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Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory

by Glenn Erickson Nov 05, 2019

Italian horror from the early 1960s covers a wide range of quality, from eerie hauntings to tacky vampire romps. For one of his first major credits, ace giallo scribe Ernesto Gastaldi cooks up Lycanthropus, a murder mystery in which the savage slashing is committed by a drooling maniac with a hairy face, wild eyes and saber-toothed fangs. You saw the poster out front, kid — do you think it might be … a werewolf?  Director Paolo Heusch’s thriller is no classic, but neither is it stupid — and the original Italian language option on this disc reveals good work by a spirited cast. Dreamy Polish starlet Barbara Lass is a much more assertive, independent female than what we expect from conventional Italo horror fare.

Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory
(Lycanthropus)
Blu-ray
Severin Films
1961 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 85 min. / Street Date November 12, 2019 / 34.98
Starring: Barbara Lass (Kwiatkowska), Carl Schell, Curt Lowens, Maurice Marsac, Luciano Pigozzi, Grace Neame, Michela Roc, Mary McNeeran, Annie Steinert, John Karlsen.
Cinematography: Renatol Del Frate
Film Editor: Julian Attenborough
Original Music: Francis Berman (Armando Trovajoli)
Written by Julian Berry (Ernesto Gastaldi)
Produced by Jack Forrest (Guido Girambartolomei
Directed by
Richard Benson (Paolo Heusch)

 

 

If the IMDB is correct (hey, often it is!) Paolo Heusch’s Italo shocker Lycanthropus arrived six months after Hammer’s sensational The Curse of the Werewolf; it might indeed have been produced partly in response to the English hit. In 1961, few dud werewolf movies were on the books. In the heady Universal heyday, both Henry Hull and Lon Chaney Jr. committed classic performances (and make-ups) to film, and Columbia’s less inspiring Matt Willis werewolf was at least respectable. Herman Cohen injected some youth appeal into the interesting I Was a Teenage Werewolf; both Michael Landon’s regressed high-schooler and Steven Ritch’s The Werewolf of a year earlier have distinctive designs. Landon wins by a furry nose because his shape-shifter had sex appeal, whereas Ritch’s seemed weighed down with loser-noir angst.

Nope, word that Hammer was cooking up a werewolf tale is probably what got the gears going for this quickie Italo werewolf picture. Of all the wolf men listed above, Oliver Reed’s silver-furred, ferocious bruiser is the only one really to challenge Lon Jr. and Jack Pierce. So far, Rome’s response to Hammer horror had turned up at least two excellent thrillers about a reincarnated witch and a seductive ghost girl in a spooky mill. A werewolf picture requires a sophisticated makeup transformation, a challenge that was too much for the odd 1960 effort Seddok, l’erede di Satana.

 

Lycanthropus was recut and re-titled Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory for a U.S. MGM release two years later. It has some of the drawbacks of low-budget Italo genre pictures of this time, but in general comes off just fine. We readers of Famous Monsters of Filmland loved the photos of its fanged werewolf, his face distorted in a snarling, feral grimace. But with most Italo horror we had to wait thirty-to-fifty years to see cuts of the original movies. Severin Films gives us a high quality widescreen encoding, with a choice of audio tracks.

Severin’s presentation of the Italian version jumps right into a giallo-like string of serial murders in a low-security reformatory for promising female rehabilitees. The main title graphics aren’t particularly impressive, and nostalgic monster kids might miss the amiable lunacy of the title song heard in the American recut, The Ghoul in School.

 

The original film wastes no time setting up a savage murder mystery, with plenty of potential suspects. Dr. Julian Olcott (Carl Schell) shows up to teach at the rural reformatory school run by the friendly Director Swift (Curt Lowens) and his associate Leonor MacDonald (Maureen O’Connor). Swift isn’t telling anyone that the new instructor is a medical doctor as well; Julian has a shady past. Inmate Mary (Mary McNeeran) has been sneaking out to sleep with Sir Alfred Whiteman (Maurice Marsac), a cad that  has found that false hopes for an early release makes reform school girls into pliable sex partners. The unhappy Mary threatens to expose Sir Alfred, and is later attacked by some kind of animal.

When the police investigate everyone becomes a suspect. Beautiful student Priscilla (Barbara Lass) tries to prove Mary was murdered, but only angers the cops, and draws the ire of Sir Alfred’s jealous wife. Sir Alfred pays the school custodian Walter (Peter Lorre lookalike Alan Collins, aka Luciano Pigozzi) to recover some compromising letters. More people die under suspicious circumstances, and the townspeople decide that Walter is the savage killer. Just as Julian and Priscilla begin to feel mutually attracted, he becomes a suspect as well — a dog attacked the unseen killer, and Julian is nursing a hurt arm. Director Swift trusts Julian so much that he withholds suspicious facts from the police. But how many more reformatory coeds will be slain?

Paolo Heusch labored in the lower commercial trenches just as Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda’s horror work was being accepted as art in some quarters. It would take a researcher of Tim Lucas’s caliber to explain why, for 1958’s La morte viene dallo spazio (The Day the Sky Exploded), Bava did the actual directing while Heusch took the credit. Lycanthropus is reasonably well directed, with good camera moves and nicely blocked dialogue scenes. The carefully contrived thriller makes a monster the center of a German-style krimi murder mystery, in a reform school with incredibly casual rules.

→ Barbara Lass’s Priscilla and other student guest-inmates hop the reformatory wall almost nightly, for various reasons. In Roman Polanski’s later masterpiece The Fearless Vampire Killers, when Sharon Tate’s schoolgirl tells an admirer that ‘We used to go over the wall at school. Did all kinds of things,” is it possibly a reference to Lycanthropus?  Barbara Lass was previously Barbara Kwiatkowska, the first wife of Roman Polanski, and she appeared in at least two of his famous student films, Two Men and a Wardrobe and When Angels Fall.

(Both Polanski short subjects are included on Criterion’s DVD disc of Knife in the Water. I believe that Polanski adapted a stunning visual moment in When Angels Fall for a key scene in The Fearless Vampire Killers.)

In Lycanthropus, Barbara Lass and Carl Schell’s names are above the title. With her enormous eyes, cautious attitude and strong personality, Polish actress Lass makes Priscilla an excellent central character. In her trench coat and short hairstyle Priscilla reminds us of Juliet Mayniel in Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face.  That shocker had enormous influence on subsequent Eurohorror fare, and  Lycanthropus is no exception — it shows a dog going under the knife in a mad-lab scene. We know that Kwiatkoska changed her stage name to Lass several movies previous to this one, but we wonder if some of the other actresses took completely fake names for this movie — in the IMDB, ‘Mary McNeeran,’ ‘Grace Neame,’ ‘Anna Steinert,’ ‘Anne-Marie Avis,”Lucy Derleth’ and others have no other credits. But these  background students seem quite professional. The dozen ‘ballerinas’ in Polselli’s L’amante del vampiro are more of a random assortment of hopefuls, perhaps personally recruited (cough) by the producer.

The show is greatly aided by decent lighting. The night exteriors are filmed night-for-night instead of cheated. Every once in a while a striking shot appears, and attractive leading lady Barbara Lass is consistently given careful glamour treatment. The location is said to be the same villa seen in the previous year’s L’amante del vampiro. The HD scan reveals that a crude matte trick has attempted to give the large building a new roof … perhaps to make it look less like a Roman villa?

 

Like several other Eurohorror pix from around this year, Lycanthropus is a tad talky and slowly paced. Simple cutaways linger as long as possible, perhaps to maximize the running time. A snappier editing rhythm might have helped. It would be a great editing exercise to see if scenes could be accelerated, or some extra exposition dropped. How much could be taken out?

As evidenced by those great old still photos, Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory billboards a pretty good monster, a more frenzied and feral version of Henry Hull’s Werewolf of London, with larger fangs that he bares in grotesque snarls. The monster is first seen as a pair of angry eyes, like The Curse of the Werewolf’s Oliver Reed. When we finally see a full transformation, it is not accomplished as actor Curt Lowens says in an interview, with matched dissolves. A series of cut-backs to a man chained to a wall reveal a more distorted face and fangs, in stages.  The scene is well done, if perhaps too leisurely-paced. This werewolf could receive a ticket for loitering.

The mystery plotting is so thorough that one can imagine the Lycanthropus script adapted for an episode of Murder, She Wrote — a lot of time and energy is expended talking about missing evidence, untrustworthy characters and good people hiding suspicious secrets. Barbara Lass is effective even in the dubbed version; in the original Italian cut most everyone makes a good impression, with Curt Lowens and Luciano Pigozzi coming across especially well. ← The voice talent dubbing Pigozzi into English tries to inflect a Peter Lorre quality, without being too obvious. Handsome Carl Schell is the brother of Maria and Maximillian Schell. He’s a little stiff in dialogue scenes, but not bad.

Gorehounds may be upset that the wolf attacks leave none of the bloody slaughterhouse tableaux that became an important aspect of later werewolf pix, namely An American Werewolf in London. The censorable sex content is limited to a few cutaways to reform school girls on their dormitory beds, screaming with the fronts of their nightgowns draped open. The producer probably leaned on the cameraman to get these, as pickup shots. I don’t remember them from the American cut.


 

Severin Films’ Blu-ray of Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory is billed as ‘scanned in 2k from archival elements recently discovered in a Rome lab vault.’ That sounds good enough for me. Some scenes ‘breathe’ a bit (due to warpage?) but otherwise the show looks fine. The ‘archival element’ is likely not a lo-con or duping negative, as the contrast is a bit high — faces can sometimes be a little detail-challenged. In every other respect the show is in near perfect shape.

The mono audio sounds great too, especially Armando Trovajoli’s ‘suspenso’ music track. It’s nothing very original or different, but it fits the show well — lots of bassoon flourishes, and feverish runs up and down the low-end piano keys. The packaging doesn’t mention it, but Severin’s Blu-ray release includes a 14- cue soundtrack CD of Armando Trovajoli’s music score.

Previous to this presentation I’ve seen only the dicey Retromedia DVD taken from a splicy print and transferred flat-letterboxed. In 2003 we were grateful to get it. The American title has a joky spin that was unusual back in the early ’60s. The title may remind some fans of the Billy Wilder movie The Seven Year Itch.  In that show, pocketbook editor Tom Ewell’s republishes a sleazy edition of Louisa Mae Alcott’s Little Women, but retitled as Confessions of a Girl’s Dormitory.

 

Severin tacks on some satisfying extras. David Gregory’s Italian connection Federico Caddeo comes up with a longform interview with writer Ernesto Gastaldi, who talks about his early work in reference to Lycanthropus. Gastaldi has a good attitude, and is sharp as a tack. Unlike so many Italian genre filmmakers, he doesn’t just run off at the mouth as soon as the video camera is turned on. The ten-minute piece is dated 2019. Gastaldi looks to be in great shape.

From the old Retromedia disc comes David Del Valle’s worthy commentary, which is partly an interview with the film’s star Curt Lowens, who passed away in 2017. David provides the facts and Lowens contributes some insights of his own, including a detailed description of the film’s complicated makeup he wore. Del Valle pegs most of the relevant ideas behind the film, relating it to more prestigious Italian productions. Later in the commentary the discussion drifts far afield, with Lowens talking about roles he didn’t get, but unless you’ve read every issue of Video Watchdog there’ll be some new information here. I wasn’t pleased by a couple of unnecessary verbal slights directed at Roman Polanski, but that’s Del Valle’s call. The commentary begins late in the titles, because the American title sequence was much shorter. Adjustments are made throughout the picture as well. Del Valle recorded to a U.S cut 83.21 minutes long, and Lycanthropus on Blu-ray clocks out at 84:33.

Long ago, correspondent Charles Lindsay explained why The Fortunes’ song The Ghoul in School didn’t appear on Retromedia’s old disc presentation. Charles asked Retromedia’s Fred Olen Ray about the song at a Chiller Theatre convention. Ray said Turner owns the rights to the song but not the movie, and would not give him permission to use it. Other readers confirmed that the song did indeed once play over the titles. One reader actually had the original 45 rpm record. Turner has the rights because MGM produced the song in ’62 In response to Bobby Boris Pickett’s The Monster Mash. But it was also definitely a publicity tie-in for a specific MGM double bill of Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory and the almost-great Corridors of Blood, an English picture starring Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, that had gone unreleased here for five years. The lyrics of The Ghoul in School even mention the title Corridors of Blood.

Several months ago, when Severin announced this disc, the immediate buzz was that the English track would be sort of a repremiere for The Ghoul in School. We were told that the song still couldn’t be included, and yes, indeed, the English track just borrows the Trovajoli cue from the Italian version. But hey! an ‘alternate opening’ extra turns out to be the brief U.S. main title sequence. It is backed with a few measures of the song in question, 26 seconds’ worth.

An okay-looking U.S. trailer begins with a snippet of the song. It and the rest of the advertising display the official title as “Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory (The Ghoul in School!)”. The much longer Italian trailer (they can really drag those things out) is present in perfect condition.

Now this review has got me humming The Ghoul in School. Its bouncy girl-group pop song beat feels perfect for 1961. The vocal opening is similar to ‘Leader of the Pack’; it features a Peter Lorre imitator; and a ‘yeah yeah yeah’ refrain sounds like it belongs in the songbook for the 1982 musical Little Shop of Horrors.

And that original title Lycanthropus: Had somebody just seen the Roman theatrical run of Dinosaurus?  Or did Ernesto Gastaldi just have a thing for classy latin words, as with Raptus, one of the alternate titles for his classic The Horrible Doctor Hitchcock?

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory
Blu-ray
rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good +
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interview with Ernesto Gastaldi; 2003 commentary with David Del Valle and Curt Lowens; two trailers, alternate title sequence and soundtrack CD.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray and one CD in Keep case
Reviewed:
November 3, 2019
(6123were)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.