Likely to draw more attention as an auteurist’s footnote than a mutually exclusive spookfest, The She-Beast will primarily be remembered as the inchoate, if crudely artful, feature-length debut of British l’enfant terrible Michael Reeves. Even completists of the director have dismissed the film as a campily inauspicious start; still, as far as footnotes in the annals of horror misfires go, the film satisfies more than others due to an aura of naughty schoolboy prankishness. Reeves shot She-Beast on the cheap in Italy (where producers convinced local consulates that they were filming a documentary in order to obtain cheaper location rates), penned the ghoulish train wreck of a screenplay himself under the gossamer pseudonym of Michael Byron, and thrust childhood friend and nascent TV actor Ian Ogilvy in the main role without a guard rail.
The negligent plot centers on a medieval Romanian witch (or perhaps it’s a female demon; the ichor-expelling facial makeup resembles that of a toxic waste creature necessitating Captain Planet’s intervention), who possesses the body of an English traveler’s wife (Barbara Steele) in order to murder the descendants of those who martyred her. The titular scourge, however, is torpid for all but 15 havoc-wreaking minutes, instead yielding the stage to a series of confounding scenarios—many filled with insipid character development and clumsy satire. Particularly groan-provoking is an oily, rotund, beer-swilling, peeping tom commie mechanic who grumbles incessantly about the “capitalist pig” British tourists in Eastern Europe; when his imminent death arrives, fittingly by sickle, we can’t help but smile as the putrid witch tosses the murder weapon to its perfectly perpendicular resting place atop a hammer.
Despite the tongue-in-cheekiness of the overall product, Reeves noticeably eschews grandiose gore, instead punctuating (very dry) stretches of exposition and interaction with galling brutality—a style that would facilitate the near-perfection of Witchfinder General. The subtle pleasures of the film are primarily minute visual touches that in no way involve the resident monster, or the overwhelmingly camp themes: For example, the way that Reeves parsimoniously dooms his characters with Dutch angles in the most benign scenes, or his daring dolly-outs from close-ups that reveal innocuous intruders and objects. Even at 22, the director was experimenting with film grammar in piquant ways; it’s unfortunate that he lacked mastery over even the basic elements of composition.
Witchfinder General, Michael Reeves’s final film before dying of a drug overdose, has been heralded as an indisputable achievement. Not the least of its successes is the manner in which it tames Vincent Price and, in the process, consolidates the snarky blood-and-magic of Roger Corman and Hammer films with the psychologically gnawing works of Roman Polanski and Alfred Hitchcock. She-Beast can be viewed as an early, failed attempt to do the same; it would be two more years before Reeves discovered that, unlike Corman, he had to take horror seriously in order to construct a narrative worthy of his visual prowess. One can debate whether this premiere is worth seeing. But it’s unlikely that Reeves could have made Witchfinder General without first learning from the mistakes of She-Beast.