Saturday, September 20, 2014

She Beast

(a.k.a. LA SORELLA DI SATANA / “Satan’s Sister” [It]; IL LAGO DI SATANA / “Satan’s Lake” [alt It]; THE REVENGE OF THE BLOOD BEAST [US])
Italy, 1965

Review by Steve Fenton

Kicking off this fast-paced little film is a prologue wherein a hideous old bag of a witch named Vardella (which was also the film’s original shooting title) is captured by superstitious (what else?!) Transylvanian villagers, who promptly dispose of her by roping her to a ducking-stool and – as if that wasn’t indignity enough – then proceed to drive a metal spike through her spine (and quite a grisly scene it is too). Her body is then unceremoniously consigned to an unconsecrated watery grave in the local lake. However, before Vardella finally bites it, she succeeds in hissing out a nasty curse at her assembled tormenters: they killed her, but she will be back, so they better watch out…

This isn't my first unholy resurrection

Centuries later, a freshly-married couple – Philip (Ian Ogilvy, star of the ’80s remake of THE SAINT teleseries) and Veronica (Italy’s then reigning ‘Scream Queen’ Barbara Steele, who was paid a measly 5-grand for the gig) – are off on a sightseeing honeymoon through Transylvania (actually rural Italy outside Rome) that brings them right smack-dab into the vicinity of the very lake where Vardella got dunked, dumped in and died long ago.

Stopping at a “quaint” rustic roadside inn, the newlyweds seek lodging from the boorish, shifty-eyed proprietor, Ladislav Groper (actor-director Mel Welles: best known as florist Gravis Mushnick in Corman’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS [USA, 1961]) and meet the at-first-impression rather dotty Von [sic] Helsing (American-born frequent Italo industry character player John Karlsen), who is related to local aristocracy and is soon revealed to possess an extensive working knowledge of the region’s occult history and customs, which of course comes in mighty handy later.

I finally ate that stupid plant, Mushnick wins!

Events move at a brisk if leisurely, ‘holiday’-like pace, the overall tone quite lighthearted in the wake of that nasty prologue, with attempts at comic relief highly in evidence (e.g., the grumbling, surly innkeeper’s antics, Von Helsing riding on a swing with obvious juvenile delight, etc). But in not too long the creepy-crawling business starts again, and unexpectedly we’re treated to more than a couple of effective, no-frills shocks, which can sometimes register that much more strongly when contrasted by humor. That approach either works or it doesn’t, and here it is sometimes quite effective.

This skull and bible combo should keep my erection at bay

Propelling the main narrative (based on a script by Paul Maslansky), upstanding hero Ogilvy catches Welles as that untrustworthy innkeeper – who amongst other things is a lecherous peeping tom – mentally slapping the bishop right underneath the bride and groom’s conjugal windowsill (while shot very chastely, their love scene is quite frank in its implications for 1965). Understandably disgusted by the Welles character’s voyeuristic activity, Ogilvy gets his new wife out of there ASAP; but, while making their retreat, having been accidentally forced off the highway by a passing truck, the couple’s car comes to rest in the very same lake from the prologue (i.e., Vardella’s not-so-final ‘resting’ place). The trucker drags what should rightfully be Veronica from the water, but in her place Ogilvy is justifiably horrified to discover the soggy, poor-condition remains of she whom he later learns is Vardella, a 200-year-old witch-bitch from hell! As predicted, the corpse shortly returns to life (and here’s one of those creepy scares I mentioned), kills a man (there’s another one), then goes on a localized murder spree, as per the malingering malediction she had placed on the vicinity all those years before.

I was a teenage Van Helsing, no one would ever make that film!

Seeking the eccentric Von Helsing’s aid, skeptical young realist Ogilvy and the learned senior scholar of supernature join forces to hunt down the elusive reanimated witch, who has taken possession of Steele’s Veronica so that she may live again inside her unwilling hostess’ body, which is by far preferable to her own mangy carcass (both to her and to us!). There is only a limited period left before Vardella shall become Veronica completely, and the transfer will thereafter be irreversible… so time is of the essence.

During the sundry chase scenes which form a large part of the climax, the ghoulish effect of the witch – which was played by a male actor in a rubber mask, but subdued lighting often endows it with an impressively nightmarish appearance – is softened somewhat by the slapstick, ‘Keystone Kops’-like spectacle of the bumbling local constabulary as they seek to apprehend our heroes. Ogilvy as Philip and Karlsen as Von Helsing must out of necessity re-enact the exact circumstances of Vardella’s death in the lake, but their timing must be spot-on if they wish to reclaim Veronica and simultaneously end the hag’s vengeful killing spree along with her unnaturally sustained unlife.

I'm taking Steve Miner to court for ripping my character off in House.

Needless to say, the vile Vardella finds herself back in her soggy grave, Veronica returns to Philip, and they all drive off Europe-bound in Von Helsing’s cute little yellow Rolls Royce, which adds a sweet capper to a sometimes pretty gloomy plot. Originally, a far darker ending had been proposed, only to be scrapped as economically unfeasible. According to star Ogilvy when later interviewed for Cinefantastique magazine during an overview of Michael Reeves’ career, his character and Steele as his onscreen bride were due to return to England, where, while they are in bed together he sees that she has again reverted to become Vardella, the putrescent witch; which might have made for quite the shocking twist, if handled right.

Can you direct me to the nearest McDonalds, I'm one of their short lived characters

A real quickie for sure, THE SHE BEAST was shot over a rushed two-and-a-half-week schedule, during which the cast and crew toiled for long hours on the set and were paid piecemeal as the shoot progressed. Watching this movie, you can observe the fetal development of ill-fated, short-lived director Reeves’ wunderkind style (THE SORCERERS [UK, 1967] and WITCHFINDER GENERAL [UK, 1968], both also starring Ogilvy, are wildly dissimilar must-see items of cynical, brooding horror). Don’t let THE SHE BEAST’s on-the-cheap, ‘loose’ quality hinder your indulgence… It’s also got lots of style, and a lot of Steele goes a long way.

Tell me something I don't know!

Note: Prior to co-directing the present title with Welles, Reeves had served as assistant director on Warren Kiefer’s eerie period Gothic horror melodrama IL CASTELLO DEI MORTI VIVENTI / a.k.a. CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD (Italy, 1964), starring Christopher Lee; although Reeves never actually directed any of Lee’s scenes. THE SHE BEAST’s co-director Welles has frequently been mistaken for German filmmaker Ernst von Theumer, and vice versa, which is not the case. Circa the ’60s, Welles also served as co-producer (along with one Richard Lewellen) on a travelling horror show (“Live On Stage”) entitled ORGY OF EVIL (ad: “Your Nightmares Will Never Be The Same!”). Other lurid ad-copy for the show promised: “SEE… A virgin beheaded on the guillotine. SEE… The dance of the undead. SEE… A man burned on the funeral pyre. SEE… A victim impaled on the silver spikes. SEE… A ripsaw cut into human flesh. SEE… The fiends of hell appear.” The show toured in Australia to some extent, but I am unsure if it ever made it to North America (?).

THE SHE BEAST was formerly available on North American Beta/VHS cassette from Gorgon / MPI Home Video. It’s also floating around on DVD from any number of cheapo vidcos, so it’s not hard to find. I’m unsure what the optimum disc version is.

Dark-Sky Films has a restored edition available.


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