Friday, 14 June 2013

'THE BEAST MUST DIE' REVIEW AND STILLS GALLERY: AMICUS FILMS 1974 GROWLINGLY GOOD WHO-DONE-IT.


Egomaniacal big game hunter Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart) invites a disparate group of friends and associates to his rambling mansion for a weekend getaway; little do they realize that it’s a ploy engineered by Newclife, who believes that one of them is a werewolf… and he’s anxious to add just such a specimen to his trophy case…


By the mid-70s, cracks were beginning to appear in the foundation of the Amicus House of Horror.  Producers Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky had achieved success in the 60s with a string of low budget horror films with classy production values, but their run was bound to come to an end.  It wasn’t just Amicus who was suffering, either.  Hammer Films, the reigning Kings of British horror, were also on their way out.  The horror genre was changing, and the success of pictures like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Exorcist (1973) signaled that the old school of horror filmmaking was beginning to look a bit passé.


Subotsky and Rosenberg responded much as Hammer had done, by adding a bit more graphic gore and sex to pictures like And Now The Screaming Starts! (1973), but it proved to be a cynical move that did little to improve their box office favors.  When the time came to do The Beast Must Die, they decided to fall back on the William Castle school of gimmicky filmmaking by adding in a “werewolf break,” wherein the film literally freezes for half a minute just before the last act, thus giving audiences a chance to make one final guess on the identity of the werewolf… as if the identity was really all that hard to guess, anyway.  No matter – it was a silly gimmick, and it did little to improve the film’s box office takings.  The Beast Must Die, like the aforementioned And Now The Screaming Starts!, broke from the Amicus “formula” by sticking to a single-plot narrative structure.  And it, too, failed to garner much enthusiasm from audiences, thus helping to speed the company towards its inevitable oblivion.


The screenplay was adapted by screenwriter Michael Winder from a story called “There Shall Be No Darkness” by James Blish.  It is, in essence, a conflation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (aka, Ten Little Indians) and Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, with elements of the werewolf mythos stirred in for good measure.


In the hands of first time director Paul Annett (who would later go on to direct some good episodes of the Granada Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett), it rattles along at a pretty good clip – but sadly, it falls short where the werewolf itself is concerned.  Sooner than make up the actor playing the werewolf (no spoilers here, folks!), they elected to try and make a friendly looking pooch look intimidating with some extra fur and “creepy” lighting and camera angles.  It doesn’t work.  Thus, the finale doesn’t have quite the punch that it really should.


As usual for Amicus, there’s a good cast on display.  The lead role went to African-American Calvin Lockhart when the original choice, Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire), proved to be unavailable; much like Vincent Price, who had been forced to pass on The House That Dripped Blood, Quarry rankled when his boss at American International Pictures refused to release him to do a horror film for a “competitor” such as Amicus.  According to Annett’s commentary track on the DVD release of the film, Lockhart proved to be difficult to deal with, as he resented that the role was not conceived for a black actor and he believed that the producers were simply trying to cash in on the then-popular Blaxploitation movement.


In response to this, Lockhart played up the character’s wealth and culture, resisting the urge to fall into any kind of an ethnic stereotype.  It’s an enjoyably arch performance, but one can sense the actor struggling against the material, and one is left regretting that Quarry was not allowed to do the picture instead.  Amicus surrounded Lockhart with some wonderfully accomplished performers, including Charles Gray (Diamonds Are Forever), Anton Diffring (Where Eagles Dare) and, of course, Peter Cushing.  Cushing is cast in his usual savant role, but the whodunit nature of the material ensures that he, too, comes under suspicion of being a werewolf.


Cushing doesn’t have a great deal to do here, and he adopts a somewhat inconsistent Norwegian accent, but he’s still a welcome presence.  Diffring, often cast as icy villains, is enjoyable in a warmer-than-usual role, as Lockhart’s sardonic surveillance expert, while Gray is his usual acerbic and amusing self as one of the reluctant houseguests.


The film also contains an early appearance by Michael Gambon, later to achieve fame as the hero of Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective and numerous films by Stephen Frears, Tim Burton, and others.  Beautiful Marlene Clark (Ganja and Hess) is the only other black actor in the production, and she gives arguably the film’s strongest performance, as Lockhart’s long-suffering wife.


Amicus’ classy production values are much in evidence, despite some unfortunate shortcuts here and there.  Jack Hildyard (an Oscar winner for films like Bridge on the River Kwai) handles the cinematography, which is slick if not especially memorable; some bad day for night photography betray the haste with which the film was shot, however.


Douglas Gamley contributes a funky score which has been derided in recent years as being dated… Films inevitably reflect the period in which they were made, however, and the music is no more distracting in this sense than the bell bottoms and butterfly collars which are evident throughout.  Annett handles the material with smooth efficiency, milking maximum impact from a few key suspense scenes.


The Beast Must Die would be Amicus’ one and only foray into the werewolf subgenre, and it would mark the first of only two films on the subject in which Cushing appeared (the second would emerge the following year, with Tyburn’s Legend of the Werewolf, itself a clumsy retread of Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf).  It may not rank among their finest achievements, but it remains a fun and well paced item on its own terms.

Written by Troy Howarth
with Images and artwork by Marcus Brooks    

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