Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Beast in the Cellar (1970)

With a nicely lurid title, and the knowledge that this film is brought to you by Tigon, the same company that produced bona-fide classics like Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan's Claw, my hopes were high for the Beast in the Cellar. Unfortunately, flat direction, wooden performances, and a dull, confusing, and overly talky script derail an interesting premise.

Soldiers at an Army base near a village in the north of England are being gruesomely murdered, and while the police think the culprit may be a leopard, two elderly sisters think the real solution may lay closer to home, and may have links to a terrible story from their past, and a terrible secret in their cellar.

After an effective if pretty standard opening, where the first hapless victim is dispatched, and we see everything from the (unseen) killer's point-of-view, the script then settles into a long, virtually uninterrupted scene of sisters Ellie (Beryl Reid) and Joyce (Flora Robson) discussing, well, just about everything, from vegetables, to village gossip, to World War 2, and murder. After roughly 15 minutes, any hope the dialogue might start to take on Pinteresque dark undertones had evaporated, but thankfully, the film cuts to a soldier and his date getting interrupted mid-coitus, and the poor man meeting a gruesome end at the hands of the still unseen killer.

By this time, I did start to wonder if during production there had possibly been a clash of intentions. Maybe writer/director James Kelly had wanted to do a creepy psychological drama, and the producers had wanted something with more flesh and blood in, but if that was the case, the end result is a failure for both sets of ambitions.

The drama simply falls flat, with every aspect mishandled. The dialogue is pretty dire, as mentioned, or ridiculously portentous, ("You two have a healthy appetite" says a man while making a grocery delivery that largely consists of enough meat to feed an army), but even a talented, and normally reliable actress like Beryl Reid can't breathe any life into it, and her one note performance, as the slightly more comical and less intelligent of the sisters, soon becomes grating. Flora Robson does better as the sterner, more sinister (and more intelligent) of the two, but the rest of the cast performances range all the way from wooden to cardboard.

The sex and violence aspect is also a failure, mostly because there is not enough of it to compensate for the other facets. The murders are competently staged, with the killer kept out of sight and some fast montages of blood, skin, and eyes, but they just do not happen often enough to liven up the flaccid script. There are Freudian undertones in the way that Ellie talks with rapt, dreamy eyed admiration about her father, but these not expanded upon, either for serious or titillating purposes.

In addition, while I do not often carp too much over plot holes, there are a couple of points about the story, one unexplained and one explainable, that I found just too distracting. Firstly, how, without the aid of a supernatural curse, mad scientist etc., does an emaciated cellar bound creature get so strong and violent? Secondly, why does the sight of a soldier in uniform send said creature into a Pavlovian rage, when the sight of one of the sisters in one seems to calm him down?

The music score and cinematography compound the other problems; the former is over-emphatic at the wrong times, often undermining any attempts to build up suspense; the latter has too much outdoor footage, buried under murky day-for-night. This is surprising, considering the film had not one, but two perfectly talented directors of photography, Harry Waxman (responsible for The Wicker Man, amongst many other classics) and Desmond Dickinson (A Study in Terror). However, without knowing what sort of time and budgetary constraints they were working under, it would be wrong to criticise them personally.

Given the role that war and its aftermath on people plays in the origins of this very dysfunctional family, it might be possible to read The Beast in the Cellar as an attempted anti-war statement, and in the hands of a better writer/director it may well have been. Instead, the end result is a bore, bereft of drama, chills, atmosphere, or even titillation.