Friday, 26 March 2010
The She Beast
(Mike Reeves, 1966)
Pottering about on Amazon recently, ostensibly checking some facts for a previous review (I think I was probably making absolutely sure Michael Reeves’ ‘The Sorcerers’ was still unavailable on DVD before I started clamoring for its re-release), I was surprised to see that Reeves – [who took his own life at the age of 25 shortly after delivering ‘Witchfinder General’ (1968), one of the most uncompromisingly bleak horror films ever made, thus cementing forever his place in cult film mythology] – is also credited as the director of another film I’d never heard of before – something called ‘She-Beast’.
Clicking through to that film’s page, I nearly fell off my seat when I saw that ‘She Beast’ stars none other than Barbara Steele! Yes, THAT Barbara Steele! There’s a big picture of her on the front of the DVD to prove it and everything! Having stilled my beating heart and heading across to IMDB to confirm that it was indeed THAT Mike Reeves in the director’s chair, I immediately got to thinking about why this film is apparently so totally obscure.
As a chance meeting between two such iconic figureheads of all that is mysterious and fascinating and cool in the world of ‘60s horror cinema, you’d think that if ‘She Beast’ isn’t movie dynamite, it would surely at least have done the rounds of the, er, ‘horror community’ as an intriguing/confounding let-down, in the manner of ‘Curse of the Crimson Altar’ or something. I mean, with a plot apparently involving resurrected witches and a heavy-handed political sub-text, surely there’s got to be SOMETHING worth saying about this movie? But no – silence reigns from all of my usual sources of horror info.
What online reviews there are out there would tend to confirm the sad suspicion that, rather than even a grand failure, ‘She Beast’ is generally regarded as a dreary piece of shit that fails to add much to the legacy of either its director or leading lady. But you know what? Fuck that. At this stage there’s no force on earth that’s going to stop me from laying down £3.95 plus postage to see Michael Reeves directing Barbara Steele in some caper about communist witches! ‘She Beast’ is go.
Flash forward a few weeks to me concluding my Friday night encounter with the She-Beast, and what’s the verdict? Well it ain’t no ‘Black Sunday’, that’s for sure. But going in as I was with pretty low expectations, I’ve gotta say I quite enjoyed ‘She Beast’. In fact in its own way I thought it was really rather wonderful – sordid, cheap, stupid, pointless and completely bizarre in the best possible way.
You’ll forgive my rather unwieldy metaphor here, but if we were to see the best examples of ‘60s gothic horror as a collection of grand nobles and learned doctors congregating for a social engagement, ‘She Beast’ is more like the ranting, piss-stained tramp staggering about outside – he may not be exactly what you had in mind when you set out for an evening of stimulating conversation, but he sure ain’t bland company, and he’s got enough salty surprises in store to keep you on your toes.
Of course, it is a sad world that should ever compel a humble reviewer to compare a film featuring the incomparable Ms Steele to a piss-stained tramp, but such was the nature of her undignified trudge through the hinterlands of exploitation following her unforgettable debut in ‘Black Sunday’ and her brief grasp at arthouse cred in Fellini’s ‘81/2’, and if there is one thing that can immediately be said in ‘She Beast’s favour, it’s that at least it doesn’t waste her electrifying presence quite as badly as ‘..Crimson Altar’ or Corman’s ‘Pit & The Pendulum’.
Sure, she’s notable by her absence in the film’s second half, but in the gloriously Barbara-centric opening chapters she’s at least got a character and some lines to work with, some decent(ish) outfits, and the good taste to look faintly disdainful at all times as the avalanche of grunting, irrelevant crap that is ‘She Beast’ piles up around her. According to ‘She Beast’s trivia page at IMDB, Steele was only available for one day’s work on the film, meaning all her scenes had to be shot in a single twelve hour block, which certainly gives us an insight into the haste with which this flick was thrown together, given that she appears in a good half hour’s worth of footage.
Before we get to Barbara though, naturally every witch-movie has to start with a pre-credits flashback witch-destruction scene, and ‘She Beast’ is no exception, and from a purely cinematic point of view, this sequence is probably the movie’s high point. As distinctive as it is crude, the pre-credits sequence here reveals that the bleak, brutal medievalism Reeves would later perfect in ‘Witchfinder General’ was already fully-formed even this early in his short career.
Reeves immediately discards the stylised/fantastical approach usually taken by ‘60s gothics, presenting our witch as a drooling, filth-encrusted, bestial hag – a hideous creature who looks like she could well have lived in a cave in the woods eating babies. But as the scarcely less bestial villagers tie her down onto an absurdly complex witch-dunking contraption, piercing her chest with a spike and leaving her to drown in the river, there is no sense of supernatural justice being done. As in his later film, Reeves refuses to soften or fetishise the act of senseless violence he is portraying. There is nothing aesthetically pleasing or ‘fun’ about this sequence at all – it is ugly, abhorrent and unsettling, with none of the good vs evil moralising that makes such spectacles palatable in Hammer or AIP movies – just a straight depiction of some grotesque, ignorant people being horrible to each other.
Fittingly perhaps, the film’s presentation on the Alpha Video DVD I’m watching is about the worst I’ve ever seen on a commercially released disc, the print full-screened and fuzzed out into a morass of sickly greens and browns, and the soundtrack so cavernous I had to crank the volume to about four times the normal level to catch the dialogue. It kinda looks like someone took a battered theatrical print and left it out in the rain for twenty years, and seriously, for a film like this I wouldn’t have it any other way – it’s perfect. In all respects, the opening five minutes are just an assault on the senses of any tasteful, rational movie fan: abandon hope all ye who enter here, etc.
Anyway, for better or worse the opening sequence is as close as ‘She-Beast’ ever gets to making a serious point, or to unsettling viewers for the right reasons. As soon as we cut to ‘the present day’, or some weird Eurohorror variation thereof, it’s goof city all the way. Barbara Steele and Ian Oglivy (who else?) are on their honeymoon, and have chosen to spend it in – I kid you not - “the communist republic of Transylvania”. God knows why, as the whole place seems to resemble a post-apocalyptic wasteland of desolate rural poverty. Ian mentions something at one point about the beautiful scenery, but we never get to see any of it in this movie. Barbara radiates disdain on our behalf.
When they flag down a passing peasant and ask him for the lowdown on accommodation in the nearest village, the guy proceeds to deliver one of the most startlingly incoherent peasant-spiels I’ve ever heard in a horror film. He doesn’t warn them about occult peril or anything, as is traditional, instead he just sort of goes; “Yes! No! I mean, yes, places to stay there alright! But you do not want to stop there – keep going! You go to this one hotel, alright! BUT NO, you go there, is only hotel! You have good time there yes!”
Then he shouts “good night”, even though it seems to be the middle of the day, and careers off on his bicycle in classic ‘mad drunkard’ fashion, driving straight into the path of a man leading a donkey and then narrowly avoiding a passing motorbike, in an extended shot that looks like something cut out of an episode of “Last Of The Summer Wine” for being too disturbing. Ian and Barbara exchange the same kind of looks you’ll probably be exchanging back home on the couch, assuming you’re ever fool enough to try watching ‘She Beast’ in polite company. Something is just UP with this movie, and I’m not sure it’s going to be pleasant.
Arriving in said ‘village’ (which seems to consist of an abandoned looking filling station, some outhouses and a few picnic tables), Barbara and Ian are swiftly introduced to the proprietor of the hotel the peasant was blathering on about, as portrayed by the great comic actor Mel Welles. As the appropriately named Groper, Welles gives us an authentically furtive, sweaty sort of character who, seemingly for the lack of any other actors, will be playing a larger role in the forthcoming drama than we might wish. “Welcome, welcome,” he greets the couple, “you’re just in time for tea!”
With his lurching, hunch-backed walk, exaggerated mannerisms and even his own ‘comedy’ theme music, Groper’s presence rather recalls that of Torgo in Manos: The Hands Of Fate (if somewhat less intense).
As Barbara and Ian sit at one of the village picnic tables sipping Groper’s finest English tea (it doesn’t look good), a bizarre, bright yellow old-timey car putters over the horizon and our protagonists soon find themselves in the company of none other than Count Van Helsing (John Karlsen), here reduced to a lonely old coot who seems very excited about having some people who aren’t surly peasants to talk to.
“Do you know the Draculas?”, Barbara asks him. “Know them? Why, my family exorcised them, drove them from this earth, staked their evil hearts!”, Van Helsing replies, before going on to explain that with the vampires out of the way, he’s all about witches these days, and has done much interesting research, blah blah blah. Apparently not relishing the prospect of being lectured on occult lore by some craggy old weirdo for no apparent reason, Barbara and Ian declare themselves tired from their long journey and fuck off, leaving the poor old Count to enjoy the bottle of vodka he’s ordered all on his own.
And that, essentially, is our whole dramatic set-up for ‘She-Beast’s unforgettable tale of nothing in particular. In their haste to get away from this tiresome place, Barbara and Ian end up crashing their car straight into the river. Barbara’s body disappears! A murderous witch-monster is on the loose! Only Van Helsing’s occult know-how can save the day! Random, squalid events pad out running time! Yawn! I wish Babara Steele would come back! SHE DOES! And that’s yer lot! Hurray!
Naturally it’s the scattered points of interest along the way that make “She Beast” such a unlikely pleasure, most of them probably stemming from the presence of a headstrong, inexperienced director who seems determined not follow the signposts of gothic horror formula, but who lacks either the commitment or resources to come up with anything better, resulting in barrels of the kind of delightful “well we’ve got to film something – let’s film THAT” anti-inspiration that keeps trash-horror archeologists glued to video-era regional obscurities, but is rarely seen in ‘60s cinema, when producers and distributors had to exhibit their goods in public, in theatres, and thus usually at least TRIED to make sure they weren’t embarrassing themselves too much.
For instance, I loved the bit where Ian catches Groper leering through the keyhole as the couple attempt to get frisky in their room, and instead of merely telling him to push off, our ‘hero’ proceeds to beat the unfortunate landlord’s brains out against the wall, leaving a thick sheen of blood, in an outbreak of senseless violence just as brutal as the crimes perpetrated by the movie’s monster! Another example of Michael Reeves’ peerlessly misanthropic view of human behaviour perhaps, or did the actors and make-up artist just get carried away and no one could be bothered to reshoot..? I’m assuming the latter, as the next time we see Groper, he’s skulking around as usual, rubbing the back of his head and muttering to himself as if he’s just got a bit of a hangover.
I also enjoyed all the comically sped up car chases between Count Van Helsing’s weird car and the local keystone commissars (they literally do prat-falls and say things like “hey boss, somebody done stole our car”) that pad out the film’s final half hour. (You see, they just want to kill the witch, whereas Van Helsing knows that only be keeping her alive can Barbara be resurrected, or, y’know, something.) Watching a sped-up motorcycle guy zipping along the country lanes made for particularly pleasing viewing – such larks! There’s even one bit where the old geezer has to manually crank the car’s engine in order to get back on the road before his pursuers arrive – turn that hand-crank Count, crank for all you’re worth!
Then there’s the bit where the scene abruptly changes, and we see footage of some guys staging a cock fight (largely off-screen thankfully - no animal cruelty footage) while a kid whose sole purpose in the narrative is to briefly get attacked by the witch sneaks out of his bedroom window and assembles a pile of packing crates to watch the action… all of which we are seeing, well, why exactly…? Ten bucks says it’s more spiritually fulfilling that whatever’s on TV right now, so quit yer complaining and chow down.
Although filmed in some authentically grim and hopeless looking place in Yugoslavia, ‘She Beast’ was actually a British/Italian co-production (it went by “La Sorella di Satana” in Italy), and the English language track sounds dubbed, or at least post-synced. And with this process presumably being carried out with the same sense of care and attention that went into the film itself, naturally the result is conversations that sound as if they were written on another planet;
“What am I doing here?”
“You were lying in the middle of the road, you could have been hit by a bus!”
“Why were you in the road?”
“That damned fool hit me with a bottle!”
“I asked to use the telephone.”
“Ah – yes, I see”
And so on.
What I loved most of all about ‘She Beast’ though was the simple, self-contained little world it inadvertently creates. This is something I find fascinating in a lot of low budget horror films actually – the way that, thanks to strict limitations on cast, shooting locations and sets and a sense of narrative background that is hazy at best, these films can seem to take place within a restrictive, Truman Show-like entropy circuit, completely cut off from the real world, and functioning according to their own cracked internal logic.
Of course, many really good films have recognized this dislocated feeling and turned it to their advantage (“The Child”, “Messiah of Evil” or “Phantasm” are all good examples), but I love how in a film like ‘She Beast’ the sense of isolation seems completely accidental – the strange result of a film that seems to have been made with no production values whatsoever, and a script that simply can’t be bothered to anchor any aspect of the story into a real-world context.
As the film concluded, I wasn’t thinking about witches and occult power, or communism, or even about Barbara Steele. Instead I was just trying to picture what day to day life must have been like in the Communist Republic of Transylvania, before those attractive Britishers came along and messed everything up by falling in the lake.
Let’s go there together;
Groper sits in his filthy shack, scratching his belly and looking at porn. Groper’s niece keeps out of his way. Count Van Helsing putters around the hills in his stupid-looking car, desperate for someone to talk to. Flies buzz, meat rots. That’s the whole world. It is certainly not a happy place, but maybe, after a while, we’ll each grow to appreciate its charms.
Maybe we should thank the ill-starred Michael Reeves for giving us a rare window into that world, with only the clunk of the DVD returning itself to the menu screen serving to awake us from our slumber, to save us from a dream-life in which we are trapped there… forever.