|release date||March 31 1974|
|studio||Dark Sky Films|
|starring||Calvin Lockhart , Peter Cushing, Marlene Clark, Anton Diffring|
Big game hunter Tom Newcliffe gathers an eclectic group of guests at his mansion and reveals that one of them is a werewolf. Further, Newcliffe vows to expose the creature and kill it before anyone is allowed to leave.
By 1974, Amicus was starting to run out of steam. British horror was losing badly at the box-office to American fright films like THE EXORCIST, and studios were beginning to look for new angles to hold the interest of audiences who had grown tired of gothic period pieces and comic book anthologies. In adapting James Blish’s novel THERE SHALL BE NO DARKNESS to film, the powers that were at Amicus tweaked the story to cash in on the soaring popularity of blaxploitation films. The resulting combination of TEN LITTLE INDIANS, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME and SHAFT is an uneven, awkwardly plotted oddity that sadly foreshadows the studio’s subsequent demise.
Though the set-up is clever and has the potential to be fun, this variation on a recurring theme in mystery fiction has some glaring flaws. It is never made quite clear just how Newcliffe gets all of his guests to agree to come to his home, nor do we know how he knows that one (and only one) of them is a werewolf, beyond some threadbare exposition about deaths they’ve witnessed in their respective pasts. We see the hunter pursue one guest as he tries to leave and browbeat the man into staying, but until he actually disables everyone’s vehicles, it is unclear why half the partygoers don’t just pack up and go the moment they learn their host is obsessed with hunting down and killing one of them. Beyond a comment about one female guest having once shared a room with Newcliffe’s wife, there’s little to suggest that any of these individuals knew one another before they arrived, making their willingness to stay that much more puzzling once the party begins to sour.
The acting is all over the place here, with some steady veterans doing their best to hold it all together while a few lesser talents undermine any attempts at suspense or drama. Peter Cushing is fun as a werewolf expert with a silly-sounding German accent, doing his best to make the script’s nonsensical pseudo-scientific explanation of lycanthropy convincing. Anton Diffring (Hammer’s unsold TV pilot TALES OF FRANKENSTEIN, WHERE EAGLES DARE) holds his own as Newcliffe’s ill-fated security chief, and Charles Gray (DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW) is a treat as a stuffy aristocrat who may have murder in his past and has absolutely no patience for the host’s preoccupation with wolfmen. On the other hand, Calvin Lockhart is pretty bad as the determined hunter. He shouts most of his lines to give them dramatic emphasis (though it is never clear just why killing a werewolf is so important to him) and plays the whole thing far too seriously for his – or the movie’s – own good. The producers should have asked Lockhart and Cushing to switch roles, as the veteran horror star would have known to infuse his driven performance with a healthy dose of humor and charm. Lockhart’s Newcliffe is just a surly nut who talks really loud and waves guns in people’s faces for no apparent reason. Similarly, Marlene Clark is overwrought and unconvincing as his wife, leaving the viewer wondering how the couple ever got together in the first place. To be fair, Lockhart and Clark were reportedly not too happy with the blaxploitation influence on the production and probably never quite felt comfortable, but their characters are so central to the plot that their weak performances hurt the entire film. Ciaran Madden and Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in the last two Harry Potter films) are given little to do and, frankly, do even less with it.
Michael Winder’s script doesn’t help matters. As noted, it thrusts the viewer into the scenario with almost no expository background to lend credibility or depth to the proceedings. As in many of the slasher films of the subsequent decade which also “borrowed” their structure from TEN LITTLE INDIANS, the characters here are little more than paper thin red herrings and lupine fodder. There are few genuine character scenes, and those that are included generally focus on the weaker actors. Diffring’s Pavel is the most sympathetic (and believable) of the bunch, so logically he is the first to get killed. The rest of the group is too silly, too shallow or too obnoxious to care about. Not surprisingly, the easiest character to root for in THE BEAST MUST DIE is the beast, laughably essayed by a great big, cuddly dog.
Director Paul Annett steers things along at a very slow pace, with no sign of the werewolf until almost halfway in. To break up the long moments of waiting and talking, the film injects several “homages” to the black action genre – an overlong opening showing Newcliffe hunted and hounded through the woods by armed, white security men, a car chase (?), plenty of gunplay (including Newcliffe strafing the werewolf from a helicopter with a machine gun), and lots of shots of our hero stalking around in skintight black leather with a big automatic weapon in his hand. All of this is accompanied by music much better suited for an urban cop picture of the period then a fright film. If SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM and BLACKENSTEIN were blaxploitation films posing as horror movies, THE BEAST MUST DIE is a horror movie trying unsuccessfully to pass itself off as a blaxploitation film. It isn’t hip enough to be one, and it’s nowhere near scary enough to be the other.
As a mystery, the film is mildly engaging. The werewolf’s identity is a bit of a surprise and there is a nice twist in the final moments that adds to the payoff. Some of the most effective scenes show Lockhart being stalked by someone in human form, presumably out to kill him before he exposes them. One clever innovation involves the characters passing around a silver candleholder, knowing that the mere touch of silver is fatal to a lycanthrope. Best of all is the “Werewolf Break” gimmick which halts the action near the end and offers the viewer a chance to guess the beast’s true identity. This bit, borrowed from the pages of gimmick king William Castle, was apparently added to the film by producer Milton Subotsky after it was complete. Though the gimmick is neither original nor high tech, it does manage to infuse a bit of novelty into an otherwise fairly unremarkable picture.
THE BEAST MUST DIE is the third in Dark Sky Films’ slate of Amicus DVD releases due on June 25, 2006. Though the film itself is easily the least enjoyable of the three, the DVD presentation is typically excellent. The widescreen print looks great, and Annett contributes both a commentary track and an interview featurette entitled DIRECTING THE BEAST. Amicus and Cushing completists should give this disc a look, because it’s unlikely this movie will ever get better treatment on home video.
Ultimately, THE BEAST MUST DIE is a disappointment. It isn’t quite horror, it isn’t quite action, and it’s just a bit too silly and slow to be a decent mystery. There are a few bad movie bits worth checking out (the numerous and obvious day-for-night scenes, the fluffy “monster” with its tongue hanging out in every scene, a hilarious “battle” between the werewolf and Newcliffe’s faithful dog) and a couple of decent performances by familiar faces. There’s also the “interactive” gimmick, which is clever enough to make the movie mildly diverting on a rainy afternoon or very late at night – provided you’ve never seen it before. But BEAST is definitely one of the weakest films in the Amicus catalog, a confused concoction that perfectly exemplifies why cinematic thrill-seekers began turning their backs on English horror in the 1970s. With little of the gore or sex appeal of the glory days, and far too few thrills and far too many plot holes to make up the difference, there is little to recommend to all but the most dedicated horror fan.