A pretty little Italian girl is washing her laundry in the river when she's accosted by three brutish males calling her Strega. The doltish ringleader with the one word vocabulary slaps her around and then picks her up and tosses her in the river, where she thrashes about in the water.
Karloff arrives on scene to make the introductions, and defines Strega as witch, "a dreadful word for a horrible creature." He goes on to describe how witchcraft in Italy was called the old religion over a hundred years ago, and that pious peasants used extreme measures to fight witches, but that witches can fight back and wreak a fearful vengeance on those who stand in the way.
"She's outcast, unwanted, feared, and the image of her that has come down to us through the ages is a frightening one indeed."
Handsome Tonio the painter sees the girl clinging to a tree branch in the river and decides she's drowning and needs to be rescued. Fortunately, she's got some physical attributes that have helped her to remain afloat long enough for him to reach her. She tells him that some men threw her into the river to kill her. He finds out her name is Luana, her parents are dead and she's been living with her grandmother. She asks if he believes in witches, which he does not. She tells him they say her grandmother is a witch and has put a curse on her. He claims he's a friend, which prompts her to invite herself to his studio to crash. But first they must lie down in the sand together to dry off and show off her ample bosom some more.
He invites her in to his messy studio and she zeroes in on a portrait of a lady. He gives her something to change into, while we get a nice view of his muscular physique as he changes his shirt. Tonio has cleverly set up a mirror behind the changing screen so that he and the rest of us get a clear view of Luana's backside as she changes.
He invites her to sit by the fire to warm herself and the romantic music swells as he repeatedly tells her she's beautiful. He insists he must sketch her in an attempt to capture her beauty. While drawing, he suggests she invented the story of the attempted murder and asks what really happened. As he completes the sketch, she screams and says her grandmother is coming. He points out an old beggar passing by, but as he directs her to look out the window, a frightening old crone comes lurching into view.
He tries to reassure her, but she insists the witch can harm them both. When there is a knock at the door and the knob is rattled, he hides Luana in a trunk, and lets the old gal in. She's got a huge beak of an Italian nose, and the way she says buona sera is menacing as she shuffles into the room and announces she's come for Luana. Tonio says she's not there and he doesn't know where she is. The old witch says she needs her. She walks over to the trunk and asks again, and when he denies seeing her, she reveals the sketch he made of her. Never try and fool a witch.
When he denies knowing where she is again, she curses him and says his blood will boil and his hands will do the work of the devil when the moon is down and the night is dark. She repeatedly tells him that he'll be a madman kept in a darkened cell and there is only a grave for the ones he loves. She leaves and he goes to let Luana out of the trunk and finds he can't open it.
Finally he gets it open and brings her to his bed. She reassures him that she's alright, but apparently he is not. He feels exhausted and blames the painting for it. He lays down to rest and she tells him he has someone to take care of him now. She lays her cheek on his and he tells her how the old woman cursed him. As he rests, she paints a plus sign over his bed. Or maybe it's a cross. She then waves her hands over his head in a circular motion.
The old witch is out cackling and catching a chicken by the feet. Tonio wakes up and his fever has disappeared. Luana claims the cross she painted helped break the spell. He refuses to believe in the ancient pagan mumbo jumbo. While talking about how great his sketch of her is, and discussing every aspect of her beauty he has captured, she falls asleep. The romantic music swells and he decides it's a good time to steal a kiss while she's unaware and can't refuse.
Meanwhile, back at the hovel, the crone is making a voodoo doll and amusing herself by piercing it with chicken feathers. Tonio knocks back a drink and stares at Luana before returning to his sketch. He's horrified to see it has become La Strega. He crumples it and throws it into the stove, and we see her familiar peeking out as the sketch burns.
The next day, Maestro Giuliano (Ramon Novarro, who I know from the 1925 version of Ben-Hur) pops in to Tonio's studio and meets the lovely Luana and learns she is the granddaughter of La Strega. He tells the Maestro what transpired the night before and Luana lets him know her grandmother put a curse on him. The Maestro tells Tonio to hold on to his disbelief, that those who live there believe in such things because they were born there, which makes them seem real. When he finds out about the black cat in the fire, he relates that he also saw the creature on the edge of the woods, which signifies a sabbat happening that night. Tonio refuses to believe it and the Maestro suggests he'll go with him only to show him what he should be afraid of. That sounds like a big mistake.
They hike into the woods together and the Maestro stops and tries to convince Tonio to change his mind about crashing the black mass, but he won't. What they come upon is more fearsome than anyone could possibly imagine. It's a black leotard clad interpretive dance orgy. No kidding. Check it out. Even La Strega seems to be getting a little familiar with her familiar.
Foolish Tonio leaves Luana and the Maestro, and bravely steps toward the frantic dancers, screaming for them to stop. La Strega points a finger at those of us watching, which makes all of us viewers a little uncomfortable since it seems like she can see us through the TV screen. There's a big POOF of smoke and flame and the Solid Gold black sabbat dancers disappear, as well as La Strega. Tonio seems to think that if he screams "Where are you?" that he'll get an answer, instead he only hears Luana's scream.
He finds her next to his best friend the Maestro, who lies dead with a crushed skull. Luana says she'll go back to La Strega, but Tonio insists he's going to see her grandmother to beg her to release them. This guy really doesn't understand witches. When they leave, the black cat comes and sniffs at the Maestro's corpse. Tonio decides to drop off Luana at a church while he goes to confront La Strega. They tell the padre that evil spirits are afoot, but he says the evil is in their minds. Tonio makes Luana promise to stay until he returns.
Tonio goes to the witch's abode and begs her to release the curse. La Strega demands that her granddaughter return, but Tonio begs her to allow them to marry, which she denies, informing him that Luana must come back to do her bidding. She reiterates that those he loves will be taken away from him and he will become a madman kept in a darkened cell. She is having a great time cackling about it, which prompts him to strangle the cackles out of her. He finds a shovel and buries her inside the home.
Tonio is making a report to a Napoleon look-alike, who confirms that Tonio left Luana alone with his best friend and when he came back, his friend was dead. They go to the church to question Luana. When they arrive, the padre tells them that Luana is not there. Tonio thinks she must have returned to her grandmother, but the padre tells her she couldn't have, because he ran into her grandmother on his way there. Tonio starts freaking out and grabs a knife. He runs out and manages to bump into as many people as he possibly can.
He arrives at La Strega's house and begins digging where he buried her and finds...something that makes him cry out. The officials come and arrest him and we get a shot of what has upset him so terribly. Don't scroll down if you don't want to see it.
to be continued...