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The Beast Must Die Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 26, 2007

    The Beast Must Die Review
    Hi folks and welcome to another entry in the Full Moon Frenzy series. This time out I have chosen to dissect, debate and, in fact, champion a film that has often been ridiculed and dismissed. But, as daft as it is, The Beast Must Die is one of my all-time favourites of this particular horror sub-genre. Far from being simply a guilty pleasure like, say, Grizzly for example (see separate review), this is a movie that not only disentangled itself from the traditional trappings of the genre and forged its own brave, but wayward, identity, but also, following the trend started with the smart Robert Quarry-starring Count Yorga, Vampire from 1970, changed the face of the conventional werewolf movie forever. Hammer had attempted to bring Dracula into the modern age - well, hip seventies London, anyway - and failed quite miserably. But Amicus, in my opinion, did extremely well in updating the werewolf myth for a contemporary audience, relocating the beast in time and space from the dream-like, misty Universal moors and the colourful cobbled streets and lamp-lit taverns of Hammer's 18th Century Spain or Tyburn's France in, respectively, Curse Of and Legend Of The Werewolf.

    “This film is a detective story, in which you are the detective. The question is not who is the murderer? But who is the werewolf?”

    Long-derided and often sidelined by genre-buffs and horror-fans alike, this adaptation of James Blish's short story There Shall Be No Darkness - which is, to put it bluntly, painfully written and long-drawn out for such a simple scenario - is actually quite a crucial turning-point in the history of cinematic lycanthropy and, as far as I am concerned, a minor classic in its own right. For the first time, horror was treated to protagonists - well mainly just the one protagonist in this case - who fought back against the monster, not only reacting to the otherworldly invasion of normality that the horror film revelled in, but actively instigating the battle in the first place, seeking it out. And, as such, its influences can be felt in the likes of Dog Soldiers, Aliens, Predator and, by huge extension, Starship Troopers and even if it may seem quite dated nowadays it brought the werewolf, ripping and snarling, into the modern age. Capturing the essence of blaxploitation with its Bahamian leading man, Calvin Lockhart in sleek black leather and sporting enough firepower and hard-assed cool to make Richard Roundtree's Shaft nod with approval, Paul Annett's film broke the traditional horror mould and struck out along its own distinctive path. Self-aware and potent with machismo, The Beast Must Die also embraced the popular British theme of guests being picked off at a country mansion that graced so many of Blighty's home-grown detective-thrillers in literature, cinema and television drama - which is a groundbreaking mix already, if you ask me. But it was also explosively high-tech, too. Even now, the notion of a hyper-sensitive security system, computer-controlled surveillance and a private army of well-equipped bodyguards is something that is distinctly advanced, possessing a slight sci-fi tweak. That the film also pitches in some class snobbery and a scathing examination of the male ego is just the icing on the cake. How many other genre pictures even attempt such a melting-pot of ideas and themes?

    Made at Shepperton Studios and released by Hammer-rival Amicus in 1974, who had garnered quite some success with their amusing series of horror portmanteaus up until this point, the Milton Subotsky-produced movie seemed tailor-made for the swinging Chelsea-set. With its funky score and suave black hero, the film extolled the virtues of the high-life with its rags-to-riches hunter/playboy Tom Newcliffe (Lockhart) parading around his luxurious mansion with his broad chest thrust out and his latest trophies adorning every wall. His beautiful and chic wife Caroline (Marlene Clarke) on his arm and a celebrity status that enables him to indulge his passions with nary interference from the authorities, Newcliffe is the darling of the international well-to-do, a jet-setter who has seen it all, won it all and still thirsts for more. But having all the right connections and boundless wealth haven't been able to bring him the ultimate prize so far. Tom Newcliffe, esteemed big game hunter and society-climber, is out to bag the most dangerous game of all. He wants a werewolf's head mounted on his trophy wall.

    “On safari or in the boardroom, it's all the same ... I go after what I want.”

    So, inviting a group of esteemed guests - Michael Gambon's Jan Jarmiskinski, a famed concert pianist, Charles Gray's debonair TV host and ex-UN delegate Bennington, Peter Cushing's archaeologist and expert on the loup-garou Dr. Lundgren, Tom Chadbon's hirsute culture-shock artist Paul Foote and his wife's own best friend Davina, played by Ciaran Madden - he issues them with the ultimatum that he is going to kill one of them (!) and sets about whittling down the clues as which particular lounge-lizard is actually ... a werewolf. Having timed his sinister soiree just right - three nights of the full moon presiding over his isolated estate up in the wilds of Scotland - and removed his “guests'” chances of escape, Tom Newcliffe switches into hunting mode and sets out to track the beast he knows is in his midst. Secreted in an annex to the main house is Anton Diffring's Polish super-spy, Pavel, sitting at the control desk to a vast and highly advanced (for 1974) array of computers, monitor screens, bugging devices, scanners and hidden microphones - Newcliffe literally leaving nothing to chance. The original story had the beast being uncovered almost by drunken accident at a relatively innocent weekend party, but the movie immediately throws down the gambit with Newcliffe testing out his elaborate security systems, shocking his guests first with his own fake death and then with his damning accusations as to their hidden identities - you see, they all have dark pasts and mysterious trails of death behind them - and issuing the challenge to the beast. It is an undeniably great hook and makes for some teasingly daft and suspenseful party-speeches, finger-pointing and bluff-calling.

    “Well, if that was dinner ... I can't wait for the cabaret!”

    A really nifty idea is the dinner-table testing of the suspects. There is a whole heap of rather naff scientific mumbo-jumbo being spouted by Cushing's Lundgren about wolfbane pollen and “transmogrification” but if you prune the verbal fat away you are still left with a terrific little parlour game that brings to mind the blood-test madness of John Carpenter's The Thing. Check out Charles Grey's surly disdain for the silver candlestick shoved under his nose, mixing affronted reluctance to get involved with a genuine sense of unpredictability - “I've never been one for party-games. What am I supposed to do?” But it is Tom Chadborn's Paul Foote who suffers most at the hands of Tom's tests falling prey to the hidden cameras and Newcliffe's demented suspicions with ultra-fascist and unforgiving regularity. But the film goes much further than mere speculation and Miss Marple-style snooping and clue-gathering. Paul Annett keeps the pace from slackening with three nights of murder, mayhem and prowling about with high-powered hunting rifles. If the day-for-night shooting is woeful, you still have to admire the sheer panache and what-the-hell attitude to the action scenes. It may be cat and mouse in the mansion-house, but out in the woods it is man against beast and, even if the wolf, itself, has been cornered by imprisonment at the gathering, it can still run rings around the supreme hunter and his gadgets. Much like the shark in Jaws, or the bear in Grizzly - both of which came out after Beast - it outwits, outpaces and does its damndest to outlive its pursuer, using its own better-honed instincts to confuse, infuriate and exhaust him, even drawing him away from other prey. Dogs, security guards and even helicopters all fall prey to the beast. Annett creates real tension when the pressure-strip of scanners around the house is first broken and Newcliffe sprints out into the night (well ... day, if we're honest), guided by Pavel to zero-in on the interloper. This is light-years away from Hammer's treatment or the hoary old shaggy-dog stories from Universal. Terror, excitement and action all at once - horror films had not attempted this sort of thing before. Well, possibly Night Of The Living Dead got there first ... but the zombie threat was very far-removed from this fast-moving monster. What we had here, for the first time, was confidence facing down the supernatural - Newcliffe becoming a sort of prototype Blade, without the fangs.

    “Computer says it is a large, four-legged animal ...”

    I know what it is! Just key me in!”

    And the hunt is on.

    Calvin Lockhart is excellent in the role of the arrogant hunter, barking out his lines with a deliciously exotic Caribbean patois and an American sense of power, self-importance and barely-controlled urgency and zeal. Quite clearly clinically insane, himself, Tom Newcliffe is a wonderful character, although we hardly get to know him. His past is only briefly alluded to and shrouded in mythical mystery. I would have liked to have heard about how he conducted his detective work on his chosen suspects and, indeed, why? What exactly set him on the trail of a werewolf? Back in 1974 it would have been fine to just let the film commence with this scenario - but now there is a need to know more. But Lockhart establishes his driven hero as a real go-getter, unafraid to get his hands dirty and consumed by a bloodlust that is just as grim and ruthless as the beast he is trying to bag. In fact, he is more of a monster than the werewolf at large in his grounds. Virtually imprisoning his “guests”, intimidating them at the dinner-table and throughout the night, accusing and threatening them at every turn, he is a veritable maniac. Lockhart manages to turn this resolutely two-dimensional assassin into something much more than the script would have initially made clear. He may have a cold and calculating mind but he reveals a very dark sense of humour. “Come on, wake up! No use playing possum!” he roars as he prods a rifle barrel into a sleeping suspect's chest. The sadistic delight he takes in goading and provoking his guests is even more drawn out than Leslie Banks' Count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game (1932), to which this film owes quite a debt. An early chase sequence in which a guest makes a break for it is, admittedly, quite naff and only something that was put in at Milton Subotsky's insistence, but the pleasure that Newcliffe takes in harassing and haranguing his quarry - zipping all over the place in his Landrover when he could have easily caught up in seconds - further reveals his inherent sadism. Yet, if his treatment of everybody else, including his wife, is brusque and domineering, he retains a grudging respect for Pavel, perhaps recognising another highly skilled operative and realising just how much he needs him. Lockhart would, of course, fall prey to another of cinema's greatest monsters, the Predator in the first sequel, starring Danny Glover. To see him in that, still looking cool and intense, was a real treat. Yet, he owns this film from start to finish and despite a truly ambitious and purely theatrical treatment of the part - in no small way a by-product of having just come off the stage before filming on Beast began - which provides for an insanely physical performance that feels coiled and sinewy even when he simply sits at the head of the dinner table.

    “Tom, if only I could believe this was a joke. But you never joke ...”

    And another great character is roused out of wafer-thin script development by B-movie regular, Anton Diffring. No stranger to the horror genre, himself, with titles such as Circus Of Horrors and The Man Who Could Cheat Death under his belt, Diffring was also very well-known for his soft, almost loquacious German accent, evidenced none more so than in the classic Where Eagles Dare. Never sounding false, or comical in that oft-used clipped Aryan whine, Diffring's voice is strangely soothing and he gets to put it to some terrific use here. Sitting at his bank of surveillance monitors and loosening his tie as he settles down for a long night scanning the grounds, his sharp blue eyes and angular face have him resembling an eagle. His super-calm air of confidence and total belief in his own abilities as well as those of his expensive gadgetry is great to behold. He doesn't fall for Newcliffe's surly power-trip or bravado. If Newcliffe is the loud and brash Americanised hero, Diffring's Pavell is the ice-cool, clinical assassin. It is a shame that we don't get to find out more of his background, too. Special Forces? Secret Service? There's definitely more to this guy than meets the eye. His expert detachment when the sensors are tripped and he has to guide the gung-ho Newcliffe towards his quarry is a masterpiece of understatement in the face of adversity. Again, that voice is brilliant at building tension. “Target dead ahead, Hunter,” he informs Newcliffe over the mike, his attitude one of keen interest, as though watching a chess game unfold. “Target moving directly towards you. Target almost on you, Hunter!” It's great stuff and topped with a sheer balls-out twist when Newcliffe, on the deck and taking pot-shots at the fleeting black shape in the trees, realises that, “He's coming for you, Pavell. To stop you guiding me.” Ahh, man, when I was a kid watching this on late-night TV, this sequence really blew me away. Pavell's total lack of fear is not wooden acting as some critics have tried to claim, but the calm, clear-headed modus operandi of a professional who has overcome every dangerous obstacle that he has thus far encountered. “Get something silver!” Newcliffe implores the lookout as the beast, signified in a scene that the first Alien recalls, by a red blip on a sensor-screen, makes its way towards the house and Newcliffe's base of operations. Even as gnashing death circumvents all the electronic defences of the house, Pavell asserts his higher, almost serene, class of hunter as he replies matter-of-factly, “Don't worry, Hunter. I can do better than that,” and slides a magazine of 9mm bullets into a slim handgun - the exact opposite of the intense weaponry that Newcliffe likes to sport.

    It is a great set-piece and, as hokey as a lot of the rest of the film can be, still stands up well today. Even writing about it makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise!

    The guest line-up is where things come a little unstuck with, by far, the worst performance delivered by none other than the late great Peter Cushing. Cushing, despite being stuck with playing the same role - or type of role - over and over again (Frankenstein, Van Helsing) has always been one of my favourite actors. The amount of integrity and presence that he brings to even the most banal and clichéd of characters is simply staggering, especially considering the often shocking dialogue he has to deliver. An accomplished television actor and even quite a surprisingly energetic hero in his earlier movies, such as Horror Of Dracula, The Mummy and The Abominable Snowman (all from Hammer) Cushing could provide stout dependability, sinister malevolence or outright snobbery with equally delicious aplomb. Here, however, he singularly fails to pull off the role of the frank and self-effacing Dr. Lundgen. Supplying the part with a truly atrocious European accent and chancing a few too many little quirks - those Eric Morecombe glasses and psychedelic jumpers are a big mistake - he is easily the worst thing on offer, simply because we know he can be much, much better than this. But, compounding this disappointment still further is the script's truly appalling use of the completely unnecessary scientific explanations for werewolfry that this lycanthropic expert likes to spout at every opportunity. To be blunt, such lunacy was just not needed even if it was in the original story.

    “Smile, you're on Candid Camera! Or didn't you know that you had little televisions growing on your trees?”

    The Agatha Christie style “guests-cum-suspects” is still timelessly neat, however. The drawing together of a disparate bunch of irascible personalities is the seedbed for all such plot set-ups to spring from. Michael Winder's script supplies almost enough detail to present these characters with plausible threat and a good degree of “are they or aren't they?” menace , but if Doctor Lundgren's waffle is really quite superfluous - “lymph glands” be damned - it does make one glaring omission. Doctor Lundgren is a suspect as well as a specialist in the matter - but we never get to hear what evidence Newcliffe has on him. This would have a been a much greater tack to indulge in than simply harping on about how hairy Foote's hands are, or the whereabouts of Jan whilst people are having their throats torn out. It may be that Paul Annett wanted to use Tom's sudden thrusting of a silver bullet into Lundgren's gaunt face as a shock turnaround for audience expectation. Certainly the veiled anger that Cushing exhibits would seem to suggest that his character has assumed that he was actually above suspicion. But, whilst Davina is pure set-dressing - although there is that dizzy bit when she seems to get excited by the gravy being poured over the rare beef - and Jan is all bruised pride, the juicy stuff comes courtesy of Charles Gray's scenery-chewing as Bennington and Tom Chadbon's irresistible happy-hippy Paul Foote. An artist with a flair for anti-authoritarianism and already as hairy as a werewolf, Paul Foote was actually the hero of the original short story. In that he is thoroughly antagonistic and hard to like, but in the film he is charismatic, funny and totally off the wall. The perfect antidote to Newcliffe's obsessive violence, Foote flounces around the estate seemingly without a care in the world. It is pertinent to note, also, that long-haired hippies were getting something of a rough ride in genre movies right around this time. Not only was Chadbon's witty painter galling Tom Newcliffe at every turn, but Ray Lovelock was kicking up a storm with local police in the same year's classic zombie gut-muncher The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue for director Jorge Grau. If Lockhart tipped the wink to the blaxploitation market, then Chadbon's footloose Foote was a reminder that the summer of love was most definitely over. It is quite clear that Chadbon is having a field day with his role, however ... and he is one of the best things in the movie. Playful and scathing, he twists the paranoia of “who is what” effortlessly - one minute revelling in the consternation he causes his trigger-happy host, the next imploring Cushing's Swedish-Chef voiced academic that he is not the beast with real desperation written all over his hairy chops. And who doesn't pity the goofball when he falls afoul of the electrified fence and then even the trees he so loves drop him into the proverbial you-know-what?

    “Tonight ... the beast must die!”

    Considering that all of Tom's suspects have mysterious cannibalistic murders lurking in their backgrounds, a great idea would have been to have had them all as werewolves. Or another alternative would have been having Tom Newcliffe, himself, as the monster, perhaps luring a select group of highly prized prey to his own private hunting ground from which there can be no escape - the victims having to fight to survive the full moon cycle. Thus, the movie is often enhanced in my opinion by the sheer variety of ways in which it could have played out, the scenario so rich and infectious.

    Two major points always feature in the usual critical-pasting that this movie regularly receives. The first is the Beast, itself. Not a wolf at all, but a big German Shepherd (the best dogs in the world - officially) called Sultan, dressed up with furry muscles and a big black mane. I don't, personally, have a problem with this, but I will say that there are a few too many shots of the beast panting and with his tongue lolling out which are so totally un-werewolf-like as to almost ruin the mood. But, having said that, scenes of him charging through the woods, dodging machine-gunfire and leaping through windows or over panicking people have a real-time violence and immediacy to them that would have impossible to have duplicated with a man in a suit or the type of animatronic puppet that the effects of the day would have come up with. There is that great shot of him atop the chimney stack looking in at Pavel and licking his lips which is clearly recalled in the excellent Wolfen (see separate review) when Gregory Hines suddenly turns to find a (real) wolf grinning down at him through a hole in the roof. Wonderful editing during this scene also seems to have the beast disappear as the bullets ping through the skylight. The other point dissed so merrily by critics is, of course, the infamous Werewolf Break, in which we are given thirty seconds to guess the identity of the beast. Thrust upon Annett at the last minute and created by Subotsky in pure homage to the master of cinematic gimmickry, the immortal showman, William Castle, this is an unbelievable addition that makes or breaks the film in many peoples' eyes. With a voiceover by Radio's The Man In Black, Valentine Dyall, I actually find it a wonderful little snippet of eye-rolling kitsch. I think that having grown up with this film has inured me to the Break's stupidity in almost wrecking the escalating tension that Annett has built up during this final act and, for the life of me, I now cannot imagine the movie without it. Certainly, it helped promote the film in America, where audiences lapped up its crass joke appeal and even bought badges stating that they'd seen the film, knew who the werewolf was ... but wouldn't tell!

    Okay, folks ... this next section is going to be full of spoilers, so unless you are already well-acquainted with the film, I would advise you to skip this coming paragraph. But no appreciation of this film can leave out the trend-bucking, twist-packed finale of The Beast Must Die. Other fans can just revel in these great little touches.

    “So ... that means that the original werewolf is still ... loose!”

    I love the moment when Caroline fatefully takes the silver bullet, saying to Tom with an air of doomed nobility, “Time for my pill?” and with a startled gasp from all onlookers we see her freshly hair-covered arm raise the round to her lips. The flash-cut from Caroline to mane-enhanced dog is pretty effective, too. If the final confrontation is a bit of a letdown considering all the running about and machine-gunning that we've been treated to earlier, then the sight of Peter Cushing standing on the patio with a hunting rifle in his hands as a battered and bloody Lockhart strides across the lawn towards him from out of the pre-dawn mist more than makes up for it. A fleeting moment is also allowed for the victorious Newcliffe to pass on an apology to poor Davina, and it is this small act that reveals Tom has a heart after all. Somehow, his personal quest has done him more damage than he ever thought possible and, even if we knew something like this was going to happen all along, his super-ego could never have grasped the awful potential of his undertaking until the very end. Although his face and his eyes never waver, his single apology is somehow enough to redeem him during this last act. He caused all these deaths. His actions cost him his wife, a gaggle of her friends and his loyal confident (oh, and his dog, too) and his final comprehension of this fact almost blunts his phenomenal mood of defiance. Of course, the real clincher is still to come and I have to confess that I adore this climax. When Newcliffe realises his own predicament - which, let's face it, would have been bad enough to explain to the police, what with a mansion full of ripped and gouged bodies - the film takes a beautifully constructed direction that somehow recalls the sting-in-the-tail endings of so many of the infamous anthology movies of the era, like Tales From The Crypt or The Vault Of Horror as well as making a bold stab at the prevailing nihilism that 70's cinema had in general. It may be all-too obvious a twist when viewed today, but that is only because there have been so many other mean-spirited bleak endings that have followed in the wake of this one. But there is an undeniable poetry to Newcliffe cocking his rifle - love the little eyebrow raise he gives that cold, impassive barrel - and finally contemplating the vicious circle that he has gone around.

    “Bang! You're dead!”

    “Not until you pull that trigger, boy!”

    Camp in places, exciting in others, The Beast Must Die is a rare breed indeed. Even Douglas Gamley's wildly retro-funk score - that main title is a real belter, love the wacka-wacka-wacka effect in the cue - is superbly audacious for a horror film, even if it does prove that moving with the times also, rather ironically, can date a film just as much as not moving with the times. There can be absolutely no surprise in the fact that it doesn't all work, yet it does enough things correctly to breeze through its running time and come across as a wholly refreshing take on the genre. I don't think that there was an action/horror hybrid before this movie in the true sense of the reference. It may sound strange, considering all the flaws and the general contempt in which this film is held, but if I was given the opportunity to remake a movie - just one movie, whether writing or directing it - then I think that The Beast Must Die would be it. The potential of the plot is huge and so ripe for an update that it makes me itch to start casting for it. Imagine the line-up you could get for the guests - a dream cast would have been a select gathering of all those notables who have portrayed wolfmen over the years, from Lon Chaney Jnr to Jack Nicholson. The Ten-Little-Indians style cast-decimation is always tense and the market for a strong ensemble, a twist or two and some exciting set-piece hunting sequences is second to none. I don't expect too many would actually agree with me, but be that as it may, there is a little piece of me that is forever entwined around this simple, bare-bones and hokey werewolf story.

    A misguided, but thoroughly courageous and boundlessly entertaining minor classic of the genre. It is worth noting that werewolfry would not be seriously attempted again in the cinema until the groundbreaking year of lycanthropic-revision of 1981, when both The Howling and American Werewolf transformed the genre yet again. But The Beast Must Die remains a turning point in the celluloid career of the wolf man.