Even if Michael Reeves had only directed WITCHFINDER GENERAL, he still would have undoubtedly become the revered cult director that he is today. But the fact of the matter is that the youthful, ambitious British filmmaker exited this Earth while in his mid 20s, with a résumé of three features under his belt: all horror efforts which got increasingly better, concluding with his final aforementioned masterpiece. THE SHE-BEAST (known in Italy as “La Sorella di Satana” and in the U.K. as REVENGE OF THE BLOOD BEAST), is his first feature as a director, though he had previously done second unit work on CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD for the same producer, Paul Maslansky (of “Police Academy” series fame). Dark Sky Films’ long-awaited DVD release of Reeves’ maiden voyage not only rescues the film from public domain hell, but also sweetens the deal with a fine audio commentary, giving further insight into a man we’re still admiring and discussing 40 years after his death.
In 18th Century Transylvania, a horrible hag of a witch is terrorizing the locals, who gather together to sentence her to a death with an ingenious, torturous dunking chair death in the lake. But before dying, the witch Vardella swears revenge on the descendants of the town. Some 200 years later, the young honeymooning British couple of Veronica (Barbara Steele) and Philip (Ian Ogilvy, in his first feature) are motoring through the modern-day communist Carpathians, and decide to stay at the inn run by burly Ladislav Groper (the legendary Mel Welles). Their honeymoon is soon interrupted as the uncouth Ladislav peeps in on their lovemaking, causing the enraged husband to beat up on the drunken voyeur. The couple makes a hasty retreat the next morning, but as their automobile looses control and falls off a cliff and into the lake where Vardella was executed, the mishap causes the lovely Veronica to transform into the centuries-old witch. Desperate to bring his new bride back to her rightful form, Philip seeks the help of the wise bookworm Dr. Von Helsing (John Karlsen), an elderly descendant of the man who slayed Count Dracula.
Shot in Italy and Yugoslavia with a mostly Italian crew, THE SHE-BEAST (on screen title: "She Beast") easily divulges its meager budget in appearance as well as in its struggle to meet the required running time (in this case, 79 minutes). Although often maligned through the years, it’s a strangely enjoyable little mix of horror and comedy that’s probably best viewed really late at night, the time slot it was often allotted back in the glory days of local TV. Most of the production values may be crude, but when the comical aspects aren’t dominant, there’s some brooding, striking imagery about, especially in the opening flashback sequence, as Vardella’s execution by the torch-carrying town folk and several other trademark Reeves bits conjure up what was soon to come in WITCHFINDER. For a film with such humorous overtones, there’s also a surprising amount of savagery and bloodshed (also shades of things to come in WITCHFINDER) when a head is smashed against a cement wall with the subsequent blood smearing and when Vardella hacks up a victim with a sickle (a bloody spectacle followed up by a notorious "hammer and sickle" sight gag).
The appearance of “The She Beast” herself (played by a male actor) is quite a sight, as the make-up is still pretty horrifying, capped by a ferocious persona of scratching people to death and an unsettling, animal-like whaling. The central cast is made up of Brits and Americans, with John Karlsen being very amusing as the monster-hunter, and his unlikely comradery with a baby-faced Ian Ogilvy is reminiscent of Jack MacGowran and Roman Polanski in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS. Mel Welles deliciously overacts, and by this point in his career, he was well-seasoned at playing lecherous types. British-born Barbara Steele was at this time the reigning Queen of Horror in Italy, and here she was employed for marquee value (she’s top billed), but was only on the set for one day, appearing in the film at the beginning and at the conclusion for a total of a few minutes. Wearing an abundant amount of make-up, Steele's highlight is a quick bedroom tease where her ample cleavage (pressed against a bed mattress) is almost fully exposed but inventively concealed by a white sheet. THE SHE-BEAST is what it is, a low budget European horror film with a talented up-and-coming director, colorful cast and a grotesque monster, and even if some of the execution is sloppy and amateurish, there’s still no reason it can’t be enjoyed. For me, Reeves is three for three, and if you count his contributions on CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD, he’s four for four.
A staple of public domain budget DVD releases, THE SHE-BEAST has mostly been viewed through the years in terrible-looking washed out, pan and scan transfers, now remedied by Dark Sky’s proper presentation. If you’ve only seen the film on TV, video or on budget DVD, then you’ve never really seen it until now. Presented in its original 2.35:1 Scope aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, detail is very sharp (despite expectedly being a bit dark in some of the day-for-night scenes), colors are generally solid, and there are only a few minor blemishes on the source print. The transfer is such a revelation that it not only fully preserves the visual attributes, but also unveils a surprising a glimpse of bare nipple (courtesy of actress Lucretia Love) not visible in previous muddy transfers. The English mono audio is strong, with only some instances of scratchiness, and optional English subtitles are included.
The main supplementary here is a lively, historic commentary with producer Paul Maslansky and stars Ian Ogilvy and Barbara Steele (who makes an entrance about 14 minutes in), moderated by David Gregory. The commentary is packed with great information and anecdotes, and even though Steele remembers near nothing about appearing on the set for one day, she still manages to be in good spirits, as are all the participants. Since Steele was overworked for so many hours for her day of shooting, she didn’t speak to Maslansky for a decade, but all is now forgiven and they have a good laugh about it today. Maslansky remembers the most about the production, revealing that Corman associate Charles Griffith (who also contributed to the script) shot the second unit stuff, primarily an endless comic car chase fashioned to pad out the running time. Ogilvy holds his own as well, and since he was good friends with Reeves, he gives a number of personal reflections on the man and his methods of filmmaking. The only other extra is a still gallery of black and white photos, posters and pressbook ads. (George R. Reis)
BACK TO REVIEWS