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The Beast Must Die (1974)

“It bit me… the werewolf… bit me!”

Ah, The Beast Must Die. Another attempt by Amicus to muscle in on the full-length horror film market, and another dismal failure. Except it isn’t really, is it? The Beast Must Die has transcended the puzzled greeting it got in ’74 (Is it a werewolf film? Is it a Shaft-style “Blacksploitation” thriller? Is it an Agatha Christie-style mystery? Is it supposed to be funny?) to become the kind of film which practically defines a cult movie. Still sniffed at by snooty horror critics, The Beast Must Die is generally loved by the British horror fanbase in general. It’s funky, fast moving, difficult to predict and hilariously, uproariously daft, with a truly awe-inspiringly rubbish leading man and some jaw-droppingly barking (sorry) mad moments. There are so many red herrings it's untrue, and the "werewolf" is a big dog wrapped in a fur coat. But that only adds to the fun.

The film literally hits the ground running, and keeps up the frantic pace throughout – something rare in vintage British horror films, which are usually quite sedate affairs. Calvin Lockhart's Shaft-lite funky black man is being chased by troops through the English countryside, dodging traps as he goes. But whenever they do catch him, they let him go and he sprints off again. It’s like watching an ethnic version of The Avengers, with the Emma Peel character being played, complete with leather jumpsuit, by Derek Griffiths from Heads And Tails.

The chasee eventually bursts from the woods onto the lawn of a stately home, where a group of people are enjoying afternoon tea. He approaches them, but behind him the soldiers have caught up and are levelling their rifles. He turns to register this, dismisses them with a wave of his hand, and they gun him down.

As the shocked witnesses race towards the body, he starts laughing – it has all been an hilarious joke. His name is Tom Newcliffe and he is the owner of the house, millionaire and big game hunter – the others have all been invited there to be his guests. The chase through the woods was his way of testing a new alarm system he has had installed, which is being run from the mansion in efficient German style by a man called Pavel (Anton Diffring). Newcliffe explains that his guests have been invited for one reason only – one of them is a werewolf. Which one he has no idea, but he’s convinced that one of them is (don’t think about it for too long, it doesn’t make any sense).

“It bit me… the werewolf… bit me!”

He tells them that his new alarm system will help him hunt the werewolf when the lycanthopically-challenged person does what comes unnaturally, and then it is his intention to shoot it, stuff it and hang it on his wall as the ultimate big game trophy.

Newcliffe’s guests react as any sane person would do when faced with a gun-mad nut who has just announced that they’ve been imprisoned with a possible homicidal maniac – badly. As they start to bicker amongst themselves, the gory deaths begin (with some truly nasty aftermaths) and our supposedly imperturbable “great black hunter” begins to flap as every measure he puts in place to catch the beast is a spectacular failure.

The Agatha Christie-style red herrings come thick and fast, with absolutely everyone having a dodgy past involving cannibalism and murder, most sprouting hair where they shouldn’t, and all acting extremely suspiciously all the time.

As there are less and less people arriving for dinner of an evening, a cornucopia of half-remembered werewolf lore is bunged into the script (much of it resurrected recently in the truly bad – and not in a good way – Van Helsing). Just the touch of silver is announced to be pretty lethal to werewolves in any form, whether they get shot with it, accidentally pick it up, or stick it in their gob – BUT there has to be wolfsbane in the air. Erm, sometimes.

So, who is the shaggy beast? Aha! Well, if you are wondering that, then this is the film for you – because not only do you get to enjoy the daft goings-on, but you also get to participate. At the beginning we have been told to “watch for the werewolf break”, and here it comes – 30 seconds of no film at all, put in in a William Castle-style attempt to inject a bit of je ne sais quoi into the proceedings. It’s not the most useful of tools though, as it serves no practical purpose at all – this isn’t the kind of film where a series of well layed-out clues have allowed you to build up an intelligent guess, it’s the kind of film where everyone has been portrayed as being as guilty as everyone else. There’s a fair chance that the werewolf could turn out to be Newcliffe himself, or his as-yet unseen Auntie Beryl from Clitheroe, or possibly the unnamed guard who got fobbed off at the beginning after catching Newcliffe in the woods. In fact, it actually is one of the assembled throng of British horror illuminati (Charles “Devil Rides Out” Grey, Michael “Britain’s greatest living actor according to Jeremy Clarkson” Gambon, Peter “in pretty much everything” Cushing, Tom “looks a bit like Rick Wakeman” Chadbon etc) but it could just as easily not be.

Suffice to say the werewolf is unmasked – and then, in a supposed “twist”, another one is (typical, you wait years for one to come along…), before the supposed hero gets his just desserts.

It is well known that Milton Subotsky, the gobby half of the partnership running Amicus, didn’t really have a clue what to do when handed a full-length feature to put out. He was reported as being “puzzled” by the success of the sublimely mental Scream And Scream Again, and let’s face it – he managed to put out the wrong Dalek story first and effectively bugger up the chances of the far superior sequel getting the box office it deserved. So there’s a fair chance that the critical mauling The Beast Must Die has had since its inception could well be down to Amicus’ own disregard for its own project. Which is a terrible shame, because so many people must be put off ever seeing this film due to its terrible reputation.

Yes, The Beast Must Die is campy, clichéd claptrap, but at its heart is a roistering good yarn with a few interesting (although possibly mishandled) ideas – a rich, successful black man? In a film from 1974? In which no-one pointedly comments on his skin colour? The thing should have won something for that, at least.

Updated: February 11, 2010

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Sounds:

Introduction

Spooky intro explaining the "werewolf break" 76k

Call it what you like...

Calvin Lockhart's appalling acting 43k

It bit me...

The fantastic denouement16k

This is the werewolf break

Self explanatory, really 9k

 

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