At the first Quentin Tarantino Film Festival in Austin in 1997, the director spent a few days unspooling more than two dozen films from his personal collection—including Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, The Swinging Cheerleaders, and Switchblade Sisters, alongside other grindhouse obscurities—but he confessed to never having seen the 1976 Italian exploitation howler Werewolf Woman, which was showing under the title The Legend Of The Wolf Woman. Between the sleep-deprived audience and the film’s own fever-dream of violence and sexuality, it connected to such an extent that Tarantino programmed “surprise films” into subsequent festivals to achieve the same wake-up-call effect. And it’s surely Tarantino’s influence that explains the Blu-ray release of Rino Di Silvestro’s softcore rape-revenge film, which mixes the requisite flesh and gore with several textbooks’ worth of pathology and lycanthropy.
Di Silvestro pulls a bit of a bait-and-switch with the opening, which offers the voluptuous Annik Borel, a French actress whose career ended shortly afterwards, writhing naked in a circle of fire in a forest clearing. With the full moon above, she transforms into a werewolf and savagely buries her teeth into a man’s neck before a village full of pitchfork-wielding peasants burn her at the stake. But it’s all a dream. Daniela (Borel) wakes with a start in the present day, alarming her father (Tino Carraro), who has been taking care of her since a childhood rape resulted in a descent into emotional instability and psychosis. Yet the werewolf dream isn’t entirely a manifestation of her sexual fears; one of her ancestors had a history of lycanthropy and the two look uncannily alike. After an incident in which Daniela savages her sister’s boyfriend—primed by her attraction/repulsion to watching them make love—she winds up in a restraints at a hospital. She breaks out, assumes a new identity, and actually carries out a healthy relationship with a movie stuntman (Howard Ross), but another sexual assault puts her over the edge again.
The degree to which Di Silvestro is serious about these themes of tragic sexual pathology—or whether he’s merely stirring the exploitation pot—is an open question, but the werewolf metaphor gives the film a surprising complexity and potency. The fact that Daniela isn’t literally a werewolf but behaves like one presages George Romero’s classic is-he-or-isn’t-he vampire movie Martin, and similarly muddies the distinction of whether it matters or not. Di Silvestro handles many elements crudely; the officials pursuing Daniela while she’s on the lam duke it out with an over-explaining psychologist for most fast-forward-ability, and a love montage between Daniela and the stuntman is comically, woozily ridiculous.
Yet there’s something to Daniela trying to escape her own legacy while a world full of predatory men push her deeper into madness. Di Silvestro’s point of view resembles that of Daniela’s protective father: He understands why she might be inclined to take a chunk out of someone’s neck and he never wavers in supporting her anyway. She’s not the villain of Werewolf Woman, but a victim of heredity and tragic circumstance who’s having her revenge. It isn’t quite right to describe the film as “thoughtful,” but for a cheap supplier of boobs and blood, it leaves a relatively deep impression.
A 20-minute interview with the late Di Silvestro finds him hailing the originality of the female lycanthrope while confessing that his ambition had to be checked by the demands of the marketplace. The disc also includes an essay by Fangoria’s Chris Alexander and the English and Italian trailers, which feel nearly as long as the movie.