Monday, September 11, 2017

"Understanding the Mental Ills and the Psychological Problems of Mankind" - Werewolf Woman (1976)

I am no expert, but I do not believe there are many Italian werewolf films in your universe. A quick search turns up a few with which I am unfamiliar: an Ursus movie by Antonio Margheriti and Ruggero Deodato in which a sorceror turns men into werewolves, Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory (1961), and something called Versipellis. In general, however, I believe the Americans and the Spaniards have historically been more interested in werewolves, which is something of a shame given the spectacularly erudite Italian contribution to the genre, Werewolf Woman (1976) aka La Lupa Mannara.

 As is often the case with Italian films, the critics of your universe  completely miss the intellectual depth of the film. On IMDB, reviewer lazarillo writes, "This is NOT a good movie. Nor is it really even 'so-bad-its-good.'" TheMarquisDeSuave writes, "Unfortunately, the film becomes pretty irritating fast. There's no actual plot or anything else really." The_Void writes, "Normally, I enjoy films like this; but Werewolf Woman is indeed a bad film, and despite all the sex and savagery on display; it doesn't even make for a fun watch, and that really is unforgivable."

Unforgivable? No, entirely forgivable, as we shall soon see...

The film begins in an attention-getting manner, with a nude woman dancing in the middle of a ring of fire to unseen drums. She appears to be an accomplished dancer, that is until she falls to the dirt and writhes around, unable to breathe.

The dancing woman becomes the titular werewolf woman, though we unfortunately do not see the transformation. Instead, as she is transforming, the camera moves to a patch of what might be wolfsbane as a narrator intones the poetic introduction:

"And on the night of the full moon, the howl of the werewolf will be heard. Its terrible cry will make men tremble. They will close their shutters and bolt their doors. Then the werewolf will begin searching for food, tearing to pieces whomever crosses its path. And when fully satisfied, it will go back in hiding in the depths of the woods, until the next full moon. And if it finds a pack of real wolves, it will join them. Not until it is discovered and killed, not until after death, will it regain its human appearance."

There is much to learn from this classic treatise (I particularly enjoy the part about closing shutters and bolting doors). For one thing, werewolves are not real wolves, and will join real wolves in their pack. I did not know that prior to this film. For a second thing, a werewolf will remain a werewolf until death, never transforming back into a human until after death. Fascinating!

The mythology matters little at this point in the film, however, as the camera pans back to the dancing woman, who has become a werewolf, and quite clearly is still a nude woman as well.

A group of roughly 100 torch-wielding villagers, some of them carrying two torches at once and one carrying a large rake, move through the forest in search of the werewolf.

The titular werewolf woman is skillful at evading the villagers, however, probably due to the fact that her nose is clearly the most wolf-like part of her transformed body.

Without being detected, she pounces on one of the villagers and bites his throat. Then, for good measure, she picks up a nearby hatchet and buries it bloodily in his head.

The villagers somehow manage to tie the titular werewolf woman to a stake and begin to burn her to death, when...

...the woman wakes up, screaming. It was only a dream, and it is modern day.

Her Borgninian father bursts into her bedroom, having heard her screaming. Before she can say anything, he asks, "What is it darling? What's the matter? Are you dreaming? Why did you scream? Did you have a nightmare? What is it, dear? Did you have a bad dream?"

A visit to a doctor gives the filmmakers a good reason to explain the father's family background. The family's ancestor was the medieval werewolf woman, the protagonist of a fairy tale discovered by the man's adult daughter. Also, the girl was raped years ago, which prompted a move to their house in the country--coincidentally, the house is near the site where the ancestor werewolf woman was burned for lycanthropy. Also, the girl, Daniela, has a sexual phobia due to the rape, a condition which her father describes as unfortunate.

Also, the man, who is a count, has another daughter who is in America studying nuclear physics at Berkeley.

The highly articulate doctor is worried about Daniela's state of mind, especially when he sees she resembles her ancestor, as shown in an old miniature brooch. "The violence she experienced, this kind of attraction that she bears for the past, the nightmares, the old paper she found in the attic...but above all, her extraordinary resemblance to this old miniature here...constitute a progression of facts that are heterogeneous, the components of which can be sought by psychiatrists or the phenomenon of parapsychology."

He concludes: "My dear count, when science decides to contribute more time to the study of extrasensory phenomena, I think that within 50 years we will make more progress in understanding the mental ills and the psychological problems of mankind than our men of culture have done throughout the centuries...and without being called visionaries, prophets, or saints...or even crazy."

After such profundity, we can only cut to Daniela swimming and then sunbathing in a bikini.

The plot takes a turn when Daniela's redheaded sister Elena arrives from Berkeley with her husband Fabian in tow. As a flashback shows us, Fabian is a dead ringer for the man Daniela's ancestor, the titular werewolf woman, killed in the Middle Ages.

This realization makes Daniela stare through the window at the full moon outside, then run upstairs to her room, taking two steps at a time.

There is nothing Daniela can do but stare at herself in her bedroom mirror and bare her breasts.

Finally, Daniela's sexual repression gets the better of her. She has a vision of a woman with bloody arms telling her to come with her. She has another vision of a large, less-than-happy-looking lizard lying on top of her.

When she spies on her sister having what can only be described as "Eurotrash" sex with her husband, Daniela snaps, which entails walking briskly outside into the moonlight.

Outside, she has a vision of a noblewoman that could be the living personification of the full moon. "You belong to us," the noblewoman says.

Fabian--unwisely, or perhaps wisely, depending on your point of view--chases Daniela into the forest. She strips and seduces him on the lawn. Then she bites his throat out, all without even turning into the titular werewolf woman.

She awakens in a hospital bed, attended by her family doctor and a man who may or may not be Peter Sellers.

After the representatives of medical science poke, prod, and grope her--including using a stethoscope on top of her hospital gown to check her heartbeat--her doctor believes she shows signs of lupus.

The doctor tells the count, "It's utterly imperative to make sure her brain's energy isn't released due to tension, of which we don't really know, sir."

"How terrible," says the count.

Daniela reveals the true depths of her mental illness when her sister visits and Daniela says she hates her because her sister enjoys sex. She calls her sister a whore, forcing the doctors to order her tied up. Later she calls her nurse a whore, which is unsuccessful in convincing the woman to untie her.

Eventually, a nymphomaniac patient sneaks into the room, untying Daniela and exciting her sexually. This has the perhaps predictable effect of influencing Daniela to commit murder with a pair of large scissors lying next to the bed. It also allows Daniela to escape the hospital.

In a hospital closet, she finds medical scrubs and a red vinyl raincoat hanging up. She takes the red raincoat and flees.

Daniela hides in a female doctor's car. After driving for a few hours, the doctor notices Daniela in the mirror. Daniela performs the unwise act, common in movies, of murdering the driver of the car in which she is a passenger (see, for example, Haunts - She commits this murder by repeatedly banging the doctor's head against the steering wheel.

Daniela's killing spree continues. Through bales of hay, she spies on young lovers trysting in a barn, then rips out the woman's throat with her teeth.

Later, in a morgue, two detectives investigate the body of the young woman. One of the detectives is reminded of the old legends his grandmother used to tell. "If anyone is born on Christmas Eve, he will turn into a werewolf."

The other detective thinks long and hard. "I've got a hunch that that story of your grandmother's wasn't exactly a fantasy."

Meanwhile, Daniela has hitched a ride with an older gentleman in a convertible Volkswagen. He takes her to his swinger apartment in the country and changes into a silk robe. "I've made myself comfortable. You should do the same as I do."

When she rejects him, they get into a fistfight. He says, "Come on, you big whore! I'm gonna rape you! I'm gonna rape you!" So she is quite justified in noisily ripping out his throat.

A meeting of the minds occurs between the detective and the family doctor. "We all ourselves belong to one immense entity that's universal and to us remains unknown," says the doctor.

"A very interesting theory," says the detective. "And somewhat fascinating."

"And logical," the doctor adds.

Daniela's next male companion is a stuntman for Westerns who drives her to his house. Daniela is confused that this man seems to be a nice guy. He says somewhat obliquely, "The women I've had up to now have always come to me of their own free will, understand?"

His unwillingness to rape her saves her life, at least for the time being.

In the morning, she finds him at the Western film set and, apparently in a trance, she shoots him. Of course, the gun is a prop and he survives. Symbolically, she has committed the murder she is compelled to commit, but she is now free to express her sexual desire to him--by running on a beach.

The filmmakers include a montage of the happy couple, including a movie stunt ending in a warm embrace.

But the full moon rises, and Daniela, like most women would be, is tempted to murder her boyfriend. In the Western movie set where she and her boyfriend have lived for a month, she stares longingly at a white dinner plate, reminded of the full moon.

Fortunately for Daniela's compulsions, she is beset by a group of three men intent on raping her. She bites one of the men, but they overpower her and brutally rape her. When her boyfriend returns home, they kill him with a knife after an extended Western-style fight scene.

Daniela snaps, but not until the next day. She watches two men who may or may not have been the ones raping her as the men crush cars in a junkyard. She gets her (possible) revenge by crushing them in a car, showing off her impressive crane-operating skills.

Next, she burns another man's house to the ground by using a match.

After her (possible) revenge, Daniela returns to the forest near her father's country house. She has returned to an almost bestial state, cooking with an iron pot over a fire like her ancestors.

The police find her, shining their flashlights like the torches of the villagers 200 years earlier. Daniela sets fire to the forest so they won't approach her. But the policemen simply walk around the fire and arrest her, taking her into custody without incident.

In a voiceover, the detective's voice says, "Elena Masseri, Daniela's sister, died in a mental hospital on September 23, 1968. Count Masseri committed suicide. Obviously, the names of persons and places have been changed, and any reference to actual persons or events is purely coincidental." The entire story has been based on true events!

Werewolf Woman gives its audience a werewolf and it gives its audience a woman. For that alone, it is to be commended. However, it is more than simply a werewolf and a woman. It is a sophisticated philosophical statement about man's understanding of mental illness, drawn with careful ambiguity so that one is never sure whether Daniela is truly a werewolf or simply a woman (Spoiler: She is simply a woman. With mental illness. And extremely strong teeth.)

The implication from the final narration that the film is based on a true story is only the fascinating icing on the proverbial cake. One could only hope for a true-crime documentary about the case in which the Italian count moved his family to the country after his daughter's rape, after which the daughter began to believe she was the reincarnation of a werewolf ancestor and killed everyone who sexually aroused her until she found true love with a stuntman and moved in with him on a Western movie set.

As the film moves to its climax, the directors exchange thrilling throat-ripping and lustful seduction with a violent rape scene only a notch below that in the original I Spit on Your Grave (1978). Daniela is attacked with such savagery, including multiple punches to the face, and such verbal profanity that the film, in its last act, becomes a concentrated rape-revenge film. Although some sensitive viewers might feel this transformation leaps over the boundaries of good taste, it skillfully gives purpose to the final act of the film (even though, to me, it is unclear that the objects of Daniela's revenge are the same men who raped her). In any case, the shift in tones is a reflection of director Rino di Silvestro's cinematic intelligence, as it mirrors the transformation of the titular werewolf woman from a harmless, even catatonic, presence into something much more dangerous and cruel.