Tuesday, March 11, 2014

She Beast (1966)

Written by: Michael Reeves
Directed by: Michael Reeves
Starring: Barbara Steele, John Karlsen, Ian Ogilvy

Tonight's movie is an odd duck. Strange to say about a no-budget flick in a genre that was already almost past its sell-by date, but in some ways She Beast was as much ahead of its time as behind it, trapped in a sort of limbo between fads. From an evolutionary standpoint, what we're looking at here is the common ancestor that links the older generation of witchburners to the rougher stuff like Mark of the Devil that was on the horizon, and more interestingly, the 1940's-era horror comedies like the works of Abbott and Costello with the surreal and bizarre horror comedies of the 80's, like Mama Dracula and Psychos In Love.

We begin with a little prologue piece, where a rather batty old man discovers an extremely old book and begins to read the story of the execution of a witch who used to live in the mountains near the village. This is one of my favorite parts of the flick, as the guy playing the bishop (or whatever church rank he's supposed to be) sells the shit out of his role with this big booming voice and a load of gravitas. A little boy runs into the church, interrupting a service with the news that the witch has killed his brother. This is the last straw for the villagers, who have been putting up with the witch's predations for far too long, and they go up the mountain to drag her out of her cave and stick her in a tumbrel (one of those big, wheeled dunking chair seesaw things that were so popular in the Salem Witch Trials), drowning her in the lake. Inevitably, she vows to return for her revenge.

Veronica and Philip are a newly married American couple honeymooning in Czechoslovakia. Considering the sociopolitical climate of the country in the 60's, it's incredible that anyone would want to vacation there, but there you have it. They wind up at an inn run by the aptly named Ladislav Groper, where they meet the batty old man from the prologue. Almost as inevitably as the witch's vowing revenge, he is a descendant of Abraham van Helsing.

Ladislav proceeds to spy on them having sex, and is then beaten into unconsciousness by Philip (the huge streak of blood his head leaves on the wall of the inn sure looks like it would have been a fatal wound, but before long he's up swilling vodka and attempting to rape his niece, so I guess they come tough in the Carpathians). They decide to head for more accommodating accommodations, but the steering on their car goes out on the mountain road, and they wind up in the lake. Philip manages to drag himself to shore, but it's too late for Veronica. The truck driver they barely missed colliding with manages to drag them both out of the water and get them back to the inn. The trucker and Ladislav wrap Veronica's mangled body in a tarp and put her in the back room until they can figure out what to do with her. Meanwhile, Philip hooks up with Count van Helsing, and they discover that Veronica's corpse has been possessed by the witch, who goes on a rampage of revenge through the village.

Van Helsing, after studying the account of the witch's execution, thinks he might be able to get Veronica back, but first they have to figure out how to get the witch subdued and back to the lake. In a move that foreshadows Dead Alive, they round up a load of tranquilizer, shoot her up, and throw her in the back of a stolen police van. Que a rather ridiculous sped-up car chase (filmed by the second unit, Reeves hated this goofy Keystone Kops moment but had run out of money and thus couldn't afford a reshoot) with our heroes evading the police because they stole van Helsing's clunky antique of a car. They manage to get the witch back to the tumbrel (how the hell is that thing still intact, let alone functional, after sitting out next to the lake for the last three hundred years!?), but since impaling her with the huge iron stake the villagers used the first time (in a scene of relatively intense gore pretty unusual for this time period, hence my comment about this movie foreshadowing the ridiculously icky witchburners of the 70's) will obviously kill Veronica as well, tying her into the seat will have to do.

At first all seems well. After it looks at first as though the witch escaped, Veronica bobs to the surface, revived and well, and the three drive off together. After all, the authorities are still on the lookout for van Helsing as well as Philip, and Eastern European communist authorities aren't people you want to fuck with, so van Helsing decides to head out of the country with the couple. There must be monsters to kill in countries where a man is less likely to wind up in a gulag, right? As they drive away, Philip expounds on how awful a place the village was, but Veronica ominously mentions that some day she'll come back.

I mentioned the gore a bit ago, and although compared to, say, Mark of the Devil, it's pretty tame, 1966 was still early days to see that much blood being splashed around outside a Hammer movie. The impressively shitty film stock and bad lighting also work to the movie's favor, covering up a lot of flaws that would probably make the horror aspects a lot less horrible. While it can make it hard to tell what's supposed to be happening from time to time, on the whole it adds more to the atmosphere than it detracts. I've never been one to demand a beautiful, crystal clear image from my movies. On something like Pacific Rim, obviously it's desirable, but when it comes to old cheap horror flicks, the crunchier the picture, the better. Well, up to a point, at least, and She Beast is definitely pushing right up against the limits.

Barbara Steele turns in a predictably professional performance, although she never puts in any more effort than is absolutely necessary. I don't think she ever phoned in a performance, but this is as close as she ever got. John Karlsen is a pleasantly likeable van Helsing, and Ian Ogilvy at least manages to not embarrass himself. However, the real standout here is veteran character actor Mel Welles (probably best known to the likes of us for his work with Roger Corman, most notably as Gravis Mushnick in Little Shop of Horrors) as Ladislav Groper. Sure, Ladislav is little more than a bellowing cartoon, but Welles wrings every last bit of humor you can get out of a creepy alcoholic letch with a funny accent. His roaring, “CAPITALIST DOGS!” at Philip and Veronica as they leave the inn is one of the best moments in the movie. I know it doesn't sound like much, you'll just have to see it.

No, I haven't forgotten that I said this was also an, if not exactly missing, largely forgotten link in the evolution of the horror comedy as well. The two aspects of the movie are kept mostly segregated. I didn't begin to realize it was meant to be a comedy until Philip and Veronica arrive at the inn (the first clear joke, when they ask a man for directions to the village; “Do you speak English?” “No, but I speak very good English”, I thought was just a mistake at first – in retrospect I think it's pretty funny). Despite the fact that the movie is as much comedy as horror, I can understand why Reeves was displeased with the goofy high-speed car chase. The rest of the humor is derived from dialog, not slapstick, so it seems out of place. Granted, it's by and large not terribly sophisticated stuff, but it's still better than assuming skip-framing is by default funny. My favorite, and probably the cleverest joke in the movie, is when the witch goes to kill Ladislav, who is descended from one of the villagers in the mob who killed her. She decapitates him with a sickle, which she then tosses aside. It lands on the floor across a large hammer. Because it's communist, see? Yeah, well, I didn't say it was Blackadder, did I? Still, the type of humor here is mostly a lot more in line with bizarro stuff like Microwave Massacre (all hail!) than it is with the 40's spook show yukfests. It's driving across the bridge over that gap, but it's a lot closer to the modern end, very nearly ready to pull out its papers to present to the customs officer played by Jackie Vernon, and I think this metaphor has been tortured enough, don't you?

It's not going to scare your pants off, or make you piss them laughing, but it acquits itself a lot better than one would expect, and the short run time means it doesn't wear out its welcome. You could do a lot worse of a dreary afternoon. Check it out.

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