Saturday, November 22, 2014

THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974)


For years everything I heard about this film was negative without being specific. Snide comments about 'the gimmick' were trotted out as if that were the only memorable thing on offer, with no mention of the movie's other qualities. Heeding these poor reviews I didn't go out of my way to track down The Beast Must Die but a few years ago I was able to finally see it as part of an adventure into other Region DVDs. Imagine my surprise to discover a damned good little movie! Far from being a gimmicky mess (as I'd heard it once described) I found it to be a smart variation on The Most Dangerous Game in which the idea of hunting a man has been one-upped. And now that it has been released on Region 1 DVD, more people can discover this hybrid of horror and thriller. Its well worth the time invested.


Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart) is a wealthy man with one major hobby -  big game hunting. Having bagged every dangerous predator the world has to offer, he has set his sights on something exceedingly rare. Convinced that lycanthropes actually exist, he's determined to provide himself with the opportunity to hunt and kill the most vicious animal in existence.

Having identified several possible victims of the disease and invited them to his isolated country estate, Newcliffe makes the conditions right for the beast to appear. His plan is to keep his guests under watch for the three nights of the full moon and wait for a transformation. To this end he has installed a high-tech tracking and monitoring system covering the grounds of the entire estate. Hired both to set up and control the impressive audio/video surveillance equipment is Pavel (Anton Diffring). When Tom explains the object of his hunt, Pavel is skeptical but as the pay is good he's willing to go along.

At dinner on the first evening Tom reveals to his guests his knowledge of their pasts, laying out his case for each person's possible guilt. He has only circumstantial evidence for his suspicions but is convinced that one of his guests is a werewolf. Is it the artist Paul (Tom Chadbon), whose subjects always seem to end up murdered? Or musician Jan (Michael Gambon), whose concert tour leaves a trail of half-eaten bodies around the world? Has the elderly lycanthrope expert Dr. Lundgren (Peter Cushing) gotten too close to his subject? Or perhaps the beast is Davina (Ciaran Madden), the young woman whose presence at dinner parties presages death by throat-ripping? It could be that disgraced British diplomat Bennington (the great Charles Gray) is hiding the facts about why so many of his aides have disappeared...


Setting the scene carefully to make the mythical beast appear, Tom has rare beef served at dinner and even brings a pollinating wolfbane plant into the house. But after an antagonistic parlor game of 'pass the silver candlestick' gets no reaction, he makes it known that he has no intention of letting his quarry escape. Mr. Newcliffe wants his hunt and he's willing to go to any lengths to get it!

On the first night the surveillance grid shows an animal on the grounds and Tom, clad in shiny black and carrying a submachine gun, gives chase. He only gets a quick glimpse of the animal and misses his shot. But showing a high level of intelligence the beast beats him back to the house to kill Pavel and wreck the monitoring system! Tom realizes that he's underestimated his adversary but refuses to give up. Hiding Pavel's body to keep his death a secret, he continues on to the second night — upping the provocation in hopes of another chance.


Of course, I kept wondering what would happen if more than one of the suspects were lycanthropes! After hearing Tom's list of evidence against them it seemed possible that two or more might be shape changing monsters; maybe they'd join forces to off the sucker dumb enough to get too close. But that's not the way the story goes. We're told at the beginning of the film that there is one werewolf and that the audience will be given the chance to guess the identity of the creature. And this is The Beast Must Die's gimmick: the "Werewolf Break". At a point just before the killer is revealed there is a brief pause in the film, complete with a countdown clock so that viewers can demonstrate their deductive powers. It's a bit silly I admit, but I like it as it gives viewers the chance to talk about the suspects without missing anything. Maybe in the days of Pause buttons this is pointless but I think theatrically it would have been fun. The best thing about it is that the film immediately pulls a switch leading to a nice double-clutch surprise.

The film sports a very strong cast with veteran Cushing leading the way. Doing a nice Norwegian accent, he is easily the least likely suspect but adds enough arched eyebrow mystery to cause some doubt. Charles Gray and Michael Chambon are familiar character actors who bring a high level of performance to the table; Marlene Clark, playing Newcliff's wife Caroline, is very good as well. The real casting surprise is Calvin Lockhart. Casting a black man in a role originally slated to be played by Robert Quarry might have seemed a bit crazed to some but it pays off brilliantly. Lockhart is fantastic in the role, perfectly balancing the slightly mad determination to hunt his prey with the smooth genteel manners of the worldly man of wealth that he has made himself. It's a great performance that holds the movie together well.

Another surprising but effective decision of the filmmakers was in their presentation of the beast itself. Eschewing the standard man-in-a-hairy-outfit, they instead went with a large animal on all fours, loping across the darkened estate and attacking like a mad wolf. I was happy with this choice as well, as it emphasizes the beastly aspect of the creature and is a break with convention. And even if the animal is all too obviously a big dog with extra hairy padding stuck to it, the film does a good job of keeping him in shadow and therefore pretty menacing. The few clear shots of it against a moonlit sky are quite nice with its attack on Pavel being especially well done.


I can understand some of the criticisms leveled against this film over the years even as I don't agree with them all. Yes, the creature could have looked better, the Werewolf Break is cheesy and the film could stand to be about 10 minutes shorter. Strangely, the one element I was most annoyed by is one that I've never heard complaints about — the score. Although I think the music written for the film by Douglas Gamley is a nice slab of '70s semi-funky cheese, it often seems at odds with the seriousness of the film. But this is still a solid monster movie that deserves more attention than it has received. The unique Ten Little Indians/Most Dangerous Game set-up is fascinating and I'm surprised it hasn't been tried since. Indeed, if ever a film was ripe for a remake this is it! As the film is based on a James Blish story, perhaps some enterprising young producer can option that sucker and bring the Werewolf Break into the 21st century!

3 comments:

Nick Rentz said...

I felt the same way about it because of the negativity. It's a little dated and the gimmick is very William Castle like, but it's still a good werewolf movie. I need to rewatch it to refresh my memory of the score.

Dan said...

There is a scene in Family Guy were Peter buys a helicopter wrecks it in Joe's lawn slicing it up. Joe says in a moment of reality, "Peter, how can you afford these things!" Rod, you do the Naschycast, you edit the Naschycast, you read books and pulp. You then watch movies not for review. You also keep up family and FB. Do you mainline Red Bull? You are a true hero to me!

Rod Barnett said...

Dan- It's all done with mirrors. And by sucking at different things at different times! It is not an easy juggling act, let me tell ya!