Thursday, 27 October 2011

The She-Beast (1966)

Michael Reeves has a huge reputation among horror fans, a reputation based entirely on one film, Witchfinder General. It was his third and final film before his death at the age of 25. His second movie, The Sorcerers, is less known but is an underrated gem. Sadly the same cannot be said for his 1966 debut film, The She-Beast (La Sorella di Satana).

The She-Beast was made in Italy. Reeves, whose ambition and determination to break into directing were breath-taking, apparently turned up one day with a suitcase containing £17,000 of his own money and announced that he intended to make a movie. His friend Ian Ogilvy would star (in fact Ogilvy appeared in all three of Reeves’ movies), but Ogilvy was completely unknown and he needed a big name to attract some attention, In Italy the biggest name in horror was Barbara Steele and somehow he persuaded her to do it (she has no idea how he did it since she has only the haziest recollection of making the film). Steele was paid $1,000 for one day’s work but wasn’t told that it was going to be a very very long day’s shooting, 22 hours in fact!

Reeves had a screenplay already but Amos Powell was brought in as a kind of script doctor. In fact the script arguably needed a whole team of script doctors and that’s just one of the problems with this movie.

So, the plot. We open with the execution of a witch in Translyvania, and as is traditional in horror flicks she makes use of her dying breath to curse the villagers and their descendants. Two hundred years later a young English couple, Veronica (Barbara Steele) and Philip (Ian Ogilvy) decide that Translyvania would be a wonderfully romantic place to spend their honeymoon.

Their hotel is a bit of a disappointment. It’s basically a hovel. They decide to make the most of it and pretty soon they’re doing what you’d expect a honeymooning couple to be doing but the mood is somewhat spoilt when Veronica notices that the hotel manager (who rejoices in the name of Ladislav Groper) is watching them through the window. In a fit of righteous husbandly indignation Philip beats up Groper. Groper takes his revenge by sabotaging their car and on the following day they end up driving into the lake Philip escapes but Veronica is drowned.

At least that’s what is assumed to have happened, but the corpse seems to have disappeared. On the previous day they had encountered an eccentric local nobleman named Count von Helsing. His family were hereditary vampire and witch hunters. He now informs Philip that Veronica can still be saved.

The biggest problem here is that it’s not really clear what Reeves is trying to achieve. It’s obviously not meant to be taken as a straightforward horror movie. It’s obviously meant mostly as a comedy. I suspect he was trying for the Theatre of the Absurd feel that Polanski captured so well in his early films like Knife in the Water and more particularly Cul-de-Sac (which came out in the same year as The She-Beast). Reeves was an obsessive cinephile so he was probably familiar with Knife in the Water. That absurdist feel is all very well but to maintain it in a comedy you need to keep the humour fairly dark, but then we’re treated to a pure Keystone Kops chase sequence which doesn’t fit.

There’s also a fair amount of satire here although I’m not sure exactly who his main targets were, the communist regimes of eastern Europe or British tourists.

Horror comedy is not easy to pull off successfully and Reeves just wasn’t experienced enough to do it. It has its moments but really it’s only worth watching for curiosity value.

Dark Sky’s DVD release is truly superb when compared to the earlier DVD appearances of this movie which were atrocious. The commentary track features both Ian Ogilvy and Barbara Steele and is more entertaining than the movie.

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