Count von Helsing (John Karlsen) arrives at his cave home, having lost his previous residence, and settles down with a good book. The extract he peruses details the treatment meted out to a witch back around one hundred and fifty years ago in this land of Transylvania, where she had been accused of murdering a child and his brother rushed to the local church to get help. The villagers rallied and gathered torches, then advanced on the hag, named Vardella, grabbing her and tying her to the dunking stool see-saw where they saw to it that she would be punished by being put to death by drowning - but as she went, she roared that a curse would be placed on the village.
Michael Reeves was the director of this little item, a horror cheapie he shot in Italy after his first experience on The Castle of the Living Dead; he was only twenty-one years of age at the time, but such was his ambition that he had planned to use these low budget chillers he made in the late nineteen-sixties as a stepping stone to a major career. If you're a horror fan, you'll know what happened next: two highly regarded films later, he was dead of an accidental medication overdose, aged only twenty-five before the sixties were even over, and one of the brightest hopes in British cinema had been extinguished, leading to much speculation ever since about what he might have achieved.
It could be that he would have seen his career dwindle as the British horror film industry did in the seventies into the eighties, but the tantalising notion that he could have saved it is never far away when considering Reeves. He had a singular, bleak view of the world that translated into his work in a bracing fashion, and though The She Beast was definitely the least of the three efforts he completed, many have alighted upon it, curious after seeing The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General, and found that despite its comedy leanings, there was a marked streak of nastiness that would only be emphasised in his following two movies, which more or less ditched any tries at humour.
Ian Ogilvy, Reeves' surrogate as far as acting went, starred in all three of his films, and here he was a newlywed married to Barbara Steele, the second of the quartet of acting horror icons Reeves worked with, though he only had access to her for a day, hence she shows up for about fifteen minutes at the beginning then was absent from the story until the very end. Set in the present day (for the sixties) Communist country of Romania, complete with irreverent references to political ideologies and even a hammer and sickle making a jokey appearance, this was not so much a politically engaged film as it was using the backdrop as a novelty. Yes, Count Dracula hailed from Transylvania, but how would he fare in those days of totalitarian repression, seemed to be the question being asked, until the plot got down to the shocks.
What happens is that after finding a hotel run by Mel Welles, whose name of Ladislav Groper tells you all you need to know about the character, there is an altercation when he is spotted spying on the couple getting intimate and he is bloodied and beaten by Ogilvy's suddenly very violent tourist, if nothing else an indication of how there is always a dark side awaiting to erupt into the mundanity of normal life. The pair drive off in their Volkswagen Beetle, promptly lose control next to a certain lake and crash in, whereupon Ogilvy is the only one to make it to shore. It's unclear how this has happened, but the witch, one of the grottiest creations you’ll ever witness, has possessed Steele or has taken her place somehow, and our hero must team up with von Helsing to combat and ultimately vanquish Vardella. The comedy car chase shot by the second unit was very much against Reeves' wishes, but does add to the off-kilter tone even if it isn't funny, so overall you could regard The She Beast as evidence of talent without it fully coming to fruition just yet. Music by Paul Ferris.
Promising British writer-director who first found work in Italy, on Castle of the Living Dead. The She Beast was his next credit, and two minor classics of bleak horror followed: The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General, which many regard as his masterpiece. Tragically he died of an overdose in his mid-twenties, before he could start work on his next film, The Oblong Box.