THE BEAST (1975) Blu-ray/DVD combo
Director: Walerian Borowczyk
Arrow Video USA

Walerian Borowczyk's utterly outrageous take on the legend of "The Beast of Gévaudan" – more popularly mined by Christophe Gans for BROHERHOOD OF THE WOLF – spurts forth onto Blu-ray/DVD combo courtesy of Arrow Films USA.

American heiress Lucy Broadhurst (fashion model Lisbeth Hummel, THE EAGLE AND THE DOVE) arrives in rural France with her Aunt Virginia (Elisabeth Kaza, CASTLE FREAK) to be married to Mathurin de l'Esperance (Pierre Benedetti, IMMORAL WOMEN), the son of her late father's friend the Marquis Pierre de l'Esperance (Guy Tréjan, CONVERSATION PIECE). According to the stipulations of her father's will, Lucy's marriage must be blessed by Pierre's uncle The Cardinal de Balo and take place no more than six months after his death. With less than forty-eight hours before the deadline, Pierre must have his simple-minded son groomed and baptized by the local priest (Roland Armontel) – bribed with the promise of the donation of a Vatican bronze bell for the church – and convince his wheelchair misogynistic uncle Rammendelo (Marcel Dalio, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES) to convince the cardinal to come from Rome. Rammendelo objects to the wedding and believes the financially-motivated union will mean death for Mathurin, but Pierre blackmails him with evidence that he murdered his own wealthy wife after only two months marriage. As Pierre attempts through the night to arrange the nuptials, Lucy experiences her sexual awakening through wet dreams of Romilda de l'Esperance, Mathurin's ancestor from two-hundred years ago who encountered a randy beast on the estate's woodlands but finds a "fate worse than death" unleashes her repressed libido and she sexually exhausts the beast to death ("I met him and I conquered him" is the last entry in her herbal, a collection of plant samples like a stamp collection). The next day, Lucy is literally aching for some pre-marital relations and discovers that a bestial nature runs in the family.

A feature-length expansion of Borowczyk's "The Beast of Gévaudan" created for IMMORAL TALES but cut for length, THE BEAST is not a padded feature but a wickedly funny Bunuel-esque black comedy of manners run rampant with sexual perversions (the priest and his "beautiful boys"), fetishes (Lucy's roses and Mathurin's horses), and subversions like Pierre's daughter (LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER's Pascale Rivault) braiding her hair before shagging black servant Ifany (Hassane Fall, IMMORAL WOMEN) who in turn tells the Broadhurst's black chauffeur (Julien Hanany) that there are other pleasures besides money when he calls him a slave. The climax is more comic than tragic, perhaps because most of the participants are so odious, with only Mathurin and Lucy depicted as innocent. Indeed, their early arousal comes from natural sights and sensations; and – like the heroine of IMMORAL TALES "Thérèse Philosophe" episode – Lucy innocently discovers amidst the Victorian décor and ephemera crude erotic drawings and etchings of copulation (including some that suggest bestiality), and even a copy of Voltaire's bawdy satirical poem of the life of Joan of Arc "La Pucelle d'Orléans" in her bedroom. The graphic horse-breeding footage from the opening would pop up in a couple films like the Swiss erotic film THE AMOROUS SISTERS, the Italian CALIGULA AND MESSALINA, and at least the French cut of Bruno Mattei's THE TRUE STORY OF THE NUN OF MONZA while Lane would tangle with the beast again in Alfonso Brescia's THE BEAST IN SPACE (as much a tacky cash-in on the Borowczyk film as a sexed-up retread of Brescia's sub-STAR WARS space trilogy).

Originally released theatrically in the U.S. in 1977 by Jason Allyn – and again this year through IFC – the film became available on unauthorized VHS bootlegs from a cut UK release as DEATH'S ECSTASY on the HQV label (who also released unauthorized versions of Jess Franco's A VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD and Riccardo Freda's MURDER OBSESSION as THE WAILING even though they were already available licensed from Wizard Video). The film had four prior DVD releases over here through Cult Epics: first as a non-anamorphic barebones edition with the English dub only in 2001 followed by a deluxe three-disc edition in 2004 featuring the director's cut as an anamorphic 1.66:1 PAL-NTSC conversion with English and French tracks (and English subtitles), a second disc with a slightly longer cut of the film sourced from Dutch VHS (the only source for it), and a third disc featuring a short interview with Borowczyk and 105 minutes of silent behind the scenes footage (the third release was a single-disc of the anamorphic director's cut transfer released in 2005 and the same disc in a 2006 boxed set with GOTO: ISLAND OF LOVE and LOVE RITES).

When Arrow's crowd-funding campaign for the restoration of early Borowczyk films in a boxed set proved overwhelmingly successful, Arrow decided to then commission new HD masters of the three Argos Films titles GOTO: ISLAND OF LOVE, IMMORAL TALES, and THE BEAST to form the ten-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo CAMERA OBSCURA: THE FILMS OF WALERIAN BOROWCZYK which also included a combo of Borowcyzk's first entirely live-action film BLANCHE and a short film and animation combo set including the feature-length animated THE THEATRE OF MR AND MRS KABAL that quickly sold out its one thousand copies (individual combo releases would follow in the UK). The 1080p24 MPEG-4 AV 1.66:1 transfer is gorgeous, retaining an appropriate degree of softness without the haze and artifacts of the older PAL master. The only audio track is a strong French LPCM 1.0 track (which contains English spoken by Hummel and Kaza as well as some Italian) and it effectively renders the dialogue, sound effects, and nerve-jangling Scarlatti music. The optional English subtitles are literate and without errors.

Like Arrow's US release of IMMORAL TALES, THE BEAST retains some extras from the UK version while dropping others. Extras carried over from the UK release start with a rather hyperbolic and superfluous introduction by critic Peter Bradshaw (1:45) remarking upon the outrageousness of the film and its provocative director. "The Making of THE BEAST" documentary (57:53) takes the same behind the scenes footage shot by Very from the Cult Epics disc, prunes it down almost by half, re-orders it to the chronology of the film, and intersperses it with explanatory intertitles and new commentary from cinematographer Very who describes how Borowczyk directed his actors within shots and physically positioned them as if organizing components of frame of his animation, as well as how the actors reacted to that approach (Dalio did not like it and seems uncomfortable being arranged). There is also footage from the early days of shooting when singer Jeane Mason was playing the role of Lucy (she would be replaced with Hummel after disappearing for three days and being found in a hospital). "Frenzy of Ecstasy: Evolution of THE BEAST" (4:19) displays and contextualizes letters from Borowczyk to producer Daumon (supplied by the director's widow Ligia Branice) describing his concept for the beast in detail and illustrating its outer and inner workings from every angle. The featurette also describes Borowczyk's attempt in 1990 to raise funding for a sequel titled MOTHERHOOD. The disc also features the film's theatrical trailer (3:54) complete with black censor bars during the shots of the beast's erection and translating the critical quotations.

Left off the US release is the 1975 short film "Venus on the Half Shell" (4:39) but in its place is the 1972 Peter Graham anti-hunting short "Gunpoint" (11:04) which was featured on the UK Arrow release of Borowczyk's BLANCHE. Shot by Borowczyk, Very, and IMMORAL TALES cinematographer Guy Durban, the film details the raising of pheasants from egg to their ends at a country shooting party. Also carried over from BLANCHE is the "Behind Enemy Lines: Making GUNPOINT" (5:15) featurette in which Graham – a British translator living in France – describes how he proposed the film documenting the hunt to the party's host (who did not smell a rat until the film was screened). Left off the US release of IMMORAL TALES but included here is the "Boro Brunch" (7:37) featurette, Véry's 2007 reunion of Borowczyk crew members including production manager Dominique Duvergé, producer Dauman's daughter Florence, BLANCHE producer Philippe d'Argila, his wife and Borowczyk costume designer Piet Bolscher, and ART OF LOVE script supervisor Zoe Zurstrassen (who later became a collaborator with Claire Denis from CHOCOLAT to 35 SHOTS OF RUM). From the GOTO set comes "The Profligate Door " (13:15), a featurette displaying and demonstrating Borowczyk's "sound sculptures" while the commercials "Holy Smoke" (9:57), "Tom Thumb" (1:52), and "The Museum" (1:52) are included from the animation and shorts set. The reversible sleeve and collector's booklet writing on the film by Daniel Bird and archival pieces by David Thompson and Craig Lapper were not supplied for review. (Eric Cotenas)