The She-Beast was one of those titles that I always saw the trailer for, but never managed to see, mostly due to the fact that it was only available on VHS via mail-order companies at the time (and there were more thrilling-looking pictures to order). When DVD came about, however, the whole industry changed: public domain movies were being distributed left and right — and The She-Beast was one of them. Unfortunately, by that point, my procrastination had been overruled by my inane sense of perfectionism — and by then, I only wanted The She-Beast if it was in widescreen. Lo and behold, a good 20 years after I first saw the preview for it, The She-Beast has finally hit DVD in an anamorphic widescreen presentation from Dark Sky Films.
The first of three horror classics from cult director Michael Reeves, The She-Beast (known in Italy as La Sorella Di Satana, or The Sister Of Satan) is not the straight-but-cheesy horror film you’d expect if you only ever saw the trailer. In fact, it’s a deliciously wicked horror comedy that succeeds in both entertaining and amazing the average viewer, especially when said viewer takes into consideration that this was Reeves’ first-time writing/directing a feature-length film and that the movie was shot in 21 days with a £17,000 budget (which Reeves put up himself from out of a bag!).
Two hundred years ago in Transylvania, the evil hag Vardella terrorized and murdered the populace until the townsfolk murdered her by nailing her to a dunking chair and drowning her. Alas, the fearful citizens did not wait for Professor von Helsing to properly exorcise the witch, and so Vardella cursed the entire community, threatening to rise from the dead one day and seek her revenge. In the modern mid-'60s, we meet Veronica (top-billed horror queen Barbara Steele, who is only in the beginning and end of the film) and Philip (Ian Ogilvy), a newlywed pair of cynical Britons (are there any other kind?) honeymooning in Communist Transylvania for one reason or another. Making the mistake of stopping in a small, backwards town, our heroes soon meet up with a sleazy drunken innkeeper (the great Mel Welles) and Count von Helsing (John Karlsen), the eccentric but spry descendant of the original professor who rid the world of Dracula.
Having been dispossessed of his own estate by the recent Communist regime, von Helsing lives in a customized cave and drinks a lot of booze — all the while waiting for the evil witch Vardella (played by male dancer Jay “Flash” Riley) to return. And she soon does, using her otherworldly powers of darkness to crash Veronica and Philip’s Volkswagen into the lake where her body lies — only to “switch places” with Veronica and wreak havoc once more (and giving the filmmakers a chance to hire the most famous scream queen in the world for only one day’s worth of footage in the process — which is why Barbara Steele is only featured in the beginning and end of the picture).
While the movie’s indecisiveness as to whether it’s horror with elements of comedy or a comedy with elements of horror will tend to irritate some audience members (Roger Corman regular Charles Griffith served as a co-writer and second unit director, which explains the god-awful Dr. Goldfoot-esque chase scene towards the end of the movie), The She-Beast is nevertheless a blast. Several highly effective sequences in this fast-paced film show director Reeves’ skill as a filmmaker, which would really come out a few years later with his masterpiece, The Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm) with Vincent Price; it’s a pity that Reeves never lived long enough to enjoy his success or continue working in the field of film. In a remarkably eerie similarity to the late Heath Ledger, the also very talented Reeves died in early 1969 at the tender age of 25 from an accidental overdose of barbiturates as he tried to combat both insomnia and depression.
There are also a few anti-Communist references that range from “don’t blink or you’ll miss it,” like the now-classic “hammer and sickle” gag (which director Reeves reportedly pulled off in one quick take) to “oh, God, please make it stop,” such as the “Keystone Kommie Kops” routine that includes producer Paul Maslansky as one of the highly ineffective and bumbling authorities (Maslansky would later use those skills in producing the entire Police Academy series).
For its April 28, 2009 DVD release, Dark Sky Films has somehow managed to find a beautiful 35mm print of The She-Beast (the actual onscreen title reads She Beast), and we are at long last able to see this this underappreciated oddity in its intended 2.35:1 Cinemascope ratio. This transfer will also enable longtime fans to finally see colors now, as the print is much clearer and brighter than anything ever released on video before — a modest example being a previously-undetected bare breast from English actress Lucretia Love (who shows up for one scene and disappears afterward). This DVD boasts a 2-Channel Mono track and has an English subtitle option as back-up (which is really cool; I hope more of the “Indie” labels start including subs).
Surprisingly, that old tattered trailer that has been included on every preview compilation videocassette and DVD is nowhere to be seen here. In a way, it’s a bit of a pity, as it is interesting to see how the American distributor marketed it as a straight and serious horror flick. The trailer, however, is not missed as soon as you access the DVD’s main special feature: an audio commentary with stars Barbara Steele, Ian Ogilvy, and produced Paul Maslansky. Moderated by David Gregory and recorded in 2007, this highly entertaining track provides a lot of insight on this cult gem, with actress Steele showing up after about fourteen minutes in. While Steele herself remembers practically nothing about her “22-hour day of filming,” she never fails to bring the track down — and whether she’s stating how awful her make-up in the film is (and it is) or just commenting on her work in general, it sounds as if Barbara was having a great time with her former co-star and producer (the latter of whom she didn’t speak to for a decade or better because of her “22-hour day of filming”). The only other special feature is a gallery highlighting several stills, posters and press book artwork from both the US and the UK (where the title of the movie is Revenge Of The Blood Beast).
Even if, for some ungodly reason, you’re perfectly content with your murky, washed-out, and severely cropped pan-and-scan edition of The She-Beast on DVD (and you should seek help if you are — pan-and-scan sucks, people), you owe it to yourself to upgrade to this superior-in-every-way version just for the audio commentary alone.