The Beast Must Die
1974 / Roy Ward Baker
One of the great pleasures of being a horror fan is discovering something new. No matter how many movies you watch or books you read, there’ll always be something tailor-made for you waiting to crawl from under your bed and into your heart. The horror genre is so vast and ever-expanding that no matter how old you get or how much you consume, you simply can’t see everything, and films invariably pass you by. The gatekeepers of genre fandom can be quick to impose essential watching upon anyone daring to call themselves the dreaded ‘True Fan’; you know the types – Never seen Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922)? Amateur! Haven’t watched The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) projected against the wall of a repurposed Berlin art space? Impostor! Well, I’m here to tell you I’ve seen a fair chunk of everything, but I’ve never seen The Beast Must Die (Paul Annett, 1974). I’m not even sure I’d heard of it.
Once I’d given myself a hefty scolding, I set about securing a copy of the film with the express intent of watching it just so I could write about it for Horrified. From the moment I slid the disc into the player, right to the end of the credits, this film took me to places I never expected to go with a werewolf, and I’ll go anywhere.
Produced by Amicus in 1974, The Beast Must Die was directed by Paul Annett, written by Michael Winder, and based on the short story There Shall Be No Darkness by James Blish. At the outset, the film presents itself as a whodunnit that demands viewer participation. I have been tasked with discovering the identity of the mysterious lycanthrope, and before the big reveal, there will be a ‘werewolf break’ during which I must make my guess.
This is an oddly anachronistic film; it feels like Agatha Christie but sounds like Lalo Schifrin. The opening scene is itself jarring to modern eyes as star Calvin Lockhart is pursued through what appears to be some sort of jungle laced with super seventies tech. A black man being chased down by an exclusively white troupe of hunters does not make for comfortable viewing. In 1974 it would have been just another opening chase sequence, but within minutes we learn that this man is not the victim, but rather the architect of the entire premise. Lockhart plays Tom Newcliffe, a self-made millionaire entrepreneur who is not being stalked through a jungle, but rehearsing in his own back yard, which happens to be an English country estate. This is a bold choice by Amicus and one that must have surprised audiences over forty years ago. As ever, horror pushes the boundaries in places we may not expect, and Lockhart imposes himself on this twee setting as we are given the set-up.
He has invited six people to his mansion, most of whom have hitherto been suspected of some macabre misgivings, suggesting that one of them is, in fact, a werewolf. Newcliffe’s greatest passion is hunting, and he has spared no expense in setting up an elaborate snare befitting of a Bond villain. Appropriately one of the would-be wolves is played by ex-Blofeld Charles Gray, and alongside if not among the cast of suspects we find Peter Cushing as Doctor Lundgren, an expert in all things lycanthropic with an accent far more overstated than his performance. In fact, this film might contain the most convoluted werewolf mythology in the genre, likely so that a scientific basis would justify everyone’s acceptance of a situation that would otherwise seem outrageous, not to mention ending in a lengthy prison term.
I have no desire to spoil this film for you, so I shan’t. There are many reasons to scoff at it but each one hints at something far more interesting. The dialogue, while laden with exposition is at once sharp, witty, and delivered with absolute relish. The werewolf, though little more than a blow-dried hound, has a genuine air of mystery and made me pause to wonder if it was some influence on John Landis and An American Werewolf in London (1981) when it came to the idea of the wolf as a beast, rather than the more traditional monster with a human form. And finally, like all great werewolf tales, there is an ending at once unjust yet poetic, calamitous but utterly earned.
But what of the infamous werewolf break? Alas, I did not guess correctly and I’m not sure I was supposed to. Who knows if life will ever present me with a werewolf break ever again?
I’m not sure how The Beast Must Die passed me by, and I was unsure as to how I could write passionately or insightfully about a film I had no reverence for. This got me thinking, if there are any filmmakers out there looking for something that’s ripe for a reboot, something that will challenge genre fans and social assumptions, then The Beast Must Die could be a mighty proposition. Back in the mid-seventies, it had the nerve to subvert expectations by making a powerful, wealthy black man the central character. It extrapolated the tropes of werewolf mythology and gave them a modern, scientific rationale. It’s a murder mystery that begins like a blacksploitation film, looks like the middle third of a Bond movie and comes out the other end as a horror. All this from a studio that made its name adapting anthology horror comics. This is a beast that dares to be different, and it absolutely must not be allowed to die. So, if you haven’t, I suggest you give yourself a little werewolf break.