Sunday, July 14, 2013

The She-Beast (Italy, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the most recent “Internet Slasher Drive-In” double bill, containing two Italian productions from 1966 that both turned out to be considerably better than we would have expected from the genre, the titles — The She-Beast and Kill, Baby, Kill — and the time. The She-Beast was one of only four features directed by British horror director Michael Reeves — the others were Castle of the Living Dead (uncredited), The Sorcerers (with Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey as a couple of old mad scientists who invent a consciousness-transference machine and take over the body of a young man so through him they can experience vicariously decadent thrills they’re both too old to partake in directly) and Witchfinder General (released in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm to tie it into the cycle of horror films its star, Vincent Price, made at least nominally based on works by Edgar Allan Poe), a biopic of the real-life witchhunter Matthew Hopkins. Like The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General, the innocent young male lead was played by Reeves’ schoolhood friend Ian Ogilvy. The She-Beast was billed as a vehicle for Barbara Steele, who’d achieved international stardom (of sorts) in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday — which I remember watching with Charles years ago and finding quite impressive, the most accurate reproduction of the visual style of 1930’s Universal horror since Universal itself gave up the Gothic tradition — though she only signed for one day’s work and therefore had just a minor part as Veronica, who with her new husband Philip (Ian Ogilvy) is driving through Romania in a black VW bug (whose license number, instead of being on a plate, is actually stenciled across the car’s front) when they get stranded in a small village.

The village is inhabited by a nasty hotelier named Groper (Mel Welles) who spies on his guests as they’re having sex, and also a bunch of superstitious locals, a truck driver who worries he’s going to hit someone and get arrested, and Alexis van Helsing (John Karlsen, second-billed), last descendant of a noble family dispossessed by the Communist government of Romania, whose family has been in the vampire-hunting business for generations (the name “Dracula” is actually mentioned on the soundtrack). Two hundred years before to the day, the villagers captured a murderous supernatural hag and drowned her in the local lake, but as van Helsing explains, her spirit survives because the villagers jumped the gun and didn’t wait for van Helsing’s ancestor to arrive and perform a full-tilt exorcism on the woman before they killed her. Anxious to get away from the hotel because Philip is convinced he murdered Groper after he caught the man watching him and Veronica having sex (he didn’t — there’s more than one instance in this film of someone abandoning someone they think they’ve killed, but who is still alive), Philip steals back the distributor cap from his car that Groper stole, refits it and he and Veronica drive off — only mysteriously both the steering wheel and the brakes cease to function, the car takes a header into the haunted lake, and Philip swims to safety but Veronica drowns. Only as anybody who’s seen more than two horror movies in their life will guess, Veronica isn’t dead; she’s been taken over by the spirit of the hag (Joe “Flash” Riley in an intriguing bit of Transgender casting) and the old woman comes to life and starts knocking off people.

The script is by Reeves (under the pseudonym “Michael Byron” — “no relation,” I joked) and E. Amos Powell, and they deserve credit for properly locating Transylvania in Romania (almost all other horror-film makers have mistakenly put it in Hungary!) and also for slipping in a lot of slyly satirical jokes about Communism — the best of which comes when the she-beast has just knocked off a victim with a sickle, she throws it away, and it lands on top of a hammer to form the Communist emblem. The rest of the movie deals with the killing of the she-beast and van Helsing’s determination to steal the body before it can be autopsied, because as he informs the rather incredulous Philip he needs the body intact so he can perform the ritual that will change her back to Veronica and return Philip’s wife to him alive and reasonably well. The final chase scene — in which Philip and van Helsing steal the police van containing the hag’s body, the police steal van Helsing’s own car (a charming yellow number so old it actually has to be hand-cranked to start) and then van Helsing realizes he has to recover his own car because that contains the notes he needs to do the ritual — is pretty risible; the Romanian police do an excellent imitation of the Keystone Kops. According to an trivia poster, this scene was shot not by Reeves but a second-unit director, and when Reeves saw it he was horrified (and not in the way this film intended) at how cheap and silly it looked — but he didn’t have the budget available to reshoot it, so in it went. The She-Beast is actually a pretty good movie within the genre conventions — the goriest thing in it is a real-life cockfight (during which one of the murders takes place) and Reeves proves himself a director with a creative eye and an instinct for the Gothic (the scenes in the flashback showing the hag’s original drowning look like he copied some of the setups from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal), but the same misanthropy that made his films interesting led him to commit suicide at age 25, after Witchfinder General was finished but before it was released.