Its title, Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory, does the movie no service, other than to place butts in car seats at the drive-in when it was released in 1961 (on a double bill with Corridors of Blood.) As David Del Valle notes in his commentary with actor Curt Lowens on the recent Severin Blu-ray release, Werewolf in a Girls’ Reformatory would be more accurate. However, I favor the original title, Lycanthropus, and wonder how much sooner I would have watched it had I realized it was the same film.
This is not a z-grade horror flick. It’s a rare example of a werewolf movie made during, as Del Valle calls it, “the height of Italian horror.” Yes, Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory, aka Lycanthropus is Euro-horror. While this fact doesn’t automatically make it a better movie, it does cause me to examine it through a different lens. Stylistically, I expect more, and that’s what we get… beautiful lights and shadows, and a haunting score (soundtrack included in the Blu-ray package.)
When Dr. Julian Olcott escapes his troubled past in London and arrives to take a teaching position at a remote girls’ reformatory, he enters a world of blackmail and deceit. The least of his worries is that there appears to be a werewolf running around killing young women. If not for early shots of monstrous eyes peering from the woods, it’s not certain that something supernatural is afoot; anyone and everyone could be a suspect of some kind of crime.
Like most mysteries, there are obvious red herrings. I never really expected that (spoiler) caretaker Walter Jeoffrey (Luciano Pigozzi, the Peter Lorre of Italy) was responsible for murder. He’s too obvious a choice. We also have other potentially sinister characters like Director Swift (Lowens), Sir Alfred Whiteman (Maurice Marsac), Leonor MacDonald (Grace Neame), Sheena Whiteman (Annie Steinert), Tommy, the Porter, (Joseph Mercier), and Olcott himself.
The werewolf makeup is unique, less hair and more rubbery misshapenness. (Del Valle repeatedly states it reminds him of Henry Hull in 1935’s Werewolf of London.) More gruesome to me was the corpse of the first victim with contorted body and eyes frozen in an unsettling downward stare. Olcott also probes an open wound with his fingers; it’s bloodless, but nevertheless squirm inducing. Other effects, like falling bodies are almost shocking in their simplicity.
Ernesto Gastaldi, the great and prolific screenwriter, even throws in a bit of giallo with a mystery man/woman that wears a trench coat and black leather gloves. It’s not the primary focus of Lycanthropus, but knowing what’s to start coming out of Italian cinema, it’s fun to see a hint of it here. His dialogue adds to the imagery of the film. For example, an eyewitness says she saw the killer “twisting on the bridge,” rather than fleeing, after he/she murdered his/her first victim.
My only real complaint with Lycanthropus is the lack of suspense when revealing the identity of the killer. After a revelation about Olcott’s past that explains his arrival at this particular girls’ reformatory, and a dwindling number of suspects, it’s matter-of-factly revealed. The good news is that the rest of the movie is a lot of silly fun. We get plenty of werewolf action and a satisfactory conclusion, ending with a lovely shot of the full moon reflecting in the pool of a fountain.
In Bad Moon Rising, a bonus feature on the Severin Blu-ray, Gastaldi admits that if he were writing Lycanthropus today, he’d wait to reveal the werewolf. Overall, he thinks the movie is slow, but that it still works. He explains that during his process of writing, he first creates the characters and they just “come to life.” I agree that the film does a better job than most of creating characters and situations that would produce a compelling movie even without the horrific aspect of a werewolf.
In the pages of Scary Monsters Magazine #27, Llowens comments on filming the climactic scene, referenced above as the “good news” after the big reveal…
It took a long time to shoot. It was a great challenge. It was a wonderful scene to play, and my intuition was good in playing the part. The simple secret of acting is to relate to what is going on around you. A lot of emotion went into this scene. There was remorse. There was love, since there was a relationship between Lenore and me.
When asked if he would have done another horror film if it was offered to him at the time, Lowens answered…
I would have. I later did films such as The Mephisto Waltz (1971) and Mandroid (1993.) I had no regrets about doing Lycanthopus. It was so offbeat and marvelous.
Any time there’s a Dark Shadows, connection, I’ll mention it. Lowens interviewed with Joe Dante for the role in Piranha (1978) that eventually went to Kevin McCarthy. Barbara Steele was in Piranha. Lowens met Steele later when he did voice-overs for Dan Curtis on Winds of War and War & Remembrance and the two reminisced about working in Italy. (Also, Steele played Dr. Julia Hoffman in the 1991 revival of Dark Shadows.)
The commentary on the Blu-ray is a mixed bag, but I’d listen to the distinguished and polite Lowens read the phone book. Del Valle tries to talk about the filmmaking, while Lowens is focused on the plot, and the two sometimes speak over each other. My favorite discussion was about what brought these Italian horror films to such prominence between 1959 and 1971. Lowens said it was still “post-war” and a hint of the war remained.
Looking back on it, Lowens said in Scary Monsters Magazine…
I watched the film again recently, and it seems to have held up quite well. You know, there is always room for improvement, but the film created the needed humanity and menace, especially in the nasty moments. It becomes quite scary, and for that I give myself a pat on the back.
Written by Ernesto Gastaldi
Directed by Paolo Heusch
Starring Barbara Lass, Carl Schell, Cart Lowens, Maurice Marsac, Grace Neame, Luciano Pigozzi, Annie Steinert
RT 85 min.
Original Release Date (Nov. 9, 1961, Italy)
US Release Date June 5, 1963
Home Video Severin Films (Blu-ray)
Paul Parla and Charles P. Mitchell, Scary Monsters Magazine #27, Curt Lowens, Lycanthropus: Recalling Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory and Other Roles
June, 1998, United States, Dennis Druktenis Publishing & Mail Order, Inc.