Director: Michael Reeves
Raro Video USA

Even if Michael Reeves had only directed WITCHFINDER GENERAL (aka THE CONQUEROR WORM), he still would have undoubtedly become the revered cult director that he is today. But the fact of the matter is that the youthful, ambitious British filmmaker exited this Earth while in his mid 20s, with a résumé of three features under his belt: all horror efforts which got increasingly better, concluding with his final aforementioned masterpiece. REVENGE OF THE BLOOD BEAST (known in Italy as “La Sorella di Satana” and in the U.S. as SHE-BEAST, where it played on a double bill with THE EMBALMER), is his first feature as a director, though he had previously done second unit work on CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD for the same producer, Paul Maslansky (of “Police Academy” series fame).

In 18th Century Transylvania, a horrible hag of a witch is terrorizing the locals, who gather together to sentence her to a death with an ingenious, torturous dunking chair death in the lake. But before dying, the witch Vardella swears revenge on the descendants of the town. Some 200 years later, the young honeymooning British couple of Veronica (Barbara Steele, NIGHTMARE CASTLE) and Philip (FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE’s Ian Ogilvy, in his first feature) are motoring through the modern-day communist Carpathians, and decide to stay at the inn run by burly and sleazy Ladislav Groper (the legendary Mel Welles, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS). Their honeymoon is soon interrupted as the uncouth Ladislav peeps in on their lovemaking, causing the enraged husband to beat up on the drunken voyeur. The couple makes a hasty retreat the next morning, but as their automobile loses control and falls off a cliff and into the lake where Vardella was executed, the mishap causes the lovely Veronica to transform into the centuries-old witch. Desperate to bring his new bride back to her rightful form, Philip seeks the help of the wise bookworm Dr. Von Helsing (John Karlsen, SLAUGHTER HOTEL), an elderly descendant of the man who slayed Count Dracula.

Shot in Italy and Yugoslavia with a mostly Italian crew, REVENGE OF THE BLOOD BEAST easily divulges its meager budget in appearance as well as in its struggle to meet the required running time (in this case, 79 minutes). Although often maligned through the years, it’s a strangely enjoyable little mix of horror and comedy that’s probably best viewed really late at night, the time slot it was often allotted back in the glory days of local TV. Most of the production values may be crude, but when the comical aspects aren’t dominant, there’s some brooding, striking imagery about, especially in the opening flashback sequence, as Vardella’s execution by the torch-carrying town folk and several other trademark Reeves bits conjure up visions of what was soon to come in WITCHFINDER GENERAL. For a film with such humorous overtones, there’s also a surprising amount of savagery and bloodshed (also shades of things to come in WITCHFINDER) when a head is smashed against a cement wall with the subsequent blood smearing, and when Vardella hacks up a victim with a sickle (a bloody spectacle followed up by a notorious "hammer and sickle" sight gag).

The appearance of the "She-Beast” herself (played by a male actor, Jay Riley) is quite a sight, as the make-up is still pretty horrifying, capped by a ferocious persona of scratching people to death and an unsettling, animal-like whaling. The central cast is made up of Brits and Americans, with Australian-born John Karlsen being very amusing as the monster-hunter, and his unlikely camaraderie with a baby-faced Ian Ogilvy is reminiscent of Jack MacGowran and Roman Polanski in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, even though their characters are very different from that film. Mel Welles deliciously overacts, and by this point in his career, he was well-seasoned at playing lecherous types. British-born Barbara Steele was at this time the reigning Queen of Horror in Italy, and here she was employed for marquee value (she’s top billed), but was only on the set for one day, appearing in the film at the beginning and at the conclusion for a total of a few minutes. Wearing an abundant amount of make-up, Steele's highlight is a quick bedroom tease where her ample cleavage (pressed against a bed mattress) is almost fully exposed but inventively concealed by a white sheet. Corman associate Charles Griffith (who also contributed to the script) shot the second unit stuff, basically an endless comic car chase fashioned to pad out the running time. REVENGE OF THE BLOOD BEAST is what it is, a low budget European horror film with a talented up-and-coming director, colorful cast and a grotesque monster, and even if some of the execution is sloppy and amateurish, there’s still no reason it can’t be enjoyed. For me, Reeves is three for three, and if you count his contributions on CASTLE OF THE LIVING DEAD, he’s four for four.

A staple of public domain budget DVD releases, REVENGE OF THE BLOOD BEAST (the British theatrical title) has mostly been viewed through the years in terrible-looking washed out, pan and scan transfers, which was remedied in 2009 when Dark Sky Films/MPI released the film in its proper aspect ratio (under the American SHE-BEAST title). Raro’s Blu-ray presentation (with English language titles that carry the REVENGE OF THE BLOOD BEAST title) looks superb, with a new HD transfer which presents the film in 1080p in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. We know you’ve heard the “more than a revelation” term applied to reviews in the past, but that suitably applies here as the film has never looked so clear and clean, and its aesthetic value has surely been upped a few notches. Colors are bold and well saturated, black levels are deep and the image has excellent textures throughout the presentation. The light grain structure has a nice organic appearance, and there doesn’t seem to be any digital tampering or excessive artifacting. Like the Dark Sky DVD, the transfer unveils a surprising glimpse of bare nipple (courtesy of actress Lucretia Love) not visible in previous muddy, cropped presentations.The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English track provides fairly clear dialogue and sound effects, and the score Ralph Ferraro also fairs well. No subtitle options are offered.

If you have still have the Dark Sky DVD, you’ll want to hold on to it for the lively, historic commentary with producer Paul Maslansky and stars Ian Ogilvy and Barbara Steele (who makes an entrance about 14 minutes in), moderated by David Gregory, as it’s not been ported over here. What you do get is the featurette, “A Bloody Journey To Italy” (28:30), an interview with Steele, focusing on her 1960s tenure in Italy (a place she fell madly in love with) and the well-known directors she’s worked there (Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, Federico Fellini). REVENGE OF THE BLOOD BEAST and Michael Reeves are never mentioned. Steele’s voice is heard, but she’s not seen, as the visuals are comprised of stills of her, as well as clips from REVENGE OF THE BLOOD BEAST and THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (also available from Raro Video). So it's basically an audio interview set to images and clips.

As good as the presentation is, mention must be made of all the glaring errors on the packaging for REVENGE OF THE BLOOD BEAST (where it is largely credited under the alternate Italian title “Il lago di Satana”; this is also the title found on the main menu). The back slipcover (which is identical to the case’s back cover) falsely states that there’s an Italian language track, that there’s a “new and improved English subtitle translation”, that the film is in black and white, and that the featurette is a documentary about the film! But the worst offender is a prominent black and white shot from the 1967 David F. Friedman-produced SHE-FREAK showing actress Claire Brennen in full monster make-up, being passed off as from this movie (there’s a big difference between “She-Beast” and “She-Freak", especially to diehard fans!). To make matters worse, this same image is shown in even larger form on back of the insert booklet (with liner notes by “Nocturna”). Raro, please check packaging on subsequent releases with a fine-tooth comb before the final pressings next time out! (George R. Reis)