Saturday, 14 May 2011
Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory
(Paolo Heusch, 1961)
‘Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory’ – ha, awesome. It would serve me right, wouldn’t it, if I threw this DVD on and saw a guy in a werewolf mask, chasing nighty-clad girls around a dorm room - Benny Hill music, fixed camera, seventy minutes.
To be honest, I could probably watch that for quite a while, but when we hit the hour mark my attention may start to drift. So let's be thankful then that the slightly more sophisticated set of images and concepts that comprise ‘Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory’ is both more varied and ultimately more rewarding than that reductive scenario. Rest assured, there is a werewolf, and there is a dormitory, housing girls. Sometimes the girls are in the dormitory, and sometimes the werewolf meets the girls. But at no point is the werewolf actually IN the girls’ dormitory. Close but no cigar, ‘Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory’.
But, we horror fans must harden ourselves to such descriptive inaccuracies. Right from the outset, there are more pressing issues that demand our attention here. My first question: where in time and space could it be located, this strange, nameless institution (it is referred to throughout as ‘the institute’ – apparently it has a reputation to uphold) in which ‘troubled and violent girls’ (who all seem perfectly polite and well behaved to me) are confined to the environs of an Alpine castle, taught to march and parade in military uniform, and instructed in the basics precepts of biology and engineering, all in close proximity to a sizable contingent of deeply suspicious older males..?
Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking GERMANY, 1961. And if a brief IDMB search reveals that ‘Werewolf..’ – sometimes known by the even better title ‘The Ghoul in School’ – is actually one of those confounding Euro co-productions that seem to daringly thumb their nose at the idea of a national cultural identity (it’s bit Austrian, mostly Italian, and it seems to be set in England?), well… all the better!
The body of Mary Smith, a wondering, troubled girl of impure morals, has been discovered on the borders of the surrounding forest, torn apart as if by wild animals.
Our canny protagonist Priscilla (Barbara Lass) reckons something is up, and figures someone is up to no good. A fair assumption, but christ almighty, where to start? Check out this gallery of salty coves, the like of which surely only the most high class of girls’ reform schools can provide:
Walter the creepy caretaker – a limping, reptilian Peter Lorre type character who earns his real living coercing girls into late night ‘rendezvous’ with shadowy aristocratic clients.
Dr Julian Alcott, the new teacher – a dashing young scientist, once a leader in his field, but now disgraced and dragged through the courts for conducting mysterious researches of an immoral and unspeakable nature.
The Principal – supercilious, bland and vague, he’s got a real broom up his ass, like a second rate Christopher Lee giving us ‘respectable gentleman hiding dark secrets’. “The past can become a nightmare unless we can free ourselves of it”, he cautions, apropos of nothing.
Sir Alfred Whiteman – weak and corrupt, unable to curb his quote-unquote ‘sadistic’ sexual appetites, this local dignitary constitutes Walter’s main customer, shamelessly eyeing up the institution’s pupils and maintaining a secret woodland cabin for making their acquaintance, whilst his financial patronage encourages the Principal to turn a blind eye to his proclivities. “You’re not only a thoroughly miserable pervert Alfred, you’re without a doubt a pitiful imbecile”, concludes his wife Sheena.
And as if that wasn’t enough debased masculinity to keep us busy, the film also makes sure to throw in regular glimpses of the most werewolfin’ looking guy you ever saw in your life, just to keep us on our toes;
So I’ll level with you: I love ‘Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory’. Well, maybe not love, but I like it a lot, at least. Something about it really gets under my skin. No way am I going to try to sell you on the idea that it’s a great movie though - it really kinda isn’t. The plot is boring and overcomplicated, the pacing slow and repetitious. The werewolf scenes are pretty cool, but for the most part the direction is blandly proficient, and much of the dialogue (at least in the English dub) is absolutely excruciating. So what is it about this film that I find so deeply evocative, so weirdly captivating..?
Well if you’ll forgive me a heterosexual male moment, the fact that our lead is such a ragin’ cutie certainly helps. (Christened Barbara Kwiatkowska, Polish actress Lass was actually married to Roman Polanski between 1959 and 1962, it says here.)
Far from the complex and testing experiences one might expect to accompany a three year Polanski marriage/divorce cycle, Priscilla’s narrative here begins as something straight out of a ‘Girl’s Own’ adventure story – a simple tale of junior school detection, hidden letters, rumours of romantic intrigue and good-hearted chums… but one that, as you might expect given the line-up of ne’erdowells above, is almost immediately rerouted into dark and troublesome psychic territory.
There is a strange sub-conscious power hanging over the strictly confined, unreal world of this film. The careful delineation of ‘the school’ and ‘the woods’, with the latter comprising a different zone where different rules apply, strongly recalls David Lynch’s similar use of the forest in ‘Twin Peaks’ – a place where young girls consort with older men, where cabins are maintained for sinister though somehow obscure purpose; where magical powers hold sway and menace and fascination mingle. The ritualism that accompanies entrance into this other zone (the same shots of characters closing the barred school gates behind them and crossing the stone bridge over the rushing stream that borders the forest are repeated again & again), makes the sense of crossing beyond the barrier of safety into a land of unknown possibilities deliciously palpable.
What is beyond the woods? Who knows. As mentioned, we don’t even know where ‘the institute’ is, geographically speaking. Most of the accents, the map on the wall of the classroom and the presence of a peer of the realm, would seem to imply a British setting, but the mountains, the wild wolves roaming the forest and the incessant cricket noise (um, the insect I mean, not the sport) during the night time scenes would tend to mitigate against this assumption. No one ever refers to the outside world anyway, so it doesn’t really matter. True, men come from outside, including a grumpy police detective. But with the growling creatures that lurk in the darkness, the shuddersome fates of those who try to venture beyond, how could a mere girl ever cross the forest and discover the world beyond?
The same effect that Lynch achieves so perfectly in many of his films - presenting the parallel existence of a respectable surface world and a confusing, sinister underworld, implying a conflict between the rational, conscious mind and the abstract horrors of unconscious desire – ‘Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory’ seems to blunder into almost by accident, and, all mixed up with the female adolescent terrors that so often seem to accompany werewolf mythos (the lunar cycles, the menstrual blood, the thesis/antithesis/fusion(?) of the innocent virgin and slobbering predator; none directly addressed here, but surely lurking in the background), well..uh.. I dunno… I just find all that stuff kinda awesome.
And, just as Twin Peaks used a mystery/soap opera framework to present viewers with uncomfortable issues rarely addressed in the era’s popular culture, the general tone of ‘Werewolf..’ is veeery sleazy for a 1961 production. Whilst obviously devoid of graphic content, the film’s implications of abuse and exploitation are clear. The scene in which Walter ogles Priscilla - “I do believe that money makes a person do anything, don’t you?” he hisses - is enough to genuinely make your skin crawl.
In fact the film’s unashamed exploration of teenage prostitution is as daring as it is unsavoury. As in Twin Peaks, the fairytale unreality of the woodland setting, the blind eye turned to this underworld by those in authority (for what reason, other than their own complicity?) sets up a barrier that somehow blurs the true nastiness of these crimes, rather than emphasising it. What happens in the woods, stays in the woods: everyone seems to know the score, and it is only when a mutilated body turns up that the secrets of this ‘other’ realm must be reluctantly and perfunctorally investigated.
Although formally speaking ‘Werewolf..’ is, as noted, a pretty unremarkable movie, complete with robotic performances, boilerplate direction, bland production design and an infuriatingly generic musical score, the weight of the film’s psychic/subconscious detritus seems to invade every aspect of the potentially lacklustre production, imbuing it with an atmosphere of woozy, nocturnal eroticism.
The constantly repeated transition/journey shots, the strangely graceful camera movements and drifting, ‘Night of the Living Dead’-style reverbed music cues… constant imitation moonlight and canned wolf howls… the single, blurred figures walking through the empty dorm room, the pungent undergrowth and barred windows… approach it in the right frame of mind and this is one damn strange and beautiful little movie.
Made in that gloriously peculiar period after the box office demand for horror started to take off, but before the European horror film started to cohere into the familiar formulas of gothic castle horrors, throwback ‘50s monster movies, proto-giallo shockers and so on, ‘Werewolf..’ can maybe best be filed alongside those awesome German krimi films, black n’ white era Jess Franco efforts and one off nut-fests like ‘Mill of the Stone Women’ or ‘Bloody Pit of Horror’ – brilliantly idiosyncratic affairs that seem like horror films made by people who didn’t watch many horror films, throwing in different elements from all over with an odd sort of creative fervour, amping up the oneiric weirdness and hoping it’ll all cohere into something sellable. Whether or not this one proved sellable, I’ll have to plead ignorance, but what can I say – it worked for me.
Being the chump that I am, I bought ‘Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory' on a bootleg DVD, but you can stream or download exactly the same print I’ve got from archive.org here.