by Ian Taylor
The Beast Must Die is a film that must be easy to find fault with if you forget that its purpose is to be fun. For all that it is Amicus Productions’ last roll of the horror dice it manages to move with the times and the trends as much as Hammer did with The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. Unfortunately, like that equally fun film with Peter Cushing as star, it wasn’t enough to save the company. Still, it wasn’t through lack of trying and we can still look back and marvel at the enthusiastic manner in which they threw everything but the kitchen sink at it: This is a brilliantly entertaining cross between horror, whodunit, action adventure and blaxpoitation thriller!
For a start, the cast is a real role call of names, in some cases chosen perfectly to suit one of the varied genres thrown into the mix. There is a lovely, atmospheric voice-over from Valentine Dyall providing a ‘werewolf break’ – yes, a ridiculous idea but worth a giggle as the viewer has a 30 second pause before the finale to decide just who they think the lycanthrope is. If you think it’s a naff idea then fair play to you…but take that 30 seconds away and you’re still left with plenty to enjoy.
There is the wonderful turn from the posing, posturing Calvin Lockhart, a big, beautifully cool Bahamian man who moved to New York in his teens and then, following a notable turn in the outstanding British play A Taste of Honey opposite Angela Lansbury, moved to seek roles of worth in Europe. Impressively, he became an artist-in-residence with the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford (the first black actor to do so) and balanced this fine accomplishment with substantial television appearances and growing parts in films such as The Mercenaries with Rod Taylor and A Dandy in Aspic with Laurence Harvey. He eventually returned to the US for bigger roles in blaxploitation cinema such as Cotton Comes to Harlem and Uptown Saturday Night. The Beast Must Die landed in between such films and neatly tied up his almost dual transatlantic careers. Lockhart is confident and charismatic on screen and was ideal for the action sequences in which his big game hunter decided to hunt the ultimate game – a genuine werewolf!
In contrast, British horror icon Peter Cushing has what could be a very straight, serious role. As Dr Lundgren, the resident werewolf expert amongst a select group of people (suspects) invited to spend time with Lockhart’s Tom Newcliffe on his private island, Cushing is laden with dialogue full of exposition but, with a lightly levelled European accent and a twinkle in his eye, he finds the humour in it.
There is also an entertainingly fruity performance from Charles Gray that, as with Cushing’s performance, mines a seam of arch humour and helps to provide a balancing contrast to the macho action man lead and some of the other roles/performances. For instance, Cushing and Gray juxtapose wonderfully with the cool, emotionless computer expert portrayed by German genre regular Anton Diffring. Amongst these dependable old regulars are interesting early performances from none other than Michael Gambon and Tom Chadbon. Both made their names on British stage and television before the cinema came calling and, of course, both can now lay claim to performances in big franchise titles; Gambon in Harry Potter and Chadbon in Casino Royale. It’s always nice to see contributors to old genre films getting on in life! And here’s a trivia factoid for this film. Michael Gambon’s television run as French detective Maigret during the early 90s saw his Beast co-star Ciaran Madden playing his wife…
What of the story, though? Well, I personally can never understand the antipathy towards a film that features a classically trained rival to the likes of Richard Roundtree playing a rich hunter who uses helicopters and sophisticated security systems to play hunt the wolf man! The premise is very much Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None combined with The Most Dangerous Game and sprinkled with a little bit of Thing foreshadowing. A group of guests are invited to Newcliffe’s island and any one of them might be a werewolf. He wants to track them down and kill them for sport. Part of tactics is to spring tests on them that might well reveal their hairy handedness!
The budget stretched pretty well to this viewer’s eyes. The familiar sights of Shepperton Studios are there for all to see but they are used well. The house interiors look impressive and the grounds provide plenty of exteriors that allow for a more epic feel. This feeling is extended by the use of a helicopter, the soaring camera managing to capture ambitious shots of Newcliffe testing out his security by having his own men track him down through the surrounding countryside. The technology is reasonable for the time – multiple banks of televisions, for example. The scenes of croquet on the beautiful guardians effortlessly convey opulence and the moments of big game action with machine guns help director Paul Annett to achieve the look of a bigger scale production. Sure, there is some ropey day for night shooting but when did that automatically make something a bad film? Tell that to the hordes of Twins of Evil fans for instance – including me!
Annett had cut his directorial teeth on series such as Fraud Squad and New Scotland Yard, with an episode of Dead of Night to flex his supernatural muscles and his approach here is thrifty when necessary but makes the most of action scenes to boost the running time. An example of his thrift occurs with the oft-derided scenes of a dog dressed up to resemble a wolf. Does this really ruin the effect? It does not at all in my opinion. It actually makes perfect sense budget-wise and allows for some reasonably dynamic sequences that could not have been realised if effects had been required. There is also a dog versus werewolf sequence that adds a great layer of emotive quality as the faithful family hound bravely defends his master. It is hard to imagine that working so well if using a dog versus a man in make up or, worse, a puppet creation!
As regards Annett’s filming skills, there is a lovely slow reverse zoom as the guests all sit at the dining table as Newcliffe stands at the head of the feast looking seriously at them. As the camera reverses away from the stern facial acting of Calvin Lockhart the oval mirror hung high on the wall behind him reflects the whole scene, including the concerned faces of the guests. Not too shabby at all! The nice directorial touch is also revealed in the number of quick scenes showing Cushing’s Dr Lundgren silently observing his host’s crazily obsessive behaviour. A good director knows how to let a great actor bring much more to their role and this is the perfect example.
Other highlights include the passing around of a silver candlestick from hand to hand, awaiting the allergic reaction that a werewolf ought surely to experience. Swap the silver for heat and the guest’s flesh for the blood of workers at an Antarctic Research Centre and you have Carpenter making The Thing! The intensity is great fun – and so too is the nauseous quality brought to another similar moment in which the main course of a meal arrives…meat, bloody to the point of raw! A grisly, almost queasy scene but joyously handled!
As already mentioned though, there is as much action as horror suspense and Annett again shows his mettle when the first death occurs at just shy of 50 minutes (which tells you how much action, exposition and character study has been going on previously.) As a bit of a spoiler I’ll tell you that it is surveillance expert Diffring who doesn’t so much ‘bite the big one’ as get bitten by the big one. I’m really not spoiling too much as there are plenty of other cast members left for you to worry about and I’m certainly not going to ruin the mystery of the werewolf break! As the German sits late into the night, watching his multiple screens, we experience a tense variation on the “it’s coming for you” routine that has been a meat and potatoes fixture of monster movies for years. This precedes such a scene in Alien which itself informed the Doctor Who story Earthshock – one of the best old school scary episodes of the Peter Davison era. In this case, Diffring doesn’t have future age technology but he knows full well that an angry werewolf is on its way towards him. There is a wonderful moment when the shadow of the wolf is cast upon its victim from through the skylight above him. Perhaps the dog in wolf’s clothing is a touch under-whelming compared to the magical creations seen in The Howling or An American Werewolf in London but the scene works well, with a genuine lupine leap through the air and a creative spin of a chair to reveal Diffring’s bloodied corpse sans eyeball!
From here the tale builds up the tension. Marlene Clark is most beautiful as Lockhart’s equally cool wife. She is dubbed by the smoothly voiced Annie Ross to add further sex appeal. The wife is tired of this macho man husband – the domestic strife adds a new angle to the tension amongst the guests. There is some padding at times…there is a lengthy time waster of a scene as Tom Chadbon attempts to escape the island in vain, or is it really time wasting? After all, our man Tom plays a man who once indulged in a student experiment in eating human flesh! Everyone has an element of the sinister about them – just look at that beautifully posed shot of Peter Cushing waiting on the early morning lawn as Calvin Lockhart returns home, moving towards the other man across the misty grass. It’s one of those visuals that will stay with a viewer. Lockhart knows how to look manly and enigmatic whilst Cushing… well, he puts the capital I in iconic!
There is still 15 minutes of the film left when the werewolf break begins. The second hand ticks away over reused footage of each remaining character left on the island… the reveal is well judged, a great slow motion reveal of a hairy hand and then…there is at least one twist. That is all I will say. The Beast Must Die is perhaps the sum of its parts despite the patchwork feel. Each ingredient works in its own right and comes together to produce something just a little way different.
Give yourself a break – investigate this werewolf!