While mid-20th century Italian horror cinema is linked most commonly to figures like Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda, Paolo Heusch’s Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory (1961) – aka Lycanthropus – is a significant yet commonly overlooked entry in both Italian horror and in the broader history of the werewolf subgenre. As its Americanised title and the director’s credits might suggest (Heusch uses the alias Richard Benson), the film is clearly aimed at an international audience, and little of its Italian context of production appears immediately apparent within the film itself.

This is, of course, aside from its casting: making his screen debut here, Luciano Pigozzi in particular would go on to star in a number of iconic Italian horror films, including Mario Bava’s The Whip and the Body (1963), Blood and Black Lace (1964), and Baron Blood (1972), Sergio Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark (1972) and Alfredo Rizzo’s The Bloodsucker Leads the Dance (1975).

Set in a prison-like dormitory for highly sexualised girls who are effectively incarcerated for their varied dalliances with crime, the film begins as Dr Julian Olcott (Carl Schell) arrives. Like the young women he is hired to teach, Julian too hides a secret past, and he is told comfortingly by Director Swift (Curt Lowens) – clearly aware of what Olcott’s secret is – that “the past can become a nightmare unless we can free ourselves of it”. Like horror both Italian and global – from Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975) to John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) – Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory is a clear example of Sigmund Freud’s oft-cited “return of the repressed” psychological notion that permeates the genre, a conceptual foundation that suggests what is kept bottled-up will reappear in often explosive, unexpected ways. Here the fear of the wolves that prowl outside the school property are literally at the door, itching to get to the young, sexually active women that lie within. The film is not shy in associating these “wolves” with the exploitative, lecherous desires of the middle-aged men who hold power inside the dormitory, however, with one character – Sir Alfred Whiteman (Maurice Marsac) – even shot in a disturbing close-up, identical to how the werewolf is filmed.

As the film’s far from complex plot unfolds, it becomes clear that these ‘real’ wolves are not the primary source of terror, but rather it is the werewolf of the film’s title. The film is therefore effectively a Jekyll and Hyde themed whodunit that seeks to solve the riddle: which of the men at the dormitory is the werewolf? Investigating the matter is a young inmate, Priscilla (Barbara Kwiatkowska-Lass), a clear precursor to the slasher film’s final girl: she investigates, she fights, she resists, and she survives. The appearance of black leather gloved hands as one victim is drugged and murdered also provides an early instance of one of the key elements of the visual iconography of the giallo film, a category of Italian cinema often assumed to begin in earnest until Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace three years later.

But it is as a werewolf film that this movie holds its most potent source of interest, and its weakness is its strength. Lycanthropy is undoubtedly a flimsy metaphor for sexual assault in the film, but what makes it so significant – by intent or accident is unclear – is that by stripping back the metaphor, the film is able to say some perhaps surprisingly blunt things about sexual politics. “Was he a monster?” one character asks of another, falsely revealed to be the werewolf near the end of the film. “Perhaps there never was a monster”, he is told. The horrors of this film are at their core therefore far from the supernatural: they are as ubiquitous and as vicious as sexual assault and sexual harassment itself. Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory might not have a reputation as the most complex Italian horror film ever made, but something about its honesty, its ability to look through its own flimsily deployed metaphor and speak to a very real horror, still holds extraordinary power.