Casa Negra // 1960 // 75 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // July 5th, 2006
Black magic vengeance!
Let's start with a gross baseline assumption: you're probably most familiar with recent, mainstream Hollywood films. You know Steven Spielberg's films better than Chano Urueta's. Isabella Rossellini is more recognizable to you than Isabela Corona. If that is true for you, then The Witch's Mirror is pretty darn obscure. Instead of recent, Hollywood, and mainstream, it is 1960s-era Mexican horror. Set almost entirely in a dusty castle filled with candelabras, señoritas, and phantasmagorias, The Witch's Mirror is a riotous romp through every horror cliché in the book.
Sara (Isabela Corona, A Man of Principle), faithful servant of the dark Elohim, Santayana, Lucifer, or whatever else sounds really scary, watches an enchanted mirror with her goddaughter Elena (Dina de Marco, Esmeralda). Mirror, mirror, on the wall, show me a freaky gimp dancing around in a pool of steam. Okay, now show me who is going to kill Elena. Gasp! Not Eduardo Ramos (Armando Calvo, Django Does Not Forgive), loving husband to Elena and prominent scientist/doctor? Alas, he has forsaken Elena for the love of Deborah (Rosa Arenas, The Curse of the Crying Woman). The good doctor serves Elena a glass of Leche Con Intoxicar, and we're down one major character. Or are we?
With the opening ceremonies out of the way, a pastiche of every horror movie ever made unfolds, especially horror movies with hands in them. Each character is a canvas for homage to other horror personages. And by the end, Elena will have gotten her vengeance from beyond the grave with the help of her witch godmother.
Ahh, the 1960s horror flick. Well-buffered against the mind-broadening (and rather boring) surrealism of the 1970s, the '60s went for the pure horror of simple things. A piano playing by itself. A gust of wind, a clap of thunder. Disembodied hands crawling across the floor. Grave robbing. Wilting flowers. Burned faces, undead spirits, mad scientists, and witches. Or, in the case of The Witch's Mirror, all of the above.
I gave up any hope for a cohesive plot with the opening scene. Without preamble, the witch and the victim are plunked down in front of the magic mirror (just checking up on things, I suppose?) when the startling revelation of death appears. "Please, great Lucifer, save my chica, yo," Sara begs. But no, she is marked for death and that's it, say the dark gods. Why? Because without the random, unfair death of Elena, there would be no excuse for the "disembodied hands get revenge" shtick. Indeed, the plot morphs like Silly Putty to fit in a reference to every possible horror film. The doctor even picks up a laboratory and assistant in the last act to give us a whole new realm of clichés to mine.
For some reason, this baldfaced pilfering of horror cinema doesn't turn me off as much as it should. Perhaps it is the earnest manner in which Urueta goes about the film. He employs every cheap camera trick known to man at the time, from steep camera angles to double exposures. He particularly favors the double exposure. Elena is summoned "from beyond the grave" via double exposure. Sara walks "through" walls. It is really funny to behold these straight-faced tricks.
For all of his shenanigans, Urueta only manages two truly artistic shots. One is a brief conversation between Sara and her God. A guy wrapped in a sheet is suspended from the rafters with duct tape, but through the magic of cinematography he looks like a gargoyle come to life to commune with his minion. The second shot comes much later, when a bandage-clad Deborah paces her room in a halo of unearthly light. This shot is worthy of true cinematographic kudos, even if you can briefly spy the hand of a crew member holding a reflector off to the right side of the screen. I was gratified to hear both of these shots praised in the special features, because it means I'm not crazy.
As for the actors...well, let's just say that most of them went on to long careers in Mexican soap operas. The acting in this film isn't bad or good, it merely is. The actors are canvases for the horrific riff of the moment.
If you're a fan of Mexican horror cinema, you're no doubt familiar with K. Gordon Murray, the man who snapped up all of the American distribution rights for many Mexican films. He churned out laughable dubs and hacked many of the films to pieces. Even though The Witch's Mirror received better treatment than most, the Spanish language track is nonetheless a welcome break from the cheesy English dub. The ponderous orchestral score is intact to remind us that every innocuous event is laced with hidden menace.
The transfer is clean, with a slight grain. The image is barely blurry, but this is a welcome tradeoff for the absence of noticeable edge enhancement. Contrast is not exceptionally high, but it is strong enough and distinct enough to delineate shadow details. The transfer is detailed enough to reveal flaws in some of the photographic trickery, such as the outline of Elena's arms when her "disembodied" hands are walking around. All in all, this is an impressive, tastefully handled restoration of an obscure film.
The audio is less successful, though I'm sure the restoration was approached with equal care. Time has distorted the mono audio track, causing many passages to sound warped and uneven. There may not have been much to work with: the louder sequences are marred by clipping, which causes the audio to bloom into white noise at the harshest regions of the soundtrack. This is likely inherent in the master. The quieter scenes come across with minimal distortion, and there are few aural blights.
Casa Negra's extras should please the fans of films such as The Witch's Mirror, and I'm sure such fans are out there. Web media entrepreneur Frank Coleman waxes enthusiastic about the film. He retains a sense of humor about its shortcomings while praising its merits as only a true fan can. If his commentary has lapses and devolves into play-by-play, enthusiasm makes up for it. Other than galleries and biographies of Rosa Arenas and Armando Calvo, the extras are rounded out with a lengthy, informative essay on the cinema of Chano Urueta.
Great video, decent audio, and worthwhile extras make this DVD a good bet for fans of Mexican horror. The film itself is a blatant, if decently executed, meld of other horror films. Its earnest manner and continual assault of moody camera techniques keep it interesting throughout, even if it isn't precisely scary.
The Witch's Mirror is sentenced to seven years of bad luck, already served.
Review content copyright © 2006 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Casa Negra
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 1960
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary by Frank Coleman, Founder of IVTV
* "Chanovision: The Films of Mexican Cult Moviemaker Chano Urueta" Essay
* Poster and Still Gallery