Monday, October 17, 2016

The Beast Must Die (Great Britain, 1974)

Aka Black Werewolf. Werewolf films have it bad. So few are ever done right. Sure, the classic Universal movie, The Wolf Man (1941 / trailer), got it right, as did The Howling (1981 / trailer), and the Hammer version with Oliver Reed, The Curse of the Werewolf (1961 / trailer), has many plus points, as does Eric Red's far less than perfect Bad Moon (1996), but most miss the mark worse than a dog on acid trying to pee on a fire hydrant. Sometimes they improve somewhat with age (see: the TV flick Moon of the Wolf [1972] and Mike Nichols' Wolf [1994 / trailer]), but in general they seldom work. In regard to The Beast Must Die, the only werewolf movie to come out of England's "second" horror studio, Amicus, the question is whether it simply didn't age well or whether it was never any good in the first place. In all likelihood, both are true: The Beast Must Die is a highly flawed, second-rate werewolf film which, unlike so many movies, has not improved at all with age.
And that despite a cast that includes numerous genre-film-fan faves: Peter Cushing (sporting an entertaining German accent), Charles Gray (as supercilious as always), Anton Diffring, and Marlene Clark. (Less a genre-film-fan fave than unrecognizably young: Michael Gambon, whom everyone now knows as Albus Dumbledore.) The always fun Robert Quarry (of Count Yorga, Vampire [1970 / trailer], The Return of Count Yorga [1971 / trailer], Dr Phibes Rises Again [1972 / trailer], Deathmaster [1972 / trailer] Madhouse [1974 / trailer] and Sugar Hill [1974 / trailer], among many) was also originally meant to be part of the cast, but the then-current Blaxploitation craze resulted in the main character, Tom Newcliffe, of what was originally planned as a typically all-white British horror movie, getting a new skin color.
Based on the short story There Shall Be No Darkness by James Blish (23 May 1921 – 30 July 1975), first published in 1950, the plot involves a millionaire big-game hunter named Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart of Predator 2 [1990 / trailer] and Myra Breckinridge [1970 / trailer]) who gathers a group of people together to his secluded country mansion. He's convinced that one of the group is a werewolf, and plans to add the werewolf to his list of big game kills. It must be noted that for a big game hunter, he turns out to be one of the worst shots in film history: even when he literally machine guns a barn to pieces, he misses his target. In the end, an unassuming and much older man — who never makes mention of ever even having shot a gun — turns out to be a better shot than he.
The opening scene of The Beast Must Die is pretty much a filler and rip-off in that it makes the movie look like an updated version of The Most Dangerous Game (1932 / complete movie, version ad nauseum). But once that misconception is cleared and the true narrative established, things don't get much better. British films often do something rarely done in the movies of most other countries: they not only populate their movies with unsympathetic characters, but make the leading character totally dislikable. And The Beast Must Die is a prime example of this. But for Tom's wife Caroline (Marlene Clark of Night of the Cobra Woman [1972 / trailer], Slaughter [1972 / trailer], Ganja & Hess [1973 / title track], Lord Shango [1975 / trailer], and Switchblade Sisters [1975 / trailer]) and Prof. Lundgren (Peter Cushing), not one of the "suspects" is really in any way sympathetic or worth the viewer's concern.
Tom Newcliffe himself is an asshole times ten: egoistic, choleric, blustery, dictatorial, obnoxious, disagreeable, latently & blatantly violent, and oddly unintelligent — anyone in the world could have thought of a dozen more intelligent ways to find out who's the werewolf than his method (like, for example, simply locking each person in their room for the three days of the full moon or, for some gruesome fun, cooking powdered silver into the food) — the self-made millionaire has the personality of the not-self-made psycho Donald Trump, but without the entertaining verbal idiocy.

In this regard, The Beast Must Die does indeed suffer by the casting of Calvin Lockhart as the hero: although handsome, he is a humorless actor who exudes distance and unavailability, if not eternal anger, and he fails at lending his character the needed suaveness or sense of culture or humor or at least worldly concern needed to make him less obnoxious and unlikeable. His Tom Newcliffe leaves so little to viewers to identify with that even during the movies resolution, when one is obviously meant to feel for him, one doesn't. (James Earl Jones, Moses Gunn, or William Marshall [of Blacula (1972 / trailer), Scream Blacula Scream (1973 / trailer) and Abby (1974 / trailer)] — or even Duane Jones [of Night of the Living Dead (1968)] — would have been much better choices as Blaxploitation options to Robert Quarry. Not to mention Richard "Shaft" Roundtree of Q: The Winged Serpent [1982 / trailer] and Maniac Cop [1988 / trailer]).
As for the werewolf itself, it is indeed a joke: far more so than looking like either a werewolf or even a wolf, the creature is a direct descendent of the killer shrews in the classic so-bad-its-good movie The Killer Shrews (1959). It looks just like what it is: a friendly dog wearing a body wig. How could anyone who took part in the production actually think that would work? Not good. Not scary. And all the less scary due to the near-incompetent cinematography of the badly shot day-for-night scenes. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.
In theory, The Beast Must Die is a kind of film version of the classic board game Clue (itself filmed as a comedy in 1985 [trailer]) in that you as the viewer are invited to figure out who among the guests is the werewolf. This is the basis behind the movie's famous 30-second "Werewolf Break" towards the end of the movie. The Werewolf Break is oddly endearing, and is kept for the current DVD releases. (It was cut from the AKA release, Black Werewolf.) But to guess who it is, is the best one can do, for there are no real clues to indicate the possible werewolf. True, there seems to be an extremely obvious "clue" when the dishonored diplomat (Charles Gray of The Devil Rides Out [1968], The Legacy [1978 / trailer] and, of course, The Rocky Horror Picture Show [1975 / trailer]) is playing chess with Prof. Lundgren (Peter Cushing), but it proves to be little more than a red herring.
To give credit where it is due, the funky title theme by Douglas Gamley (13 Sept 1924 – 5 Feb 1998) is superlative, and while it catches nothing of horror it does have the rhythm and beat of classic Blaxploitation. Although sparingly used, it is the most exciting aspect of the entire movie. In that sense, it also does its part in magnifying the movie's flaws. The drive of the funky soundtrack during the opening of the movie is so effective, so invigorating, that the later dullness that is the movie seems intensified. And make no mistake, The Beast Must Die is indeed a rather boring movie: it simply has way too much talking and shouting, and way too little action. The filmmakers seem to have realized that themselves, for they interject a few unconvincing and poorly shot chase scenes, none of which put the viewer on the edge of their seat in any way and, instead, simply come across as padding.
The Beast Must Die: neither a classic of British horror nor Blaxploitation, nor all that much fun in any way. It does not deserve the viewer's time. Skip it.

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