Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Werewolf Woman
(Rino Di Silvestro, 1976)

To start this overlong review off on an immediate tangent, I know I’ve written here before about my slow but inevitable transition into a Euro-horror fiend, my reservations about becoming such, and about the love/hate conflicts that exploring the murkier depths of this kind of cinema cause within me.

As if to demonstrate this, I recently found myself making a vow: no more Jess Franco movies. Now, clearly this resolution would have any true devotee of The Eurohorror Way spluttering in appalled disbelief, and quite rightly seeking to eject me from their hypothetical clubhouse with an attitude of outraged ferocity. And I know, I know – Franco’s movies certainly have their own strange charm, existing as they do in their own parallel world of surrealistic trash-art wonder etc. etc., and all have elements that are crazed or beautiful or hilarious. But frankly, having sat through about seven or eight of the things, I’ve seen enough. There are better things to do on a quiet Friday night, y’know? Even if it’s just watching Jean Rollin movies.

I’m tired of that empty feeling – that “what the hell was THAT?” feeling, that “can I have my eighty minutes back please?” feeling; the feeling that even his best work engenders to a certain extent, and that his less good work positively revels in. I mean: “Kiss Me Monster”. What the fuck? Billed as some kind of great-sounding horror/spy/comedy caper, it turns out to be some kind of baffling motion picture in which nothing of interest happens at all. Nothing. No plot, no point, no monster, not even much kissing. I remember some shots of planes taking off and landing, a bit where two girls in tuxedos played saxophones in one of those creepy Jess Franco nightclubs, I think I remember some people wandering around some sets…. but aside from that it’s like I got sapped on the back of the head by a cunning burglar and just sort of lost an hour. It was like a porn movie without the porn. Hell, knowing Franco it probably WAS a porn movie without the porn; an hour or so of random footage he cobbled together to meet a deadline for a non-X rated double bill filler or something. By what possible logic has this film been released on VHS and DVD when the majority of Andrzej Zulawski’s films haven’t…? And now I’ve got to look at the damn thing sitting on the shelf for all eternity, reminding me of my folly.

So yeah, the next time I read about another Franco movie, or see one on the shelf at the Music & Video Exchange, and think “hey, that one looks kinda fun, and it’s only a few quid”, I’m just gonna walk away…. I’ll be happier that way. I know I’m selling his films short here, and that each of them has at least a couple of great psychotronic moments to recommend it if you’re in the right frame of mind, but, I think the realization that I’m often not in the right frame of mind neatly demonstrates the fact that I will probably never be able to overcome the obstacles on the path to true Euro-horror enlightenment.

But, Franco-related time-wasting firmly behind me, I nonetheless strode happily onward in my quest this month like a blind, hopeless fool, and promptly crashed into the biggest obstacle yet placed before me: a big, glowing hazard named WEREWOLF WOMAN.

Yes: Werewolf Woman!

Now there’s a title you get your teeth into. None of that “Blood of Ghastly Horror” rubbish to try to cover up the fact your movie’s a load of meandering bullshit about nothing in particular. The people behind Werewolf Woman, you feel, are not in this game to piss around.

Naturally, the film was also released as “Legend of the Wolf Woman” and “Naked Wolf Woman” and as god only knows what else, but that’s just confusing the issue. This ain’t no legend buster: Werewolf Woman is right here, right now! Tacking on extra words just for sake of it isn’t going to do anyone any favours. Werewolf Woman it is, and forever shall be.

I was actually hoping that before I watched it, I’d have the opportunity to take part in a conversation that goes as follows:

Someone else: So, what are you up to this evening?

Me: Oh, I think I’m probably going to watch a movie.

S.E.: What are you gonna watch?

Me: ‘Werewolf Woman’.

S.E.: What’s that about?

*wry silence*

Sadly that conversation didn’t happen, and it’s probably just as well actually as, post-viewing, watching Werewolf Woman is certainly not something I’d want to boast about.

Werewolf Woman begins pretty well – in fact, who am I kidding, it begins brilliantly. Straight in, the first scene has a naked woman running into the centre of a circle of flames in a darkened forest clearing and performing a clumsily hypnotic ‘fire dance’ to the accompaniment of freaky voodoo drums. Oh man, I think this is gonna be a good one! Next, she starts skulking around the place, and undergoes a predictably cheap and goofy werewolf transformation, emerging as a truly embarrassing sight, covered in scrappy fur, with whiskers and a fake dog-nose. Less than three minutes into Werewolf Woman, and we’ve already got a werewolf woman – beat THAT, ‘Werewolves on Wheels’!

But wait, some guys with flaming torches in thoroughly unconvincing period costume are out looking for her! She corners one of ‘em, and kills him to death in a ridiculous OTT poster paint gore sequence! Alright! Then his pals catch her, and crucify her in full naked wolf-mode over a blazing bonfire, a scene that must rank pretty highly on any actress’s list of “things I would rather not do”. I mean, Jesus, the werewolf makeup alone was bad enough, how undignified can you get? Do you reckon they never heard about that whole ‘silver bullet’ thing, or did they just decide flaming crucifixion would be more fun?

Anyway: so far, so good! Face it, you’d need to be a pretty demanding horror fan to have any complaints thus far. Only, tragically, the action now departs from this exciting milieu, and we flash forward to the present day / reality (you decide), where a modern-day, non-werewolf woman is reading this tale about her ancestor in a book of ye olde superstitions.

Henceforth, Werewolf Woman will feature no more werewolves. Not one. There is, admittedly, plenty more woman still to come, although sadly not in any sense that could really be construed as positive.

If you want to stop reading now, well… good for you. Go and do something useful.

As for the rest of us:

Daniella is our protagonist, of sorts, and she is it seems a rather damaged individual. Via a series of those inevitable exposition scenes in which concerned doctors blather on to each other about unconvincing psychosexual maladies in deadly serious tones, we learn that Daniella was raped as a teenager and has never fully recovered from the ordeal. She identifies herself with her werewolf ancestor, and every time she’s sexually aroused, she – oh no, I’m afraid so – starts biting and stabbing and killing and so on. Deep sigh.

What follows is a thoroughly sordid softcore/slasher outing, seemingly modeled after similarly themed Franco flicks like “She Killed In Ecstasy” and “The Bare-Breasted Countess”, and invested with the kind of off-hand, cynical nastiness that only Italian horror of the late 70s/80s can muster, with only occasional touches of weirdness to lighten the overall mood of grinding, dehumanizing boredom.

Everything about Werewolf Woman is sleazy. Even its cinematography is kinda unpleasant - fuzzy and dirty with a preponderance of dark browns and reds. Star Annik Borel (hey, apparently she was also in “Blood Orgy of the She-Devils” and an episode of “The Odd Couple”) and the other women who appear in the film all look desperately unappealing too, pale and emaciated, with only garish period hairdos, excessive make up and fake boobs serving to mask their evident deep unhappiness at having to appear in crap like Werewolf Woman. The sex scenes, of which there are many, present some of the grimmest, most awkward on-screen coupling I’ve ever seen. And I mean, I’ve seen “Rock N’ Roll Nightmare” (shudder).

One early scene features Daniella spying on her sister and her hunky new husband getting it on. By ‘spying’, we mean ‘standing in the doorway and just staring’, in that manner common to crappy movies. As she starts to get excited, we get a clumsy, Franco-style zoom in to her hand rubbing her crotch through her nightdress. We clearly see a fly buzz into the frame, and land on her hand. They actually kept that shot in the movie.

And it was here, about fifteen minutes in, that I began to realize what I was dealing with. My dismissal of Jess Franco began to seem increasingly naive and pig-headed, as I was hit full in the face by the realization that there was in fact a substrata of cinema in the ‘70s that actually aspired to Jess Franco levels of competence and sophistication. To the makers of Werewolf Woman, Jess Franco was a real classy guy. And indeed, through the lens of my post-Werewolf Woman reading of European film, HE WAS a real classy guy. I realize that now, and I’m sorry I bad-mouthed him earlier. I take it all back. After all, Franco composes shots with a certain amount of flair. He keeps the colours looking nice and he generally works with actors who look like they actually want to be in the film. And if he were to shoot a close-up of a traumatized woman masturbating, he would almost certainly keep insects out of the frame. He is a classy, classy guy.

Cutting back to the humping couple, we see the sister throw her head back in ‘ecstasy’, giving us a good view of her fillings. They could do with some work.

It was at this point that I cracked.

Why in god’s name am I WATCHING this thing?

Why did I PAY MONEY for it, even?

Shouldn’t I be out having fun, meeting interesting people, making the best of life?

There’s a whole world out there, and I choose THIS?

What have I BECOME?

Say what you like about Ingmar Bergman or Lars Von Trier, they’ve never managed to bring on an existential crisis with quite the ease of Werewolf Woman.

But, steeling myself, I rejected the coward’s way out, put the pistol away, and continued…. maybe salvation will come yet.

And indeed, it’s about now that we also get what’s a shoe-in for this movie’s flat out weirdest moment, when Daniella’s sexual phobias are manifested in the form of….. a giant lizard that slowly crawls over her body as she writhes in some sort of fever dream and eerie, fuzzed out synthesizer drones hiss away in the background..!? Holy cow! I didn’t see that one coming! Is this supposed to actually be happening? Is it a hallucination? I have no idea, other than to confirm that it’s absolutely freaked out and wonderful, briefly exhibiting the sort of random, lunatic inspiration that the rest of Werewolf Woman so sorely lacks. Salvation? Not quite, my friends, not quite…. but surreal, synth-drone lizard writhing is about as close as we’re gonna get here.

The first victim in Daniella’s killing spree is of course the aforementioned hunky husband. In a mildly diverting scene, she hurls his carcass off a ravine at sunrise whilst howling like a beast. That was pretty cool. Most of the other murder scenes in Werewolf Woman though sadly achieve a sort of ‘worst of both worlds’ status, by vestige of being both offensively gratuitous and also too short and dull to convey any tension or cinematic excitement. Argento, this guy ain’t. Hitchcock might as well be a distant, unseen god floating in a whole other order of being.

As to taking an interest in the rest of the plot…. c’mon, don’t make me laugh – we’re talking Italian horror movies here, and this isn’t even a GOOD one for christssake. Although not incoherent enough to actually be surreal or baffling, Werewolf Woman still only makes the vaguest, laziest sort of sense.

One trying scene for our scriptwriters features Daniella’s sister visiting her in hospital, where she’s tied down in the psychiatric ward, and confronting her about the whole suspicious-death-of-my-husband thing. So imagine if you will, a woman having to speak to the mentally ill sister who recently killed her husband, and having to try to force a confession out of her – that’s got to be a pretty tough situation for any film to convey believably, right? How does Werewolf Woman rise to the challenge? – well basically they just go all camp super-bitchy and yell “Whore! Bitch! Slut! I’ll kill you!” etc. at each other until the sister is dragged away. Again, I am stunned. Top marks for use of profanity, but…. oh, what’s the use.

So obviously Daniella escapes from the psychiatric ward, with the help of a raving nymphomaniac, who unties her in expectation of some sapphic slobbering, and promptly gets stabbed to death for her trouble. Now really, consider this: a scene in which a possibly werewolf-possessed mad-woman brutally murders a predatory, sex-crazed lesbian with a pair of scissors…. leaving aside all concerns of ethics and good taste (and if you’ve watched this far, we’ll assume you left them at the door), this should be a pretty dynamite set-piece for a movie like this, right? Something to give the sleaze crowd what they paid for, to stick in people’s memories etc? – Werewolf Woman has the whole thing done & dusted after FIVE SECONDS of bleary jumpcuts. Honestly.

So… I suppose Daniella wanders about aimlessly and kills a bunch of other people, I don’t know, I’m really losing hope by this point, as the film periodically cuts back to her worried father and the psychiatrist who are still earnestly yacking by the pool about what is to be done about this unsavoury state of affairs. Come on guys, less talk more rock! There are sleazy bald men and courting couples dying out there already! Haven’t the police found a handy photographer or bohemian painter they can put in charge of the investigation yet, or – no, hang on, wrong genre.

By this stage I’m feeling so lethargic that it scarcely even registers that Daniella just met a guy who seems to be a trainee stuntman (!!), that they immediately fall in love, complete with a running-along-the-beach-in-slo-mo montage (!?!?), and that the stuntman appears to live in some otherwise deserted Western movie set town in the middle of nowhere (….!?!?!!?...). I guess that’s just the kind of thing that happens in these movies.

And as for all that time she just spent running around sleeping rough in a graveyard and slaughtering people as a result of paranoid psychosis and deep-rooted mental trauma… why, I guess all the poor girl needed to bring her back to perfect health was for a good, upstanding sensitive fella to show her a bit of attention. Always the way, isn’t it? And to think we pay psychiatrists for stuff.

So for a while everything is hunky dory, until Handsome Stuntguy goes off to do whatever he does, and leaves Daniella alone in the eerie Western town, and some Bad Men wander along out of nowhere to rape her. You can tell they’re Bad Men, because they wear leather jackets, and sort of stride around with their fingers in the belt buckles, like cowboys. That and the raping. That’s a dead giveaway too. And…. frankly, I give up; I’ve wasted far too many words on this terrible film already, and it’s not going to get any better, and I can’t even be bothered to remember what happens next, except that it left me feeling as if something important within me had died forever, and its carcass was making a bad smell.

Just to add insult to injury, Werewolf Woman has the nerve to be 100 minutes long too. One hundred minutes! I know that’s only fifteen or twenty more than yr standard exploitation flick, but boy is it ever unneeded it here. According to the blurb on the back of the DVD, the film was originally released in a “butchered” 70 minute cut… one that I really wish I was watching instead. In fact, it’s interesting to try to put yourself in the position of someone charged with editing down a film like this. Really, I mean, where would you start? As with some of the aforementioned Franco masterworks, you feel that if you started trimming footage that seemed ‘unnecessary’, you’d swiftly find yourself entering a zen-like state of mind, emerging with a film with a running time of zero.

Well, ok, maybe you’d keep the opening werewolf scene, and the bit with the lizard, but aside from that…. just, no. There is no reason to subject people to this.

All that, and it turns out that Rino Di Silvestro, the director of this strangely compelling travesty of a farrago, rather than changing his name and hiding under a rock like a decent human being, is actually proud of his achievement, and returns to rub our noses in it in the form of a fifteen minute interview included on the Media Blasters DVD. (I suppose pride must operate on a sliding scale when your CV also includes “Deported Women of the SS Special Section” and “The Erotic Dreams of Cleopatra”.) Herein, he harps on about the ambiguities of demonic possession vs. mental illness and about the fuzzy grey areas within our psyches that make us do bad things, blah blah blah. Personally I’d be more concerned with the fuzzy grey areas that drive a man to fill his werewolf movie with hideously unerotic softcore porn instead of werewolves and not even bother to edit out the flies, but apparently this guy thinks he’s actually made a film with a message.

And you know what? I think he’s right. Werewolf Woman does have a message. LIFE IS CRUEL, burned in flaming, ten foot high letters upon every degraded frame.

Now where’s that copy of “She Killed in Ecstasy”? I need something a bit more upbeat and tasteful to cleanse my palette….

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