Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Season of the Witch

The She Beast
d. Michael Reeves, 1966
Starring Barbara Steele, Ian Ogilvy, and John Karlsen

In Communist-era Hungary, a vacationing English couple (Ian Ogilvy and Barbara Steele) find themselves dragged into a supernatural curse from 200 years ago when Veronica is possessed by a witch killed in the 18th century. Unfortunately, the only person able to help John exorcise his wife is a musty old dispossessed descendant of the Van Helsing clan (John Karlsen, who’d later pop up in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure).

            The first Michael Reeves' film I saw, Witchfinder General (a.k.a The Conqueror Worm) was the last one he made before dying at the young age of 25. It’s an epic and effective period horror film, full of amazing performances married to rich visuals. It is one of the few horror films to effectively attack the voyeurism of the crowd without feeling hypocritical.

            And this film is nowhere near that one.

            Now, the DVD Netflix put into my possession is partly to blame. The film has a lot of problems, but they’re exacerbated by an awful print that frequently devolves into a bunch of indistinct blobs, with very poor sound quality. Pity poor Barbara Steele, whose beauty is almost totally invisible. It makes me worry that the rest of Reeves’ films are sitting in a rubbish heap somewhere, rotting away.

            But even if the actual materials were restored, this film would still be problematic. The script is incredibly episodic, with complications and delays inserted into the script to pad it out to feature length. Van Helsing’s acts of incompetence fits his character somewhat, but an endless car chase and comic relief Communist police are just infuriating.

            The shame of it is, there are a few things that hint at Reeves’ talents. The titular she beast, while occasionally ridiculous-looking, has a great concept. Her hideous face and ape-like build, her age belied by furious strength, does make her uncanny. You can see why this woman inspired fear in an entire village. And there a lot of neat little touches, such as a murder timed to coincide with a cock fight.

            But way too little time is spent on the witch and too much time is spent on an arbitrary exorcism process or comic relief. Too bad this makes up half of Reeves’ film oeuvre in print. Hopefully someday we’ll see The Sorcerers, his film with Boris Karloff, in a good print. 
D- for presentation, C- for content
(The link below is supposed to be to a much better transfer supervised by the original producer, in original 'Scope ratio)
The She-Beast
Witchfinder General