[Tearing Through Werewolf Cinema] 'Werewolf in a Girl's Dormitory' Marked Italy's First Foray into the Werewolf Genre
Welcome to a weekly series in which Doris V. Sutherland takes readers on a trip through the history of werewolf cinema...
...Taking place in a school for troubled girls, Werewolf in a Girls Dormitory (originally released in Italy in 1961 as Lycanthropus) decides to put those girls through still more trouble. One of their number, Mary (Mary McNeeran) turns up dead and mutilated, her death apparently the result of an animal attack. But her surviving classmates suspect foul play – and turn out to be right, although the play is rather fouler than they had ever imagined.
I Was a Teenage Werewolf started a vogue for teen-oriented monster movies, but while filmmakers were eager to put adolescent vampires, cavemen and Frankensteins on screen, they showed reluctance to return to the werewolf well. At least, that is, until an Italian team including director Paolo Heusch and screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi gave the world Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory, marking their country’s first foray into cinematic lycanthropy.
The film’s premise came with pre-packed potential for an interesting variation on the theme. The setting is an all-girls’ reform school, yet we learn early on that the prowling werewolf is male – meaning that one of the staff members is responsible. Where I Was a Teenage Werewolf used lycanthropy as a metaphor for the turmoil of adolescence, Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory does something different, instead telling a story of vulnerable young women facing the unwanted attention of unscrupulous men.
Structured as a whodunit, the film builds a gallery of possible culprits. One teacher is revealed to have previously been embroiled in a controversy involving a girl’s death. Another teacher had an affair with one of his pupils; his letters to her turn up in a blackmail subplot, while his wife is left with a hatred and mistrust of the students she sees as universally immoral and promiscuous.
A volatile situation all-round, then, and an intriguing set of dynamics relating to repression and predation. The film is clearly aware of its subtext: although not as overtly sexual as many later Italian horrors, it still has a stronger erotic charge than any pre-sixties werewolf movie, as can be seen when the lycanthrope begins unbuttoning the shirt of his first victim before the camera discreetly cuts away. All the material needed to make an oddball classic is here – but much of the film’s potential is squandered by its lacklustre execution.
One flaw is the terrible dialogue, although this does at least manage multiple flavours of terrible. For much of the time it’s weirdly dry and inert: one character, confronted with a student’s gruesome death, intones “I fear that the good name of our institution will be compromised.” Scattered amongst these stretches of lifelessness are occasional laugh-out-loud howlers, with choice lines including “Even the death of your own wife looks strange in the light of this story” and “We must fight back to save you, because without you I don’t exist.”
The acting is similarly static, although there is room to question whether this is the fault of the European cast or the flat dubbing. One of the few moments of visual shock involves a victim of the werewolf being unveiled, her face hideously contorted by fear – and it says something that the actress playing this corpse delivers the single best performance.
For all its shortcomings, the film manages to build up a degree of forward momentum by bulking out its plot with convolution after convolution. The werewolf turns out to be the product of mad science, meaning that the girls contend not only with the lycanthrope but also with his creator – who is portrayed, in giallo fashion, as a faceless, leather-gloved figure stalking the school.
By its end, Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory has squeezed in enough red herrings, murky motivations and sudden twists to save it from total boredom. But be warned: anyone hoping to reach the film’s point of redemption will be in for a slow journey.
By Doris V. Sutherland
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