DIRECTED BY MICHAEL REEVES/1966
STREET DATE: JANUARY 17, 2017/RARO VIDEO
If history were inclined to boast a proto-Tarantino, it would be British filmmaker Michael Reeves. An encyclopedic film buff with a subversive witty streak, everything he wrought was pushed to the crazy hilt. Film tropes and genre staples zip about, getting embraced while also getting twisted.
Reeves worked in an indie capacity, making the films he was interested to make. He had a hand in all of his screenplays, producing as well. His close friend, actor Ian Ogilvy, starred in all of his films.
Raro Video’s new blu-ray release of the late filmmaker’s first bona-fide film, Revenge of the Blood Beast, arrives looking as Italian as most any of the label’s releases. The alternate title Il Lago di Satana pops on the packaging in bold, sharp yellow letters. True, much of this Transylvania-set horror romp from 1966 was filmed in Italy (doubling for Transylvania), as the post-synch dialogue track attests to, but in terms of sensibilities, Blood Beast is far more U.K. in tone. More subversive than scary, film actually has more in common with something like Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers than the likes of Italian contemporaries Mario Bava or later Lucio Fulci or Dario Argento.
For that matter, it must be said that Blood Beast only sparingly signals the unfailing intensity of what would be Reeves’ final testament a year later, the brutal period Vincent Price vehicle Witchfinder General aka The Conqueror Worm. This is early on, during a “Dark Ages” flashback which depicts the harsh slaying of a murderous grotesque hag via a rolling wooden seesaw-like contraption. They attach her to it, impale her upon it, then dip her in and out of a lake, eventually drowning her. Pious onlookers in the dusty daylight watch like statues, austere and expressionless.
The plot is certainly mish-mashed tripe, but cheap genre cinema is rarely quite this spirited or unhinged.
Most of the story, though, unfolds in the film’s modern day (circa 1966), as a charming and banter-prone newlywed couple’s travels take a turn for the supernaturally horrific when they pick the wrong overnight lodging. Ian Ogilvy is the husband, quick with a snarky comment but short on patience. Barbara Steele, quite handy with witticisms herself, is his wife. When the pervy motel owner’s spying on them ultimately leads to their car careening into the same lake the hag was drowned in centuries ago, Steele is somehow possessed by the witch’s evil spirit. She actually turns into the hag, wielding a U.S.S.R. flag-style sickle (Which feed into a memorably eye-rolling gag later on) and wreaking deathly havoc anew.
None of this is explained, seemingly to the ever-increasing delight of Reeves behind the camera. Sure, the reincarnated/resurrected/returned-from-the-dead witch creature commits a few acts of murder here and there, but the real suspense lies in the effort to save Steele. Coincidentally, a dithery old man claiming to be the descendant of famous Dracula killer Van Helsing (John Karlsen) is on hand and willing to help out. The guy wears tweed and lives in a cave decorated with skulls, though. Can he be trusted? Does Ogilvy have much choice? Much to his frustrated annoyance, no he does not.
As things spin on, a pack of bumbling Soviet lawmen get involved, bringing a kind of dingbat comedy to the mix. Their “Keystone Communists” act gives way to a kooky car chase (watch for the same motor spotted whizzing by multiple times), and more bickering between Ogilvy’s character and Van Helsing. Revenge of the Blood Beast is no more a comedy than it is an Italian picture, but nonetheless, the glee the filmmaker is taking in allowing the movie to go so batty is front and center. The plot is certainly mish-mashed tripe, but cheap genre cinema is rarely quite this spirited or unhinged.
This is the thrill and tragedy of Michael Reeves; that he knew, understood and simply loved the conventions of cinema and genre so well, he was able to freely contort and play with them in fresh ways. He ended up making only three films before his pre-mature death, the result of accidental barbiturate overdose. This first movie is no masterpiece, but it’s a keeper, and points the way to the uncompromising surehanded work to come with Witchfinder General.
While it’s nice to have Revenge of the Blood Beast on blu-ray, there are some underwhelming aspects to the package. The transfer demonstrates wear and tear, sometimes looking faded and degraded. The commentary from the Dark Sky DVD release of the film (released under yet another title, The She-Beast) was not obtained for this blu-ray, which is a real shame. The only bonus feature of note is a twenty-four minute audio interview with Barbara Steele, who was and still is the biggest name associated with the film. Her screen time is limited (once the hag takes over her character, it’s no longer her on screen), but her beguiling presence looms large, even now.
Raro’s blu-ray of Revenge of the Blood Beast includes a very nice booklet with an essay about the film, and a colorful cardboard slipcase.
Horror fans may be put off by the nuttiness of this film, and it may prove too exploitative in moments to go down well with others. The appeal of a film like this will always be niche, but for those curious about cinematic oddities of the past, and/or the work of a promising filmmaker who’s life was snuffed far too early, Michael Reeves’ Revenge of the Blood Beast, aka Il Lago di Satana, aka The She-Beast, aka She Beast, is one to check out.
The images in this review are not representative of the actual Blu-ray’s image quality, and are included only to represent the film itself.