Wednesday, April 22, 2009

THE SHE-BEAST (1966) d. Michael Reeves

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Rediscovery can often be one of the most pleasurable experiences in life, especially for those of us whose days feel like they are overflowing with experiences we have already done before and don’t want to repeat. When a chance comes around to do something again and have it feel as fresh and wonderful as the first time, or maybe the moment is even better, it brings one that much closer to sartori. Dark Sky Films has brought out a totally restored transfer of THE SHE-BEAST (aka REVENGE OF THE BLOOD BEAST) that has allowed me the opportunity to fall in love all over again with a film that I have seen several times before but never in as wonderful a format as it is today.

THE SHE-BEAST is the story of a young English couple, Philip (Ian Ogilvy) and Veronica (Barbara Steele), who are traveling through Transylvania on their honeymoon when they encounter a very strange and terrifying phenomenon after a routine traffic accident. The young lovers’ car is forced off the road and lands in a small lake, but when Philip and Veronica are fished out Veronica is no longer herself but is Bardela, a satanic witch of ancient legend whose soul was confined to the depths of the lake after she was tortured to death for crimes unspeakable against the local villagers. Now distraught over the apparent loss of his wife, Philip reluctantly accepts the assistance of Count Von Helsing (Jonathan Karlsen), the modern version of his ancient, vampire-hunting ancestors. Von Helsing informs Philip that Veronica’s body and soul have been possessed by Bardela and that only through an exorcism can Philip’s beloved be returned to him. What ensues is a horrifying and terrifically madcap series of events as Count Von Helsing and Philip race against time to restore Veronica’s soul and body to its rightful place and return Bardela to the Blackness of The Void from whence she came.

Prior to this viewing, I had always enjoyed THE SHE-BEAST for its very eclectic mix of gruesome horror imagery, atmospheric storytelling about possession and witchcraft, brisk pace and thoughtfully constructed mix of exceedingly strange and wonderful doses of humor and silly hilarity and its pointed comedic commentary on communism and Eastern Bloc culture and politics. Beyond these clearly impressive points, THE SHE-BEAST drew me to it because Barbara Steele was the star and I still will see ANY motion picture that has he magnificent Ms. Steele, but there were other cast and crew reasons to like THE SHE-BEAST. A very young Ian Ogilvy began his movie career in this film, while Felini favorite Jonathan Karlsen and Corman colleague Mel Welles give exceptionally eccentric and thoroughly enjoyable performances in this flick. Young, talented and tragic director Michael Reeves made his directorial debut and his script for THE SHE-BEAST was improved upon by Charles B. Griffith, the wunderkind behind so many of Roger Corman’s numerous movies. When taken into account, all of these elements would seem to make THE SHE-BEAST have countless outstanding qualities, but the viewing copies that were available here in the United States on video and later DVD always looked as if they had been projected on a filthy burlap sack, as my friend and comrade Mark Nelson has repeatedly said. In any of its incarnations, THE SHE-BEAST was at all times miserably dark, horrendously smeary, totally lacking in color, absolutely sodden in appearance and totally unwatchable. In addition, there were always rumors and stories that the cut of THE SHE-BEAST was always incomplete and that footage had been removed for a variety of reasons. As a result, any presentation of THE SHE-BEAST was mediocre at best as the horror-wise spectator knew full-well that what they were getting wasn’t really up to snuff. All that has changed as of the re-release of this outstanding edition of THE SHE-BEAST from Dark Sky Films.

The original 35 mm film elements from which the transfer was created is pleasantly crisp, clear, colorful and glorious, making it feel like an entirely new viewing opportunity. In addition, for the first time, the actual widescreen aspect ratio has been restored as well so that we are treated to a spacious and breathtaking look at Michael Reeves film making skills which led me to a much greater respect for his directorial efforts on THE SHE-BEAST. With all the surviving footage replaced, those who have seen this film before get a chance to revel in THE SHE-BEAST really for the first time in an entirely different manner as well. The audio has been restored and is no longer muddy, and so what emerges for those of us who were too young to have seen THE SHE-BEAST when it got its theatrical release, is the best possible chance to recreate such an experience. While there are moments at the heads and tails of reel changes where a tiny amount of film damage can be noted and there are other instances of film imperfections here and there, the fact that a first-rate restoration of this lost “cult-classic” exists and has been brought to public attention must be given the highest commendations. If you have ever been a fan of Michael Reeves’ work, if you enjoy Barbara Steele’s performances, enigmatic glamour and undeniable sex appeal and want to see some surprisingly strong film making that we were never able to appreciate before, you need to pick up a copy of THE SHE-BEAST.

THE SHE-BEAST has a very small but still wonderfully rewarding set of bonus features. There is a stills gallery which is exactly what a stills gallery should be, a mix of lobby card and poster images, promotional and news photos as well as on-set photography. While not enormous, the stills gallery is still an excellent blend of color and black and white historical images. The Crown Jewel of this set of supplements is the audio commentary which features actress Barbara Steele and actor Ian Ogilvy, producer Paul Maslansky and is moderated by David Gregory. I have listened to a lot of commentaries over many years, and this will go down as one of my favorites, not the least of which is for the reason that we get to hear Ms. Steele’s reactions to seeing this film, in essence, for the first time. Not one to do interviews or commentaries much before, Ms. Steele comes into the commentary a few minutes after it begins and despite having no memory of making THE SHE-BEAST, her repartee with the voluble Mr. Ogilvy, the thoroughly reminiscent Mr. Maslansky and the diplomatic and erudite Mr. Gregory makes this a simply delightful listening experience. To FINALLY hear Barbara Steele remark about her film career and to hear it done in the context of two other men who remember well their days with Michael Reeves, Jonathan Karlsen and Mel Welles was utterly gratifying. I fully admit a deep and abiding prejudice when it comes to who talks on commentaries and to hear the utterances of veterans as opposed to younger cast and crew members is something I always prefer. For those horror fans who hunger to be immersed in anecdotes of the past delivered by some film icons of yore, this is another rationale to make certain you get your hands on THE SHE-BEAST.

I have recently rediscovered how much I love photography and am eagerly finding ways to get my eye up to a camera lens and take pictures of people and places for the first time in nearly twenty years. The indescribable joy that I feel when I create an image that I am proud of cannot be fully conveyed. Watching a motion picture that I have never really had the chance to enjoy in the manner that should have been the case may be a “one-shot” moment of pure pleasure, but in some ways it is just as fulfilling. Had Dark Sky Films never gone to the lengths that they did to restore this lost gem to us, I wouldn’t have had this occasion, and as we all know as each year passes, these chances slip beyond our grasp, never to be recalled. If you are a devotee of European horror films from the 1960s and want to immerse yourself in the mood and texture of cinema that has long since ceased to be made, this is another invaluable chance. Don’t let it pass you by.

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