When I think about werewolves, one thing springs to mind immediately. “Where wolf? There! There wolf!” (Young Frankenstein, 1974). The werewolf sub-genre provides some of the most memorable entries into the horror pantheon: The Wolf Man, An American Werewolf in London, Teen Wolf, Twilight… the stories span the decades and the genres. It is with that, I turn my attention to another new-to-me, potentially ‘good-bad’ horror movie, The Beast Must Die.
The Beast Must Die follows Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart) a wealthy businessman who invites a group of acquaintances to stay in his massive English estate for a weekend getaway. While on the surface, it seems like these folks are in for a few days of relaxation, it turns out everything is a bit more… quirky. It seems each of these people have a certain… proclivity… for raw human flesh and according to Newcliffe, one of them is a werewolf. And it turns out, he really wants to hunt a werewolf. I suppose it’s a perk of being rich. Peter Cushing, Marlene Clark, Charles Gray, Michel Gambon and Anton Diffring co-star in the movie. Paul Annett directs The Beast Must Die from a screenplay by Michael Winder.
The film is built around a really interesting premise. Who is the werewolf? Great and classic mysteries are built on this concept… well, not werewolves… but you know. When The Beast Must Die embraces the tounge-in-cheek nature of its unique narrative, it works incredibly well. This is seen early in the first act when Newcliffe lays out the mystery and once again deep in the second act when the horror begins to escalate. This is a fun twist on a classic idea and I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
The Beast Must Die is a werewolf movie coming in the 1970s, so it can be assumed that there’s going to be a certain amount of gore horror. In fact, Annett does a great job weaving the horror elements together with the mystery in a way that does work on screen. This is when the horror is at its scariest, especially when integrated with the unknown. There’s a lot audiences don’t (or can’t) see in the early acts and this is definitely when the scares hit the hardest.
The direction of the horror shifts towards the end of the second act as the film shows the werewolf (notice my coy avoidance of spoilers here!). Is the werewolf done with make-up? Nope. Is it a puppet? No! In fact, the beast of the title which “must die” is a dog standing in as a werewolf. The cinematic effect from using the dog (as opposed to make-up or visual effects) is a strange one. As I first-time-watched this film, I felt myself pulled back from the narrative at this point. Perhaps it is because this technique is incredibly rare, but I didn’t find myself truly scared or even particularly entertained, it felt distracting.
From the opening frames, The Beast Must Die shows definite stylistic aims. The movie feels very ‘1970s’ for lack of a better turn of phrase. In fact, Clavin Lockhart was a steady fixture in the ‘blaxploitation’ films popular during the era and there are moments throughout the movie where it wants to tap into these associations. This is particularly clear in the use of music and in very specific moments of editing.
Had the film committed to these specific stylistic goals, I believe this movie could have worked to a delightful extent; however, The Beast Must Die can’t seem to decide what it wants to be. Tonally, the story is caught somewhere between ‘blaxploitation’, horror, and Upstairs, Downstairs. In a perfect world, this would create a weird and wonderful tone worthy of the best ‘good-bad’ movie. Unfortunately though, The Beast Must Die never quite figures out how to juggle these contradictory ideas. When it’s great, it’s really amazing; however, there are long, poorly paced sections that are just a slog to get though. A number of scenes are overly long to the point it is possible to zone out and come back to the narrative… and not really miss much of anything.
The performances here are interesting, particularly Lockhart who is “new to me” as a actor. At the same time, the presence of Peter Cushing and Michael Gambon firmly roots the horror movie into the grand old British acting tradition. Most wouldn’t argue that Peter Cushing is always good (and this is true here). I’d even go as far as to say the actor looks to be having a blast; however, this legend of British horror is used as little more than a plot device for delivering exposition. How can you waste Peter Cushing?
Perhaps in watching The Beast Must Die, my expectations were too low (or too high). I was expecting a fun watch of the ‘good-bad’ movie variety; however, what flickers across the screen is a very interesting horror mystery weighed down by struggles in execution. Ultimately, this one just didn’t quite work for me. Enough is going right to keep it from being a ‘good-bad’ movie, but at the same time, the problems with the construction keep it from being a truly good movie.
The Beast Must Die airs Saturday March 27th on MeTV as part of Svengoolie.
The Beast Must Die is also streaming over on Amazon Prime!