Sunday, 27 June 2010

Lycanthropus (aka Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory, 1962)

Woe often betided the European-made horror and fantasy film in English-speaking markets, back in the heyday of drive-in and grindhouse trash. Often the best they could hope for was a lousy dub job and a dubious retitling; the worst fate was having sequences hacked out and spliced into whole other movies, a la the Russian sci-fi epic Planet of Storms (1959), cinematic organ-doner for many a Roger Corman quickie. Saddled with one of the most simultaneously salacious and amusingly disingenuous titles in the history of schlock, Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory (the Snakes on a Plane of its day), an Italian-Austrian co-production originally called Lycanthropus, had the dubious distinction of having one of the very best bad horror-rock songs, “The Ghoul in School”, appended to its opening credits upon its American release, a chanson to rival other yardsticks in crepuscular crapulence such as The Horror of Party Beach’s “The Zombie Stomp”. It’s hard to tell, too, whether the often excruciating dialogue was translated and dubbed with any accuracy, and therefore how much of the blame belongs to original screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, and what’s the result of morons mutilating other peoples’ films. Add to this the fact that the story takes place in a badly recreated British setting (where the woods are infested with wolves that terrify the populace, and the borstals look like Hohenzollern schlösser, don’t you know) to capitalise on the then-popular British horror style and perhaps pay homage to the influence of writers like Edgar Wallace on such fare, and Lycanthropus seems marked as prime trash.

The odd thing is that, in looking past these problems, Lycanthropus isn’t atrocious. The story is structured along lines of what would soon be familiar giallo territory, anticipating such pillars of Euro-horror as Mario Bava’s Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1964), in placing an institution full of young women in danger at the hands of a mysterious killer, and Argento’s Suspiria (1976). It sports nascent giallo visual motifs, from huge close-ups of watching eyes to gloved hands working evil. A suspicion that this project was slightly more elevated than first impressions would suggest is confirmed by the fact director Paolo Heusch directed, the very same year, an adaptation of Pasolini’s novel Una Vita Violenta. That title seems in itself a thematic extension of what Lycanthropus promises to examine, with its bevy of young social refuse at the mercy of manipulative, hypocritical, and murderous representatives of authority and convention. The setting, a liberally administered reformatory for troubled, disturbingly good-looking teenage girls, seems ripe to overtly contrast versions of violence and repression. Such contrasts are, unfortunately, entirely unfulfilled. A proliferation of pretty Germanic faces inhabit the roles whilst the filmmakers’ notions of troubled youth prove tame indeed. Of course, the troubles start with the sluttiest girl in school, Mary (Mary McNeeran), who’s carrying on an affair with one of the school’s patrons, Sir Alistair Whiteman (Maurice Marsac). When she sneaks out one night for a meeting with her sugar daddy, which ends in a flaring argument when she tries to threaten him with blackmail, she’s attacked on her way back by a lurking lycanthrope and dies with some artful blood smears on her face.

The script soon turns into a fishery for the cultivation of red herrings. A new teacher at the school, Julian Olcott (Carl Schell, brother of Maximilian), in spite of his conventional, sensitive Aryan hunkiness, is a ripe candidate for the werewolf, being as he is a former doctor now reduced to teaching science after a trial for medical homicide which resulted in his being acquitted through lack of evidence. But he swears that his travails were the result of his efforts to cure his true amour of her annoying tendency to grow hair and claws during the full moon, and he believes he has deduced a temporary cure for the malady through study of the pituitary gland. Meanwhile, Sir Alistair is employing sleazy school handyman Walter (Luciano Pigozzi) to find some incriminating love letters he wrote to Mary, worried he may be blackmailed, as she was planning to, by her fellows. Sir Alistair’s wife Sheena (Annie Steinert) knows what her husband’s been up to and has her own games to play. It soon becomes clear that a human murderer is at work as well as the werewolf. Confused? So is our heroine, Priscilla (Barbara Lass, who was married to Roman Polanski for a time, poor dear), a doe-eyed schoolgirl of about 30. Having gotten wind of Mary’s trysts and plots, she soon proves inconveniently inquisitive in her determination to find her friend’s killer. She once lived with Mary (possibly a euphemism), and they ended up in the reformatory after Priscilla nearly killed a sailor who had assaulted Mary.

Apart from the often inane English dialogue (“He ran to the top of the stairs!” “That’s impossible…Look there! At the top of the stairs!”), Lycanthropus is hampered by uncertainty of how to work the werewolf motif, which remains just another element amongst the mystery-puzzle shenanigans until close to the end. The many plot complications essentially distract from the central juxtaposition, which could have been wellspring for both strong genre tensions and ideas and a host of exploitative opportunities: placing in close proximity a wealth of transgressive, nubile femininity and a force of explosive masculine violence. When the beast attacks Mary, it tears off her blouse, and his subsequent assaults on Priscilla, where he seems less in a hurry to tear her apart than to fawn over her physique, suggest a drooling hint then of sexualised violence that was, of course, shied away from in the film’s early-’60s context. When the film gets around to concentrating on its werewolf, he proves to be, of course, the conscientious, reasonable director of the reformatory, Swift (Curt Lowens, whose resemblance to Mel Ferrer could be some sort of copyright infringement). Cue the inevitable sequence in which Priscilla approaches him when he has his back to the camera to make an innocent appeal, only for him to turn around in full wolf man mode. Unfortunately, the werewolf is more interesting when Heusch keeps it hidden, offering only brief close-ups of his eyes and toothy, slathering mouth. When he's finally seen in full, he resembles a wino with dental problems.

Heusch does pull off one sequence that possesses the right mix of suggestive erotic peril and strange, tragic violence, as Swift’s lover and assistant Leonor MacDonald (Maureen O'Connor) attempts to utilise Olcott’s cure, injections from a wolf’s pituitary gland, to stabilise the affliction, yielding the intriguing image of a woman trying to restrain and tether her bestial beloved in order to restore his true self. She manages to return him to his human state, only then to be mauled to death by one of her test subject dogs before his eyes, and, when he manages to extract himself from his bonds, furiously clubs the dog to death, Heusch fading out in a close-up on Swift’s crazed face as kills the animal. The portrayed reversal of primal fury, the seemingly calm and decent man of enlightenment overtaken by reactive madness as if plunged right back into a palaeolithic setting in losing his mate, is a potent and interesting expansion of the werewolf symbol, and it’s a moment that conveys the qualities Heusch might have coaxed from better material. Otherwise he settles for shooting the film with a degree of professional fluency, with some admirable photography and lighting in following his characters about the shadowy reaches of the forest and the school’s environs, and the firm visual style makes Lycanthropus an oddly tolerable experience for all its faults.


Sam Juliano said...

I haven't watched this in years, but neither have I forgotten it, as I grew up with this and many others of its ilk. But I will pull back from that condemnation (as you did in this marvelously engaging review)as it's true that beyond the dialogue problems there is an intriguing premise and some fine atmospherics. I love the werewold theme in general, though I guess we didn't get a really good one until year's later with John Landis's AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981). I think of WEREWOLF IN A GIRL'S DORMATORY as a giallo forerunner, a specification you well delineate here. Of course I don't primarily think of the giallo as the terrain of Bava (whose strenth was in the gothic) but it certainly is for Argento. In any case, I have a special fondness for these films, and I am prone to forgive its flaws more than I would with other genres. I have a sneaky suspicion based on this review (and a number of others in this genre) that you are of the same mindset. I remember Mary's murder scene as especially chilling, and there is an erotic undercurrent.

I bet there isn't a more exhaustive review of this film from anyone, since it released. Nice.

Roderick Heath said...

Well Bava is generally recognised as helping invent giallo as we know it (of course elements of giallo and the slasher film had been in movies almost since movies were invented) with stuff like Sei Donne per l'Assassino and Argento simply took it forward by codifying the inflated style; but yeah, Bava was best at outright gothic. You're right about there being a long dearth of werewolf movies - I think Paul Naschy's ones were just about the only even mildly notable ones for nearly twenty years, largely I think because good werewolves require a level of technical heft that was usually lacking to horror filmmakers for a long time. Nothing about this film is even remotely chilling these days, but yeah, I'm always on the lookout for tolerable old horror films, and there's still some pleasure to be wrung out of its otherwise solid production values. Also, this sort of thing is a great yardstick to measure the superiority of the likes of Bava.

Sam Juliano said...

Aye, Rod. Great points in response to me here.

I'd venture to propose the first (and best) segment of Freddie Francis' Amicus production of DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965) with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, an omnibus work which offered a creepy 'werewolf' episode about a curse on a family, and a secret in the celler.

Roderick Heath said...

Drat, I haven't seen Dr Terror's yet. As far as the few werewolf movies of the late-60s-thru-70s go, one I have bizarrely vivid memories of is Worth Keeter and Earl Owensby's bloody weird cheapjack Wolfman from 1979.

Sam Juliano said...

Rod, we're even! Ha! I haven't seen that 1979 cheapie yet myself!

Roderick Heath said...

I doubt many people have. If it wasn't for the fact it's listed in Hardy's Encycopedia of the Horror Film I'd worry that I dreamed the whole thing up.