Monday, 20 August 2012

The Beast Must Die (1974)

For a while in the 60s and 70s, British film company Amicus tried to be a serious rival to Hammer. However, their films are mostly a mix of borrowed genres and ideas that never really grow into anything original, The Beast Must Die being a perfect example of this, mixing up werewolves, Agatha Christie mystery thrillers, William Castle gimmicks and Blaxploitation without really succeeding at any of them.

Eccentric millionaire and hunter Tom Newcliffe invites to his mansion a motley group of people, consisting of a disgraced ex-diplomat, a pianist and his pupil-turned-girlfriend, a medical student who has done jail time for cannibalism, and a leading authority on lycanthropy. There is a sinister reason for the gathering however, as Newcliffe suspects one of them is a werewolf, and must be killed.

This EC comic books-style premise is ridiculous but with the right script, it could have worked as a bit of campy, escapist fun. However, after the adrenaline-charged opening scenes of Newcliffe putting his brand new high-tech security systems through their paces, the tension rapidly dies down and never really comes back. This subplot is never properly incorporated into the main story, which itself is peppered with predictable plot twists that are telegraphed long before they occur and dialogue that veers between banality, and tedious exposition.

Despite being the main element driving the story, the werewolf itself is talked about a lot but rarely seen - and when it is, it turns out, rather than being a person in hairy make-up, to be played by a large angry dog. Amicus previously used this trick in Dr Terrors House of Horrors, for budgetary reasons, and, presumably, this is why it is employed here.

Cast wise, the standout is an understated turn from Peter Cushing as the werewolf expert who has to explain everything, a role which gives him the opportunity as an actor to do his usual trick of maintaining his dignity while spouting absolute rubbish. Also worth a mention is Charles Gray, perhaps better known for playing Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever, and Mocata in The Devil Rides Out, as he manages to bring some gravitas to his role, even though he gets to do little other than look pissed off and play chess.

There are two components in the Beast Must Die, one added before shooting and one after, that seem underdeveloped, and jar noticeably with the tone of the rest of the film, and it is no surprise that they were forced in at the behest of the producers.

Firstly, there are the Blaxploitation trappings. Bahaman born Calvin Lockhart was apparently a last minute replacement for original choice Robert Quarry, as producer Milton Subotsky wanted to cash in on the contemporary craze for the likes of Shaft and Coffy. While he certainly has a physical presence (and looks very cool in his Black leather outfit), his performance is so hammy and over the top it becomes tiresome to watch. In addition, we get a full-on Isaac Hayes style Wah-Wah guitar and brass-heavy musical score. While this works for the action packed opening sequence, it does little to help the suspense or horror elements, and, lacking much dynamic range, soon becomes another wearisome element in the film.

Secondly, there is the "Werewolf Break", added against the director's wishes, where an over-the-top Commentary runs through the suspects and the action stops for 30 seconds, counted down by an on screen clock. The viewers are invited to guess which character is the lycanthrope. 

While it certainly is a memorable scene, and does provide a hook for the trailer and marketing campaign (“See it! Solve it! But don’t tell!” was the poster tagline), the whole, concept feels shoehorned in, as no attempt is made during the film to provide serious clues for the viewer to follow, and when the culprit is revealed, it feels both arbitrary and anticlimactic.

So what we are left with is a Werewolf film with very little Werewolf in it, a suspense film with no suspense, a whodunit that feels more like “who cares whodunit”, and a Blaxploitation film that does nothing to exploit any of the Black characters.