“A young woman is driving alongside a lake. She has an accident and the car plunges into the water. Her body is then possessed by the spirit of an eighteenth-century witch who was killed by local villagers, and is bent on avenging herself on them.” (courtesy IMDB)
Good to see you, even you who sent the email describing me as “Severely handicapped by a tragic lack of talent.” Yahweh forbid that I should be vengeful, and to prove I’m not, I’ll discuss a movie that can accurately be called quite good – The She-Beast (1966). Made for about forty thousand dollars, filmed in Italy and set in contemporary Transylvania, The She-Beast is an early work from promising young English director Michael Reeves – who wrote it under the name Michael Byron – and it features the very lovely and talented Barbara Steele. Two good reasons to watch the film and overlook its low budget and dubbing problems.
Its only real fault is that a role that I would have been perfect for went to…someone else. The mid-sixties were not a good time for me – I had to make do with hanging around in all those episodes of Steptoe And Son. Witty dialogue to be had, and not one word of it allocated to me! I wasn’t even allowed to move, reduced to being set decoration! My contract with the BBC even prevented me taking the role of Count Von Helsing’s paperweight, which I’m sure would have revived my career there and then, instead of forcing me to wait until The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). And to think Michael Reeves gave the part to my rival, whose name eludes me once again. But enough remembrance of things past – let us now watch The She-Beast, and I’m sure you’ll agree, I would have given a performance both more nuanced and dynamic than what’s-his-name.
The She-Beast is one of the few films directed by Michael Reeves in his awfully brief career. As a child he started making short films featuring his school friend Ian Ogilvy. His first professional work was as an associate director on The Long Ships (1964), and then as second-unit director on Castle Of The Living Dead (1964), taking over as director mid-production. When he got The She-Beast right to everyone’s amazement, he was entrusted with bigger budgets and made better films. In 1967 he directed and co-wrote The Sorcerers (1967), giving Boris Karloff a major role in one of the few films worthy of his talent.
Reeves even refused to allow my old friend Vincent Price to overact in Witchfinder General (1968). Annoyed, Vincent snapped “Young man, I have made eighty four films. What have you done?”, to which Reeves replied “I’ve made two good films.” All was forgiven when Vincent saw the end product. Alas, on the 11th of February 1969, whilst working on The Oblong Box (1969), Michael Reeves passed away aged just twenty-five, when he unwittingly combined alcohol and sleeping pills. We lost a major talent and many fine films, and The Oblong Box became part of Gordon Hessler’s unimpressive career.
The small amount of screen time given to Barbara Steele is one of The She-Beast’s failings. This English rose became an icon of low-budget European horror films in the sixties, starting with Black Sunday (1960). Major directors also made use of her talents. Fellini cast her in Eight And A Half (1963), and she had a memorable supporting role in Young Torless (1966), Volker Schlöndorff’s highly regarded first film. She was unable to take the part written especially for her in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969) so it went to Susannah York, as did an Academy Award nomination. Her best roles in the seventies were in David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975), and in Piranha (1978) as Doctor Mengers aka fish food. This did not lead to better offers in the eighties and she turned to producing the World War Two miniseries The Winds Of War and its sequel War And Remembrance. Depending on which account you believe, she worked on The She-Beast for four days, or for one day and did all her scenes within twelve hours. Just one day would be enough time for her to Steele the film! Hey, if puns were good enough for Shakespeare, they’re good enough for me!
Michael Reeves gave his boyhood friend Ian Ogilvy major roles in three of his films, and he gave a good performance each time. Ogilvy subsequently appeared in many television shows in England and America. My personal favourite is his portrayal of Grayson, the school bully in the Ripping Yarns episode Tompkinson’s School Days. In 1978 he played Simon Templar in all twenty-four episodes of The Return Of The Saint, though being regarded as the new Roger Moore was hardly a step in the right direction. With no mate to give him continued employment, Mister Ogilvy occupied his spare time by writing children’s books. They don’t know too many words, how hard can it be? His last prominent role was as hairdresser to the stars Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her (1992).
Dressed as if about to play a round of golf is John Karlsen as Von Helsing, a role that would have been ideal for Boris Karloff, had he not been busy camping it up in The Girl From UNCLE. Karlsen has had a long and varied career in such films as Eight And A Half (1963), Crack In The World (1965), The Black Stallion (1979), and Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). Knowing Barbara Steele is probably what got him a part in The Winds Of War.
Most of you will have recognised our old friend Mel Welles as the loathsome Groper, inn-keeper and man of bad character. It was he who played the florist Gravis Mushnik in the cult favourite Little Shop Of Horrors (1960). I’m sure I can hear the voice of Mister Mushnik during the killing of the witch in the final scene. After such downright caddish behaviour as spying on Miss Steele and the attempted rape of his own niece, some would say there is poetic justice when Groper is killed by a hideously ugly witch. Apparently a glutton for punishment, Mel returned to Italy a few years later and committed artistic suicide by directing Lady Frankenstein (1971), a monstrously bad film which I inflicted upon you last year.
Amongst the crew is the man who gave Mel a place in film history. Charles B. Griffith, second unit director on The She-Beast wrote Little Shop Of Horrors, played the screaming dental patient, the thief who becomes plant food, and he provided the voice of Audrey Junior. Griffith wrote some of Roger Corman’s best films: It Conquered The World (1956), Not Of This Earth (1957), A Bucket Of Blood (1959) and Death Race 2000 (1975). What a talented man he was! Did Michael Reeves chose the surname Byron as his writing pseudonym as a compliment to Charles Byron Griffith? Use this thought as a mental bullet to bite down on as we return to the sequel-friendly ending of The She-Beast. If she returns as Barbara Steele – and not Witchy-Poo – I just might move to that town.
It’s a pity about that dreadful Keystone Cops chase near the end of the film. Actually, I do the Keystone Cops an injury when I compare the two. Their chases were cleverly staged and very funny, but this one was just painfully unfunny padding. The producer, Paul Maslansky, must have thought it was the best part of the film, because he went on to produce all the Police Academy movies! The sadistic fiend! And that scooter rider got on my nerves, too. Bill Forsyth, the writer-director of Local Hero (1983), got the idea for the omnipresent motorcyclist from this movie.
Michael Reeves clearly saw Communist nations as a source of mirth – the dialogue is littered with jokes at their expense. Some hit the nail right on the head, and some fall flat. The annual People’s Training Program that Groper spoke about merits a film all to itself – this is where Milos Forman got the idea for The Firemen’s Ball (1967) produced the following year. I expect more than once you thought this is a poor quality print in urgent need of restoration. Well, it’s happened! I’ve heard excellent reports of a recent restoration that enhances the viewer’s enjoyment. Alas, that print is not in the Public Domain, so I had to review this moth eaten strip of celluloid instead. It’s one of the pitfalls involved in venturing into the Public Domain. Return to see what terrifying traps await us next week at…Horror News! Toodles!