Like --And Now The Screaming Starts! (1973), The Beast Must Die (1974) was an attempt by low-budget horror producer Amicus to break away from its successful but one-trick pony formula of all-star horror anthologies. To its credit there's nothing in all of the glut of early-'70s horror movies quite like The Beast Must Die, but its weird mishmash of Ten Little Indians, William Castle showmanship and, vaguely, blaxploitation action, and its almost incidental werewolf tale, is overall offbeat but its various components unoriginal. Also disappointing is Dark Sky's murky 16:9 transfer, not particularly an improvement from Anchor Bay UK's first stab with the title a few years back.
To the surprise and great disappointment of director Paul Annett, co-producer Milton Subotsky, who reportedly hated the film, at the last minute decided to add a William Castle-like gimmick to the picture. "This is a murder mystery in which you are the detective," announces the doom-laden narrator, "but instead of 'who is the murderer?' the question is 'who is the werewolf?'..." And so, near the end, the movie pauses to reflect on this question during a 30-second "Werewolf Break." This gimmick doesn't particularly add anything and arguably interrupts the modest suspense the filmmakers have managed to whip up in its final two reels.
Still, The Beast Must Die gets off to a good start, with eccentric black millionaire Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart) trying to breach the elaborate, James Bondian security system installed on his estate by security expert Pavel (Circus of Horrors' Anton Diffring). The opening has a clever what's-going-on-here? set-up, but unfortunately while the security system's multi-level ingenuity is carefully explained, it ends up playing virtually no part in the story.
It turns out that Tom has invited six strangers to spend the weekend hoping to expose one guest who, for reasons never explained, Tom is convinced is a werewolf. In the tradition of The Most Dangerous Game (also faintly echoed in the film's opening), Tom's a big game hunter determined to bag himself a werewolf, even if that means shooting a silver bullet into the heart of one of his houseguests. They include lycanthropic expert Professor Lundgren (Peter Cushing); unhappy former concert pianist Jan (Michael Gambon) and his lover, Davina (Ciaran Madden); Paul Foote (Tom Chadbon), an artist and one-time medical student who once ate human flesh; disgraced diplomat and possible murderer Bennington (Charles Gray); and Tom's wife, beautiful Caroline (Marlene Clark, her voice dubbed by Annie Ross).
As the full moon rises, the werewolf makes its first killing and immediately cuts the party off from the outside world. Can they expose and kill the werewolf before it kills again?
The Beast Must Die liberally borrows ideas from other sources but suffers from a dearth of original ideas of its own. The werewolf aspect is curiously downplayed; very little happens in the first hour, and the efforts Tom and his guests make to identify the creature are repetitive, including much passing around of various silver candlesticks and bullets. There's also no explanation why Tom suspects one of his guests is a werewolf in the first place, a serious omission.
When it does finally appear, the monster is a big disappointment. There's a smattering of effects makeup, but mostly the creature takes the form of an inappropriately playful-looking German Shepherd wearing what resembles a shaggy wool stole around its neck.
Another problem is Calvin Lockhart, not one of your great horror icons. Apparently cast after the success of such blaxploitation horror films as 1972's Blacula (and a last-minute replacement after first choice Robert Quarry), Tom's race nonetheless plays no part in the picture (which is somewhat unusual), but Lockhart has no presence for this kind of role, and tends to overact throughout. Diffring is well-suited to his part, but Cushing affects an overdone Scandinavian accent, possibly to provide some distinction to what was essentially yet another variation of his familiar Van Helsing role from the Hammer Dracula films.
Charles Gray's role is small, but the great Michael Gambon, in only his third feature, makes a strong impression as the troubled Jan. Lockhart reportedly insisted that Marlene Clark play his wife, thus thwarting the filmmakers' desire to cast singer Shirley Bassey, an intriguing choice.
For such a mediocre film, quite a few talented people worked on it: up-and-coming director Paul Annett (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), Oscar-winning DP Jack Hildyard (The Bridge on the River Kwai), and art director John Stoll (Lawrence of Arabia), among others. Douglas Gamley's jazzy score is well-suited to something like Tony Rome, but not this.
Video & Audio
Unlike Anchor Bay UK's DVD, Dark Sky's transfer of The Beast Must Die is 16:9 enhanced (at 1.77:1), but it's not an improvement. The source material on both versions (an inter-negative? this print bears the CRC logo) is greenish, grainy and unappetizing, lacking definition to the point where it impacts one's enjoyment of the film. It's watchable, but only barely so. The English mono audio is okay, and optional English subtitles are included.
Supplements include Directing the Beast (4:3 LBX format) an enjoyable and enlightening interview with director Paul Annett from 2003 directed by Jonathan Sothcott. Those wanting to learn more can listen to Annett's Audio Commentary track, also moderated by Sothcott.
Also included is a decent Photo Gallery of mostly lobby cards and stills. There are spoiler-filled trailers for Dark Sky's other two Amicus releases, --And Now The Screaming Starts (16:9), and Asylum, along with one for The Beast Must Die (both 4:3 full frame).
Finally, brief but useful Biographies with short filmographies are included for Peter Cushing, Charles Gray, Anton Diffring, Peter Annett, Calvin Lockhart and Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky.
Christopher Gullo contributes the usual disappointing Liner Notes, but this title also includes a nice "Memories of Peter Cushing" with anecdotes by Annett.
Fans of '70s horror will want to see The Beast Must Die at least once, but unlike Amicus' best films this one doesn't hold up well at all to multiple viewings.
Stuart Galbraith IV talks about Invasion of Astro-Monster in an audio commentary track that's just one part of Classic Media's upcoming Godzilla Classic Collector's Edition. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.