‘What a strange place! It’s all so full of weirdies and werewolves.’
‘Terrible line, dearest. Great alliteration, but terrible line.’
A runaway production shot in Italy, this was Michael Reeves’ first feature (he’s billed as ‘Mike Reeves’*). Made with English cash and a crew of Italians and Americans, La Sorella di Satana is technically Anglo-Italian film. Initially scripted as Vardella, it was released in Britain and America as The Revenge of the Blood Beast and The She-Beast. If Reeves hadn’t gone on to make two of the most important British horror films of the decade then seal a romantic lost genius reputation by dying young, the film would most likely not be well-remembered. It’s interesting, but a mess.
Produced by American Paul Maslansky, whom Reeves met while working second unit on Il Castillo dei Morti Viventi (Castle of the Living Dead, 1964), La Sorella is a larkish effort which tosses together ideas, personnel and approaches from the ‘60s horror cinemas of Italy, Britain and the US. Barbara Steele, Ian Ogilvy and Mel Welles – representatives of very different strains of genre – seem to be in three different pictures. Steele, taking top billing for a few days’work**, is replaced for most of the story when her character is switched out for the resurrected witch. Ogilvy alternates between light leading man banter as if working up to his juvenile lead in No Sex Please – We’re British (1973) and hard-bastard violent rage. Welles’ comedy relief rapist is a running joke caricature which runs on too long.
It takes place in the continuity of some version of Dracula – Dracula’s Daughter (1936) perhaps, with its ‘Von Helsing’ – as Count Von Helsing (John Karlsen), who looks like a Hergé character with white beard and plus-fours, responds to an impertinent ‘do you know the Draculas?’ by claiming his ancestors wiped out the vampires of Transylvania. Unusually, this deals with another Von H family nemesis – more witch than vampire, though the categories blur. The impoverished Count peruses a tome which chronicles the temporary defeat of vile hag Vardella (Jay Riley) and a flashback rehashes the much-imitated beginning of Mario Bava’s La Maschera del Demonio (The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday, 1960) with the twist that Vardella is consigned to a lake rather than burned at the stake. Ignoring the advice of a Von Helsing ancestor glimpsed observing from afar with a dwarf sidekick, the mob make the common mistake of giving Vardella time to make a speech cursing their descendants before putting an end to her. As the beldame is dragged by thugs to a ducking stool***, Reeves sketches what would be the opening of Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General (1968). However, rather than a depiction of historical injustice and small-minded corruption, this particular witch-hunt – like the one that leads to Carol Cleveland saying ‘it’s a fair cop’ as she’s siezed in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) – is legit. In ridiculously grotesque make-up, the cackling Vardella is an out-and-out monster … though that doesn’t prevent Reeves from depicting the mob and their descendants as thoroughly rotten too.
Breezing in after the manner of the newlyweds in The Black Cat (1934) and The Kiss of the Vampire (1964) are young, mod English couple Philip (Ogilvy) and Veronica (Steele), who have unaccountably decided to honeymoon in Transylvania. They get waylaid in the village of Vaubrac and are forced to stay in a hotel run by Groper (Welles), a comical hustler and lech. The film’s shifts of tone may well be characteristic of Reeves’ uncomfortable personality, as a farcical peeping tom scene with grasping Groper spying on the lovemaking couple is followed by the supposed hero administering a brutal beating to the comedy relief. Later, in a scene with similar mixed messages, Groper wheedles around his buxom niece (Lucrezia Love) as if in a lederhosen sex comedy then tries to rape her. With all this sleaze, there’s often barely room for Vardella’s wickedness. Because Groper vindictively sabotages their Volkswagen, the English couple drive into the lake. Philip gets free and a passing truck driver (Tony Antonelli) hauls out the waterlogged, bedraggled corpse of Vardella – which he claims must be Veronica.
The witch revives and kills some people, with lashings of gore that seem like a childish attempt to get noticed rather than a stratagem for exposing horrors humanity is capable of. After murdering Groper (not a moment too soon), Vardella tosses away a bloody sickle which falls on a hammer to make the communist symbol (staged backwards and filmed in reverse). It’s a bit of business critics noticed and audiences remember from La Sorella di Satana, but it’s not actually funny. This is among the first films to make anything of the land traditionally associated with vampires being a communist state in the narrative present day (a sub-text of The Return of Dracula, 1958). Still, there’s hardly any discernible political content. For all his rebel rep, the well-off Michael Reeves depicts evil in terms of people being ghastly, murdering hypocrites rather than as a result of systemic injustice under any political system. The climax has Vardella passed out as if dead drunk in a frat slob comedy and crammed into a yellow rattletrap car driven by Von Helsing to the lake where the witch can be exchanged again for Veronica. This is an excruciatingly extended would-be comedy set-piece. Another running joke which gets less funny every time it repeats is that the same random motorcyclist pops up at different locations throughout the silent movie-style car chase sequence.
The final fillip looks forward to Reeves’ later despairing finales, though it’s a lot like the last moments of Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace (1963). Hag is exchanged for honey, but Steele – finally given a moment to justify casting her rather than, say, a ditzy comedy starlet – gives the audience a secret sinister smile which suggests she’s possessed. Variations on this moment, with similar framing and smirking, appear in everything from Dance of the Vampires (1967)**** to Straw Dogs (1971)*****.
*‘Michael Byron’, credited screenwriter, isn’t the simple alias some critics have suggested but a joint pseudonym for Reeves and Charles Byron Griffith, best known for his work with Roger Corman (The Undead, The Little Shop of Horrors, The Wild Angels). Corman associates Amos Powell and Mel Welles are uncredited but also did drafts or rewrites.
**Some reports say one day’s work.
*** a repurposed siege catapult prop from some peplum. Tim Lucas or Steve Bissette would know which one but I don’t.
****Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran) from the Polanski film is another Hergé-look vampire hunter.
*****The ‘more trouble still to come’ mock-innocent smile became a much-reused trope, flashed by Harvey Stephens in The Omen (1976), Drew Barrymore in Firestarter (1984) and – astonishingly – Princess Diana in news footage repurposed for The Queen (2006).