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The Beast In The Cellar (1970)

With a title like that, you’d at least expect this film to be a cheap and cheerful exploitative horror. What you wouldn’t expect is 90 minutes of two dotty old birds wandering about and wittering on about celery. But that’s what you get, god help us. And this from the company which brought us Witchfinder General and Blood On Satan’s Claw

Things start reasonably promisingly, though - even before the credits have ended, a soldier on training manoeuvres in the English countryside gets ripped to pieces by an unseen foe, American Werewolf In London - style. It’s murder (or something like it), so enter that British horror movie staple, the dense and confused-looking police inspector (TP “Blown across the farmyard in Straw Dogs” McKenna). Common consensus among the gathered police seems to point to the perpetrator being a leopard (“A leopard? In Lancashire?”) well, some kind of animal, anyway (“Human animal, or animal animal?”).

On hearing the news that a soldier has been killed, old Joyce Balentine (Flora “Shuttered Room” Robson), who shares a house nearby with her dotty sister Ellie (Beryl “Mooncat” Reid), does what any person would do - she puts on an army greatcoat and rushes into the cellar. Meanwhile Ellie’s making her way home, accompanied by her own theme music (much like Charles Hawtrey’s in the Carry Ons).

After much dreary talk about celery (I’m not kidding), watering cactuses (?) and the weather (%$£^%!!), they are visited by Military Policeman Alan (John Hamill), who’s a friend of theirs. Alan, who is made of 100 per cent cardboard, then repeats everything that’s happened in the film so far for the benefit of the two old dears. Which brings to a halt the already slow proceedings – especially when you consider that HARDLY ANYTHING HAS HAPPENED YET.

He ends with: “And yer not to worry, either of yer...” (Of course not, there’s just a wild animal/crazed madman on the loose, that’s all), and the conversation gets back to celery (I am honestly not joking).

Joyce then pointedly tells Ellie: “I may not always be here to stand between you and things as they really were... as they really ARE...”

And Beryl tells a painting of her father: “You were the best looking man I ever saw. But I suppose Joyce was right. That was... before...”

So what are we supposed to deduce from all of this? Some kind of strange incestuous necrophilia? Or something about celery?

Luckily, interest is piqued by the next scene, when a squaddie drags a local girl into a nearby barn and they get down to some serious fully-clothed nookie. Just as he’s pulling down her knickers and she’s unbuttoning his fly, he gets brutally murdered by the again unseen foe, and she gets showered with blood.

Thank goodness for Ellie, who’s found some celery in the garden. There’s just time for another chat about the weather between the two old girls before the killer strikes again - this time a soldier gets knocked off his bicycle and ripped to pieces.

Finally, 33 minutes into the film (although it feels more like 93), Joyce tells Ellie to take some drugged food down into the cellar, and on observing that the place is bereft of whatever is supposed to be there (a beast, possibly?) Ellie screams: “Joyce! Joyce! He’s gone! He’s gone!”

Alan pops by to inform his two favourite old dears that there’s been yet another murder, and Ellie puts two and two together: “It’s him! He’s found a way to get out!” The sisters look in the garden shed and find a squaddie’s body with its eyeball hanging out of the socket (a not-entirely-convincing effect, it has to be said).

Wanting to keep this discovery secret for some reason, Joyce gives Ellie the job of burying the body, and there’s an attempt at some kind of tension as she does the deed whilst Joyce’s unwitting young nurse (Tessa Wyatt) tries to find her way into the cottage. Will Ellie succeed? Will she be discovered? Does anyone care? Is anyone still awake?

The nurse gives Joyce her prescribed medication of sleeping pills, but because the old dear has actually been giving them to their guest in the cellar for the past few years, when she takes them she overdoses immediately. With a doped-up Joyce now ready to start playing the bongos and raiding the cornflakes, Beryl decides she can’t cope with their murderous guest on her own and decides to call in the army and police, and (finally!) tells their story...

 

“The house was awful after that…” says Ellie. “Daddy was strange...”

Her tale of Daddy going off to war in 1914 is accompanied by clips of 1960s schoolkids having a snowball fight(?) and paintings and photos of the war (large budget, this one), and then a flashback to the young Ellie and Joyce meeting Daddy home from the war at the railway station. Of course, Daddy’s not right, him suffering from gas poisoning and shell shock.

“The house was awful after that…” says Ellie. “Daddy was strange...”

Yet he still managed to father another child – a boy named Stephen, who the girls decided to wall up in the cellar to stop him going to war in 1939. “At first he used to shout and scream... gradually he stopped making any noise at all...” Adds Ellie.

“We couldn’t let him out... he was too far gone... he wasn’t normal. We thought it was best for him... that’s what we thought...”

So, there you have it. This “Beast” which has been terrorising the local town and ripping trained soldiers to bloody shreds with his bare fingernails turns out to be a middle aged man who’s been imprisoned in a cellar for the past 30-odd years, doped up to the eyeballs on tranquillisers and existing on scraps of food. If all the celery talk hasn’t made you take a hammer to the television, this utterly preposterous and illogical ending will have you chucking the thing into the street.

Unlike a lot of 70s Brit horror, The Beast In The Cellar hasn’t improved with age – it really is as doddery and shaky as its two female leads. But it does make you pine for the days when you could pick up the phone and say: “Hello, Doris?” rather than dialling a 10-digit number to speak to a call centre in New Delhi. That’s not really a reason to give up 90 minutes of your life, though, is it?

The Beast in the Cellar (1971)

Director: James Kelley Writer(s): James Kelley

Cast: Beryl Reid - Ellie Ballantyne, Flora Robson - Joyce Ballantyne, John Hamill - Cpl. Alan Marlow, Tessa Wyatt - Joanna Sutherland, T.P. McKenna - Supt. Paddick, John Kelland - Sergeant Young, David Dodimead - Dr. Spencer, Vernon Dobtcheff - Sir Bernard Newsmith, Dafydd Havard - Stephen Ballantyne, Gail Lidstone - Young Ellie, Elizabeth Choice - Young Joyce, Merlyn Ward - Young Stephen, Anthony Heaton - Anderson, Chris Chittell - Baker, Peter Craze - Roy

Updated: February 11, 2010

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