they are female. Although the principal villain is a man, the witch Sara is in control from the sidelines. Outraged that Eduardo has murdered her goddaughter, Sara works her revenge through the new bride Deborah, who knows nothing of the murder and should be considered an innocent bystander. But Sara focuses her hate and retribution on Deborah. The Witch's Mirror is a conservative fantasy, putting the blame on a woman for a man's crime. It is particularly perverse that a witch should be directing that blame, because historical witches were also scapegoats for male crimes; the church exerted its power by trying, torturing and executing helpless women living outside of church control. 1
Actually, The Witch's Mirror tries to make Deborah's initial innocence beside the point when she's horribly burned. Eduardo's love hasn't been diminished and he even kisses her when her face is a mass of charred flesh. Deborah's the one who cannot stand being separated from her beauty. She's repulsed by the dead bodies in Eduardo's lab but quickly forgives him when she discovers that he's restored her perfect looks. So Deborah is (sigh) yet another evil vixen.
The film's narrative goes completely delirious when it introduces elements of medical horror to the gothic Ladies' Fiction clichés. Eduardo's lab is littered with beautiful staring female corpses, and the tranquilized body of a woman who was accidentally buried alive. Eduardo rejoices when he disinters her, as she's legally dead and he'll be able to harvest healthy body parts with impunity. With that nasty thought, he cuts off her hands and grafts them onto Deborah. We never find out if the prematurely buried woman has perished, or eventually revives to find herself mutilated. When Deborah inherits those hands the movie adds The Hands of Orlac and Mad Love to the list of themes being plundered. Deborah stares at her wiggling fingers, which have a will of their own and try to strangle or stab Eduardo.
Director Urueta and Jorge Stahl work wonders with limited resources, pulling off many clever effects. As in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs magic mirrors act like television screens or reflect the wrong person, and a broken mirror leaps back into its intact state with a simple effect reminiscent of Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet. Some effects are frightening; one rather simpleminded trick when Deborah's hands simply fall off works like a charm.
Deborah's state of delirium is nicely expressed when patterns of light are superimposed over her bandaged face. Dina de Marco wanders about as a ghost in a nightgown and Isabela Corona consults with an obscene idol of Adonai for her diabolical instructions. Corona and Rosita Arenas have difficult roles to play (ever try to act as if your hands were controlling themselves?) and are quite good.
Although the movie has no nudity, it's both nasty and lurid --- nothing like the obsessively horrid pictures of Brazil's José Mojica Marins, but pretty sick stuff. It's fascinating in the historical sense but lacking in the artful aestheticism of European pictures like The Horrible Doctor Hichcock or Mill of the Stone Women. The equally cruel Eyes without a Face invites us to think about the meanings behind its morbid fantasy; The Witch's Mirror lays its crudities out for our amusement and doesn't bother to sort out the twisted and contradictory ideas it conjures.
CasaNegra's transfer of The Witch's Mirror is a beauty, an acceptable flat formatting of what was probably a 1:66 release. We can appreciate all of the film's camera effects in the sharp and detailed images. The bilingual disc allows one to watch the film in Spanish with or without subtitles and in a dubbed English track as well.
The welcome extras begin with an okay but rather proprietary commentary from disc producer Frank Coleman, who shows his interest in these Mexican horror films even if he isn't the best man to speak about them. Text writer David Wilt contributes an informative and thorough career overview for director Chano Urueta called Chanovision, and bios for two of the actors. The paper inserts this time are limited to an interesting "Lottery" card using images from Mexi-Horror posters, and a promo sheet for CasaNegra films. Coming in August and October are Abel Salazar's 1957 El Vampiro, the interesting-sounding Mysterious de Ultratumba (The Black Pit of Dr. M) and the notoriously wacky El Barón del terror (The Brainiac).
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Witch's Mirror rates:
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Frank Coleman, Loteria Game Card, Essay on the Films of Chano Urueta, Cast Biographies, Poster and Stills Gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 1, 2006
1. Making "the new wife" the villain to be punished, even though she's unaware of her husband's crime, would seem to be in line with soap opera standards in Latin America. The most hated and feared enemy in the society of wives are "those women" out there waiting in ambush to take away one's husband.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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