The Beast Must Die (1974)
"One of these eight people will turn into a werewolf. Can you guess who it is when we stop the film for the WEREWOLF BREAK? See it ... solve it ... but don't tell!"
Tom Newcliffe is a millionaire game hunter who has hunted almost everything on the planet and now wants to hunt the ultimate prey - a werewolf. He invites six guests to his huge country estate and has rigged up a high-tech security and surveillance system to keep track of everyone. With the full moon approaching, he knows that someone is going to turn into a werewolf. But who?
Amicus, the British horror rivals to Hammer, never could quite compete in the same league as their more successful counterparts but they were prolific in their output during the 60s and 70s, mainly focusing on their trademark anthology films. Eager to prove they weren't just a one-trick pony, Amicus occasionally ventured out into standalone horror, though the likes of I, Monster, Scream and Scream Again and And Now the Screaming Starts! were not well received and inevitably they'd return back to their tried-and-tested anthologies. The Beast Must Die was one of their stand alone efforts where they tried to tap into different trends and combine them together usually resulting in a bit of a mess of a film. Released the same year as Murder on the Orient Express and amidst the blaxploitation boom, The Beast Must Die is a curious attempt to mix a whodunit with a werewolf film featuring a leading man who could have been lifted straight out of a Fred Williamson-Richard Roundtree film. The result is a mixed bag where the final product is clearly well short of how the film was perceived but one of British horror's most curious entries.
The Beast Must Die has an excellent idea and sets everything up in the opening act: the remote location with all of the cameras and high-tech security making it impossible to get around without being seen; the enigmatic game hunter Tom Newcliffe, some sort of millionaire playboy, and his single-minded determination to hunt the biggest prize of all; and the eclectic cast of characters, all introduced during a dinner party with hints of their past connections to lycanthropy. Agatha Christie would be proud of the set-up here. But the sad thing is The Beast Must Die doesn't know where to take the story once the pieces are in place. The script is dreadfully dull and uneventful with lots of talking about werewolves and their whole mythology but not a lot of actual werewolf action. Characters aren't developed any further than their initial introductions and there is never any real attempt to throw red herrings and keep audiences guessing until the final reveal. This should have been a ripe setting for paranoia to set in as everyone points the blame at everyone else (think The Thing) in order to ratchet up the suspense. Ironically, The Beast Must Die's finale is really reminiscent of the blood test scene from The Thing as each suspect takes it in turns to put a silver bullet in their mouth (remember silver kills werewolves). Unfortunately the scene is nowhere near as effective or tense as it should be because we haven't really gotten to know any of the characters in great detail and so there's little attachment to any of them - you don't really care if one of them is the werewolf or not.
The film borrows from the William Castle playbook of cinema gimmicks - he who put electric buzzers under chairs in cinemas for showings of The Tingler or had skeletons drop down upon audiences for The House on Haunted Hill. It's all a little bit carny but it works because it's something audiences haven't seen for a while. The Beast Must Die opens with a voice stating the nature of what is going to happen and tells you in advance to look for clues carefully. But they obviously forgot to include the clues! In a murder mystery, each of the characters is usually given a strong alibi not to be the murderer but also a strong reason to be suspected of being the murderer. Here the characters are just all suspects with little evidence to support being a suspect or innocent. Towards the end, there is a pause in the film and the voice comes on again asking the viewer who they think the werewolf is. It quickly runs down the suspects and a little clock comes on giving you thirty seconds to decide who it is. It's pretty much pot luck as to who you think the werewolf is and I didn't get it right first time around. It's a nifty little idea but handled poorly. I'd love to see it remade and developed properly.
The actual werewolf is a rather poorly made-up dog which looks really unconvincing, especially when it licks it's mouth and wags its tails at it's victims as if it wants to play with the actors on set instead of wanting to rip them apart. You don't even see the person transform into the werewolf, which coming a few years before The Howling and An American Werewolf in London could have been easily done with some time lapse photography as Universal used to do for their Wolf Man films. There are a few moments of suspense despite the daft looking monster, including the shot I posted earlier in the review of the beast staring down through a sky light.
The Beast Must Die has a strong ensemble cast but the script doesn't give them enough to do, with the likes of Peter Cushing, Charles Gray, Anton Diffring and Michael Gambon all wasted in underdeveloped characters, though each have their moments to shine. They were all capable of putting in great performances yet they can't seem to get going here with poorly written supporting roles. The best performance comes from Calvin Lockhart as Tom Newcliffe who may come off as a bit gimmicky now but at least he gets stuck into his role. The Beast Must Die was made in an era of blaxploitation which is probably the reason why Lockhart was offered the lead role. There are a few silly nods to blaxploitation with Lockhart's jive talking but thankfully the film doesn't turn into Shaft with werewolves. It just means that the whole piece looks rather dated now.
The Beast Must Die isn't a bad film and is definitely worth one watch to see something a little different with trying to figure out who the werewolf is. But I can't overlook the criminal waste of some truly top notch acting talent and the unique idea, which would have worked so well in the hands of a better writer. It's a weird concoction of ideas which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Make up your own judgements during the werewolf break!
The Beast Must Die
Director(s): Paul Annett
Writer(s): Michael Winder (screenplay), James Blish (story "There Shall Be No Darkness")
Actor(s): Calvin Lockhart, Peter Cushing, Marlene Clark, Charles Gray, Anton Diffring, Ciaran Madden, Tom Chadbon, Michael Gambon
Duration: 93 mins