Children of Bond - The Beast Must Die

The Beast Must Die is a somewhat camp (at the very least it teeters on the brink in unsteady fashion) 1974 British horror film from the wonderful Amicus studio directed by Paul Annett and based on James Blish's story There Shall Be No Darkness. In the film, wealthy playboy, philanthropist and big game hunter Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart) invites, as you do, an eclectic group of people to his gigantic country mansion as guests of him and his wife Caroline (Marlene Clark) because he is convinced that one of these characters is a werewolf! 
The sprawling mansion is fitted with a high-tech closed-circuit television surveillance system with numerous security cameras and listening devices controlled by Newcliffe's trusted assistant and employee Pavel (Anton Diffring). Once the werewolf is secretly spied or duly reveals his or her self, Newcliffe plans to shoot the biggest game of all with his hunting rifle and add it to his prized trophy collection
This select group of suspects is made up of archaeology and werewolf expert Dr Lundgren (Peter Cushing), former medical student and suspected cannibal Paul Foote (Tom Chadbon), disgraced British diplomat (with constantly disappearing staff) Arthur Bennington (Charles Gray), society beauty Davinia Gilmore (Ciaran Madden), and shifty looking concert pianist Jan Jarmokowski (Michael Gambon), a man who (suspiciously) never seems too geographically far away from the scene of some grisly murder. 
"Why do you think I invited you? Because every one of you sitting right here in this room has one thing in common: Death!" declares Newcliffe. He's completely obsessed with bagging a werewolf and dismisses the servants and cuts off the telephones. He insists that his guests all stay throughout the cycle of the full moon until the beast reveals itself.
As our suspects play chess, banter, dine and discuss werewolf lore at Newcliffe's grand country house, numerous red herrings and clues are thrown in our direction and the film even invites us to guess who we think the werewolf might be, supplying us with an enjoyably gimmicky William Castle style thirty second 'Werewolf Break' (narrated by Valentine Dyall) with ticking clock before the great revelation. The Beast Must Die begins by telling us that "This is a detective story in which YOU are the detective. The question is not WHO is the murderer? - But WHO is the werewolf? After all the clues have been shown YOU will get a chance to give your answer. Watch for the werewolf break!"
The Beast Must Die is sort of Agatha Christie meets Shaft (leading man Calvin Lockhart comes across a more theatrical Shaft clone with a generous slab of 007) meets The Most Dangerous Game meets James Bond meets a daft low-budget Amicus film. Newcliffe seems to have a fondness for James Bond style gadgetry and the introduction to his character is very Bondish. It begins with some wonderfully funky and amusing seventies music courtesy of the always dependable Douglas Gamely and sweeping overhead shots of isolated countryside. Calvin Lockhart, wearing the first in a succession of slightly camp tight outfits that frequently make him look like a backing singer in the Eurovision song contest, is being hunted in a booby trapped forest by numerous armed men.
He eventually crashes exhausted through the foliage onto genteel lawns by his mansion where his guests/werewolf suspects are politely sipping tea outside and waiting for him. The armed men of course were all Newcliffe employees and he was merely testing his security system using himself as bait! This opening to the film feels a lot like a sixties/early seventies style James Bond PTS sequence. You could easily imagine Sean Connery or George Lazenby in this Milk Tray Man style opener.

The guests want to know why they are really here and quickly start to bicker and look shifty when Newcliffe drops his - on the face of it completely bonkers - werewolf bombshell. "You're not seriously trying to tell us that one of us is a Werewolf!" protests Michael Gambon, looking a bit like Jason King. It's quite a nice idea to try and cross a drawing room murder mystery with a werewolf film and The Beast Must Die always keeps you reasonably interested to find out who the culprit is, especially when the murders begin.
The clues and red herrings are a bit all over the place though to say the least and not to be taken too seriously. This is really a film where they could probably have revealed anyone as the werewolf at the end after endowing virtually every single character in the whole film with at least one suspicious piece of behaviour or background information!
The film makes quite good use of the surrounding woods (the famous Amicus stream makes an appearance), overhead helicopter shots and the whole surveillance angle. Pavel's security room with countless television monitors watching over the mansion is nicely designed and enjoyable in a dated seventies sort of way with its chessboard floor and Pavel's electronic "grid" with little red lights indicating where his various listening devices are. It's the sort of place where a seventies Bond villian might preside over his empire. The scenes between Diffring and Lockhart in the security room as they plot a way to flush out the werewolf are always good fun. 
There is a car chase too involving Gambon that is slightly comical but enjoyable with Gamely's very seventies music pounding away. Perhaps one criticism is that the film is never very scary or frightening, instead often coming across as camp, but it is quite creepy on one or two occasions and there is a bit of blood and gore (though not much) here and there when the guests start to be picked off. One of the most atmospheric and memorable scenes in the film probably occurs when Pavel's security room is threatened by the werewolf from a glass ceiling high above.
The werewolf itself, when it finally makes an appearance, is quite obviously a large German Shepard dog with a big coat thrown over it or something and as you are always patently aware of this fact they wisely don't overdo the werewolf capers. At least you get a vague sense of a live beast on the loose even if it isn't terribly convincing or terrifying. The alternative of an actor pitching up with a Dog Soldiers type werewolf mask probably wouldn't have improved the film an awful lot in my opinion. The werewolf shenanigans work best when they are depicted in a relatively fleeting manner or occur during the quite atmospheric sequences which are set during the night.
Today they would CG a film like The Beast Must Die to within an inch of its life and probably lose half of the charm on offer here. The central idea of the film, that one of the guests is really a werewolf but must hide that fact, is always more interesting and creepy than the actual 'werewolf' scenes that occur.
The Beast Must Die has a rather eccentric cast and it's always enjoyable to see them together at the dinner table with vast tracts of werewolf information and musings on things like transmogrification entertainingly coming from Peter Cushing's Dr Lundgren courtesy of a bizarre foreign accent. "Ze urge to eat human flesh is uncontrollable," explains Lundgren as they sit around the dinner table. "I'm afraid der iz vorse to come..." He'd certainly put me off my cheese on toast if he came around for tea. 

Cushing nonetheless engages and gains sympathy in his usual quiet way and Michael Gambon and Tom Chadbon are both fun just for their ridiculous seventies hair and clothes. The frilly shirts and period trappings form part of the charm of the film now. The urbane Charles Gray, who lest we forget played Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever only a few years before this film, is sadly underused though as Arthur Bennington and mostly just complains about being held against his will by Newcliffe. I think I would have liked a bit more for Anton Diffring to do as Newcliffe's right hand man Pavel too. Diffring spends most of the film in the high-tech surveillance attempting to track the werewolf for his boss. He's also supposed to be from the country where werewolves originated so is yet another suspect in the film!
The scenes of these characters all together in the mansion are always quite good fun though and I love the moment when the guests are presented with a blood red sauce at dinner, presumably to entice the werewolf into a slip. "Well, if that was dinner, I can't wait for the cabaret!" says Rick Wakeman lookalike Tom Chadbon. Newcliffe deploys various (and not very subtle) methods in the film designed to make one of his guests suddenly sprout fur and grow fangs so there is plenty of riffing on werewolf mythology with the passing around of silver candlesticks and bullets etc. "Money buys things but men shape events!" says Newcliffe, attempting to explain his obsession to nab a pesky werewolf.
A big part of the cult appeal of The Beast Must Die is surely the eccentric and strange performance of Calvin Lockhart as Newcliffe. Lockhart is ridiculously hammy and theatrical and has a habit of suddenly emphasising random words as if he's trying desperately to impart great weight and meaning. It is a slightly odd spectacle at times with this over enunciating Shaft clone attempting to prod a collection of refined British actors into tripping up and turning into a werewolf. Lockhart's earnestly wooden performance and choice range of camp outfits is a winning combination and it's always oddly compelling when he's running around in the woods with his hunting rifle and an outfit that wouldn't look out of place in an episode of Blake's Seven. 
Despite my affectionate jesting of Lockhart's thesping prowess I do genuinely enjoy his performance in the film and he's always a commanding and rather stylish presence in his black, military style outfits as the guests mince about in a selection of lighter summer clobber and silly hats. Despite its obvious flaws and rather modest budget, The Beast Must Die is enjoyable nonsense on the whole with a great central premise (I'm amazed to be honest that no one has ever thought of remaking this film). This is an entertaining dose of kitsch seventies horror with a host of familiar faces. And no, the first time I watched this I didn't manage to guess correctly who the werewolf was! Watch out for the "werewolf break" and see if you have better luck...
- Jake

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