Appellate Judge Tom Becker's love knows no bounds.
Deadlier than Dracula!
Wilder than the Werewolf!
More frightening than Frankenstein!
Michael Reeves directed only three films, and his status as a cult icon rests entirely on the basis of his last, Witchfinder General. His death from a reportedly accidental drug overdose at age 25 offers one of the great "What Ifs" for horror film enthusiasts.
While Reeves's second film, The Sorcerers, was a compelling curio, his first, The She-Beast, was a flat-out bizarre-o, low-budget mix of comedy and horror that plays like a more polished and self-aware Ed Wood movie.
The She-Beast takes place in and around Transylvania. Two hundred years earlier, a grotesquely ugly witch named Vardella was hunted down and brutally executed by the townsfolk, ultimately sacrificed on a dunking stool. Before demising, Vardella went the time-honored route of bullied witches and put a curse on the town.
Present (mid-'60s) day, newly married Philip (Ian Ogilvy, Witchfinder General) and Veronica (Barbara Steele, Black Sunday) are motoring through the area on their honeymoon. When they stop a hotel—the only one in the area—Veronica makes jokes about Dracula; the inn keeper (Mel Welles, Chopping Mall) is not amused. But when Veronica and Philip meet an older gentleman by the name of von Helsing (John Karlsen, Fellini's Casanova), they're intrigued: could it be? Yes, he's a descendant of that von Helsing, and he assures them that, thanks to his family, vampires are no longer a problem in the region.
But…there is the matter of the curse of Vardella. It seems that the villagers were a little hasty when they executed her—they should have waited for a von Helsing's assistance—and it's coming time for the curse to rear its ugly head.
And, yes, the beautiful Veronica will be involved when said curse finally rears said ugly head.
The She-Beast is an enjoyably schizophrenic film, part low-brow comedy (though with a few funny twists) and part vengeance-hungry creature horror. That it succeeds at all is due to the young Reeves's energetic filmmaking, the presence of horror icon Steele, and some fun performances by Ogilvy, Welles, and Karlsen.
Reeves wrote the script (under the name Michael Byron) and pretty much threw the film together. At times, it seems that it's going in too many directions; there's quite a bit going on here, but it all comes together pretty satisfyingly. Reeves was around 22 when he made this, and while his youth and inexperience are evident, so too is his promise.
The film sets up its less-serious side right off the bat, opening with a title card telling us we're in "Transylvania Today" as von Helsing drives up in a yellow roadster and goes into his home, which is adorned with skulls. He reads from a book about Vardella, thus giving us the flashback.
The Vardella sequence appears to have been shot as legit horror, and given the budget, it's fairly impressive and includes some solid camerawork; plus, Vardella is a dreadful looking creature. It does play out a little clumsily, though, particularly at the end, when Vardella's turn on the dunking stool ends up looking like some kind of uncomfortable game of seesaw.
Once Ogilvy and Steele appear, the film is definitely in the realm of comedy. The two trade quips, parry with the locals—this being Eastern Europe, there are plenty of jokes about communism—and meet up with von Helsing. After a nasty incident at a decrepit inn (or, as they are told, "The best hotel in Vraubrac"), they escape…only for a tragedy to strike that kicks up the curse of Vardella. At this point, while Reeves doesn't lose the comedy altogether, The She-Beast becomes a pretty effective—and occasionally gory—creature feature.
Reeves balances the comedy and horror with an impressive visual flair, offering up some clever sight gags, as well as some impressive shock scenes. While Steele is only in about a third of the film, her presence is felt throughout, and even with a cruddy make-up job, her beauty is startling.
It never rises to the level of "lost classic," but it's a fun little movie with a happily skewed sensibility that certainly suggests better things to come for the young director.
The disc offers a pretty decent looking anamorphic transfer and a solid mono audio track. It also offers a fantastic supplement: a commentary with Ogilvy, producer Paul Maslansky, and Steele (who turns up part-way through). The three reminisce about the film (with Steele occasionally noting bits that had been "stolen" from other films) and about their careers; there's a terrific anecdote about a trick Reeves and Maslansky played on Steele that caused her to stop speaking to the producer for a decade. This is a great, entertaining commentary and worth the price of the disc.
For Michael Reeves completists, this disc will be a must-have, and cult movie fans will definitely want to check it out; casual viewers might find it a bit too goofy, but it's certainly at least worth a look and a listen.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
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