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Michael Reeves has persisted as a cult figure far longer than most directors with only three credited feature films. The movies are uneven but promising, and certainly the artistic equal (or better) than most of the work being turned out at the time by American-International and the majority of the Euro-horror crowd. The second half of the 1960s saw a general depression in the horror field, with Hammer losing touch with its audience and continental fare turning to sex content to generate interest. Reeves' second film The Sorcerers is based on an intriguing science fiction concept, and his final picture Witchfinder General shifts its horror premise into the realm of legitimate historical fiction.
Dark Sky's DVD of Michael Reeves' first directorial attempt The She-Beast is a big surprise. Fairly unwatchable pan-scanned copies have been floating around ever since the Sinister Cinema VHS days, but in this intact, restored Cromoscope version, the show comes across as an accomplished low budget effort.
The story begins with the execution of a horribly ugly witch, two centuries ago in an Eastern European village. As in at least seven previous 60s Eurohorror films, the witch puts a curse on her persecutors. We flash forward to recent times to join newlyweds Philip and Veronica (Ian Ogilvy and Barbara Steele) as they tour the area, now a Communist country with a depressed economy. They briefly meet the lecherous innkeeper Ladislav Groper (Mel Welles) and a local scientist, Count von Helsing (John Karlsen). A descendant of the famous vampire hunter, Von Helsing tries to interest the couple in his studies. After catching Groper peeping at them, Philip and Veronica leave. They crash their Volkswagen into a lake -- the very same place where the witch was killed. When he comes to, Philip discovers that the body recovered from his car is not Veronica but a hideous creature, which returns to life and begins killing. Groper and a truck driver try to hide the truth from the stern secret policemen, while Von Helsing convinces Philip that the monster-woman is really Veronica, possessed by the legendary witch.
That synopsis isn't exactly ripe with possibilities, so it's a pleasure to report that The She-Beast is an amusing and entertaining horror offering. Reeves' direction is very good; he makes the most of his widescreen format and overcomes many of the limitations of his budget. Star Barbara Steele was hired for a single day, and the script contrives for her to appear only for a few scenes at the beginning and one at the end. One compliment for director Reeves is that even with the breakneck shooting schedule the newlyweds seem a real English couple, a horror version of Two for the Road. Reeves' acknowledged mentor was the action thriller specialist Don Siegel. Of Siegel's films The She-Beast most resembles The Big Steal, a murderous Mexican road picture that nevertheless maintains a breezy screwball attitude.
The She-Beast has a mild tongue-in-cheek quality that at the time was quite original. It's not a farce like the Corman-Poe comedies, but the newlyweds are well aware of Transylvanian lore as they deal with Count Von Helsing's claims that a real witch haunts the vicinity. Thanks to Reeves' judicious camera angles the witch-monster looks much better on film than in stills; one scene where the dead-alive hag and an unconscious Philip occupy adjoining tables in Groper's kitchen looks forward to Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers.
Previous reviews often mention the film's secondary tangent involving bumbling secret police and lame comedy chase footage; there's not nearly as much padding as one might suspect and the ribbing of the moronic "Commie stooges" comes off rather well. Michael Reeves takes sole writing credit (under the name Michael Byron) but famed Roger Corman scribe Charles B. Griffith is reportedly responsible for much of the second-unit shoot. Frankly, we recognize Griffith's hipster - sick comedy vibe in the sequences at the inn, especially those with Mel Welles, a leading comedy player in Griffith's Little Shop of Horrors, and a director in his own right. Good angles and cutting in the car chase scenes help as well, although one telltale gag (presumed to be Griffith's doing) doesn't pan out. A black-clothed man on a red motorcycle keeps popping up throughout the final chase, like a "margin gag" from an old Mad magazine. We wait patiently for the punch line (are the roads overrun with identical red scooters? Is the guy Dracula?), but one never surfaces.
The gag everyone talks about is still there; it's definitely a silly throwaway. The maniac possessed-Veronica-witch discards the hand sickle with which she has slaughtered a victim, and it falls across a mallet forming a familiar hammer-and-sickle Communist symbol.
The moody Ms. Steele couldn't have been too upset working a 20-hour gig because she seems perfectly happy playing her sexy scenes with Ian Ogilvy. Reeves stages a couple of gory moments but the movie overall is not particularly scary. We care for the distraught Philip and hope he escapes the Keystone Commissar Kops, avoids the angry Groper and gets his bride back. Definitely a screwball horror thriller, The She-Beast has nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of.
We've been waiting for Dark Sky's DVD of The She-Beast for almost two years now; it's the most interesting Eurohorror release in a great while. 1 Dark Sky's transfer is made from prime elements; it's clear, colorful and enhanced to its full Cromoscope width.
The disc's secondary treasure is a sensational audio commentary with a rare (if not the first) participation by Barbara Steele, the mercurial personality who has repeatedly voiced her displeasure at being typed as a Queen of Horror. The commentary begins with host David Gregory introducing producer Paul Maslansky and actor Ian Ogilvy. Both look back on the picture with fondness and share plenty of memories of Michael Reeves. Ogilvy wastes no time in stating that the director's early passing was an accident and in no way a suicide; the death cult that arose around Reeves is largely residual speculation from the reputation of his movies.
With three principals comparing notes, we learn quite a bit about this odd production. Having previously helped out with Maslansky's Castle of the Living Dead, Reeves showed up with a suitcase full of cash and a script for his own sure-fire horror movie. The She-Beast was quickly set up through their Italian connections; one of the few major props was a Sword 'n' Sandal catapult repurposed to serve as a dunking device to drown witches. When Barbara Steele arrives the three hit it off quite well. Barbara must be reminded of most of the details of her one-day shoot from 43 years ago but has fond memories of working with Reeves and Ogilvy. She laughs when told that she was tricked into accepting that her filming contract interpreted "one day" as a period of 24 hours.
With no egos in sight and Mr. Ogilvy particularly generous in his praise for his co-star, the discussion goes so well that David Gregory need enter only to remind listeners of Maslansky's successful producing career and to inquire after technical details, such as whether the actors dubbed their own voices.
The She-Beast is a fine low budget offering with a story scaled to its makers' modest resources, Dark Sky's DVD is 2009's best fantastic DVD release to date. (#2 is Sony's Five.)
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The She-Beast rates:
1. Recent DVD releases of classic Barbara Steele films have been somewhat disappointing. Last month's Steele double bill turned out to be gray-market copies; their entry into the market reduces the chance of a legitimate authorized release utilizing original elements. Like, phooey.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the 2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.