The Beast Must Die Review
Although Amicus are best known for their horror anthologies, they also produced a number of full-length feature films. The quality of these was highly variable – they could rise to the heights of The Skull but were more than capable of sinking to the depths of The Deadly Bees. They dabbled in science fiction and fantasy too, with movies such as Dr Who And The Daleks and the interesting Mind of Mr Soames. However, none of their other films is quite as deliciously idiotic as The Beast Must Die which is, as the pre-credits introduction indicates, “A detective story – in which YOU are the detective.
The film is set on a remote island where a millionaire big-game hunter Tom Newcliffe (Lockhart) has gathered a motley collection of people in order to bag the biggest game of all – a werewolf. One of his house guests is prone to a spot of lycanthropy, but which one ? Could it be the outrageously accented Dr Lundgren (Cushing), expert in archaeology and less savoury pastimes ? Perhaps its nervously sweating concert pianist Jan Jarmokowski (Gambon), who can’t give a performance anywhere without the local police being baffled by a sudden eruption of murder and mutilation. Or it could be Paul Foote (Chadbon), who as a medical student took part in an experimental bout of cannibalism. What about Arthur Bennington (Gray), suave civil servant whose diplomatic staff had a habit of disappearing? Then there is society beauty Davinia Gilmore (Clark), friend of Tom’s wife and prone to dinner party disasters in which one or more of the guests end up being eaten. It could even be Caroline Newcliffe (Clark), Tom’s decidedly shifty-looking wife. The clues are presented and the viewer then gets the chance, during a “Werewolf Break”, to make their own guess as to the identity of the werewolf.
Things get off to quite a good start, with the aforementioned narration (possibly by Valentine Dyall if my ears don’t deceive me) and a wonderful credits sequence scored to Douglas Gamley’s blaxploitation score. Gamley, a workmanlike composer who did a lot of stuff for Amicus, does his best work here, suggesting that he harboured a secret ambition to be Isaac Hayes. The first scenes, with Lockhart being chased around his private island by a small army, are tense and entertaining, with some splendidly camp moments. Lockhart reveals a tendency to declaim his lines in a manner which makes you wonder how he might play Richard III but doesn’t do much for the character and he doesn’t get any more convincing as the film goes on. As he staggers on to what looks like the lawn of an English country house and is shot, to the consternation of his guests, the stage is set for a guiltily enjoyable bad movie. It transpires that Lockhart is checking out his security system to ensure that the werewolf can’t get away and that his security chief, Anton Diffring in a lovely plaid sports jacket, has a set-up run by a mainframe computer which is roughly the size of Bournemouth.
We then settle down into the detective scenario, with a selection of clues to the identity of the werewolf painstakingly hammered into our brains – and then repeated during the “Werewolf Break”. It’s not the most compelling of whodunnits to be honest and there are a sad lack of death set-pieces, given that a reasonable number of suspects have to stay around for us to guess from. However, the cast help a great deal. Peter Cushing has a ball with his German accent and brings his natural authority to a nothing part. Michael Gambon, currently one of the best actors in the world, isn’t noticeably impressive and is required to take part in a car chase scene which seems to be boring him to tears as his slightly troubled expression doesn’t change throughout.
The dialogue is packed with, if the word isn’t misplaced, howlers. At one point, Lockhart says sagely, “Money buys…. things….”, a statement with which it would be hard to argue. “You’re not seriously trying to tell us that one of us is a …. Werewolf !”, declares Gambon, rather redundantly given that his host has already explained this three times. Admiring Jan’s girlfriend, Diffring says “She looks like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth!”, to which Lockhart replies “Perhaps she prefers meat !”. This kind of thing is entertainment enough for lovers of camp. “I’m supposed to be your favourite neighbourhood nut!” drawls Paul Foote before Cushing launches in to the kind of scientific jargon which we’re obviously not meant to listen to because the director does everything except show him speaking. “Ze primary symptoms are ze growing of more body hair and… ah yes, ze itchiness of ze skin” waffles the doc, who later uses the word “transmogrification” in order to show us how clever he is. This occurs during a dinner party in which there are close-ups of each suspect licking their lips as some suspiciously red gravy is poured over some a tasty rump of beef. More enjoyment can be gleaned from Lockhart’s bizarre delivery of his dialogue. He emPHAsises exactLY the wrong biTS of a senTENCE in a manner which is presumably designed to confuse us. By the time Michael Gambon is handing round a silver candlestick in order to determine who the werewolf is – “Great ! A kind of classy Russian roulette” – it’s become clear that the only reason to watch the film is to see if it can get any sillier. As Tom Chadbon says, “Well, if that was dinner, I can’t wait for the cabaret !”
Thankfully, it can. Budgetary constraints seem to have dictated that the special effects should be as basic as possible, so the werewolf is a dog with some very basic make-up. Wisely, this inspired piece of movie magic is kept on the sidelines and we don’t get too lingering a look at it. Meanwhile, Cushing’s accent gets ever more extreme, Charles Gray smarms out of the side of his mouth and Calvin Lockhart demonstrates that hamming is an art which can be perfected in the right environment. Paul Annett’s direction varies wildly from scene to scene. His handling of the action isn’t bad and he gets a reasonable amount of tension going during the well-photographed day-for-night exteriors. There’s also a great suspense scene which is quite reminiscent of a scene in Alien. But his direction of the dialogue scenes is disastrous. It might have been better for him to keep a static shot on the actors as they waded through the reams of exposition they are required to recite. Instead, Annett does a Sidney J.Furie and goes mad with zooms, close-ups and weird camera angles. This does prevent the film from becoming too boring but it tends to make the scenes drift into incoherence.
The Beast Must Die, derived from a story by James Blish called “There Shall be No Darkness” and owing a great deal to both Agatha Christie and The Most Dangerous Game, is a very amusing bit of nonsense which is bound to entertain anyone who likes their horror served up with more than just a touch of camp. The settings, supposed to be high-tech, are wonderfully redolent of 1974 with vast banks of TV monitors and various cumbersome bits of electrical equipment. Douglas Gamley’s marvellous music score supplies a shot of energy to the somewhat lethargic pacing and does much to hold the film together. This, combines with the interesting cast, Jack Hildyard’s atmospheric lighting and the copious unintentional humour, is enough to make it worth a look for horror and mystery fans.
This new Anchor Bay release of The Beast Must Die is available only as part of their Amicus boxset. Considering the age and the relative obscurity of the film, it’s a very pleasing disc.
The film is presented in a fullscreen version. Having watched it a couple of times and compared it to the R1 version, which is matted at 1.66:1, it looks to me like this is an open-matte transfer. The image quality is very good with reasonably sharp detail and strong colours. There is some grain throughout and a certain amount of print damage in the shape of scratches and some white speckling. The film looks quite dark too, more so than the VHS version, although this helps the atmosphere. Some people have said that they would have preferred an anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer but I’m not sure it really matters in this case.
There are, as with the other titles in the set, three soundtracks in English; the original Mono, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby DTS 5.1 Surround. The results are much the same as before and which one you prefer will be largely a matter of personal taste. All are perfectly respectable efforts. The mono soundtrack is the one I liked best but the remixed tracks do, inevitably, seem more rounded and satisfying with the music score benefiting particularly well. On all the tracks, dialogue is crisp and clear and the music sounds fine.
There are some nice extras included. Most valuable is a full-length commentary track featuring Paul Annett in conversation with Jonathan Southcott. As usual, the pairing of a director with a moderator pays dividends, keeping discussion interesting, constant and on-track and there are few longeurs in this track. It’s not the most entertaining of commentaries and Annett is quite dry both in his observations and his manner of speech, but anyone who likes the film will find this interesting. There is also a brief featurette which is basically an interview with Annett, who is very dismissive of other werewolf films. As ever, the anecdotes of dealing with Milton Subotsky are amusing – Subotsky apparently hated the film - but there’s not much here which you won’t hear in the commentary track. My favourite story remains the fact that Shirley Bassey was nearly approached to play the part of Lockhart’s wife. Had this actually happened, it would have made the film even more of a camp classic than it is. As usual, there are also some informative film notes and a photo gallery. Finally, there are biographies of Paul Annett, Peter Cushing and Calvin Lockhart. The latter is especially fascination given the obscurity of Lockhart’s later career.
The film is divided into 18 chapter stops. The animated menus are attractive and easy to navigate. Yet again, no subtitles are included for either the film or the special features.
I had a good time watching The Beast Must Die and I’m sure that anyone with a sense of humour will enjoy it as well. It’s the least interesting item in the Amicus Collection set but it’s far from being useless filler – unlike, say, The Vengeance of She in the Warner “Hammer Horror Resurrected” boxset.