There aren't a lot of movies made based on Rudyard Kipling stories these days, let alone horror movies. But that's exactly what the producers of Rudyard Kipling's Mark of the Beast have make, and though it has its share of missteps and flaws, the filmmakers are truly stretching themselves, and deliver an intriguing and at times disturbing film.
I went back and read the original short story this afternoon, and though the location has been moved from colonial India to the northeast United States in modern times (which does set up a bit of confusion), the film follows its source material quite closely. Dick Boland plays Strickland, a local sheriff who hosts an annual New Year's Eve party at his isolated home. Neighbors and old friends come to stay the weekend, drinking, playing games and indulging in delightful conversation. Debbie (Debbie Rochon) drags along another neighbor Fleete (Phil Hall), who is new to the area, his home being a walk of a few miles from Strickland's.
Though most of the guests drink moderately and enjoy a quiet game of Skittles and some light interlocution, Fleete drinks heavily, moving from one liquor to another, and passing out on the couch in the wee hours of the morning. Strickland and Debbie resign themselves to walking him home, after he puckishly throws Strickland's car keys into the lake, of course. On the way, they pass close to a shrine to the local monkey god, though what indigenous people are worshiping it is unclear, a victim of shifting the locale from India to the US. Without hesitation, Fleete stumbles up and puts out his cigar right on the monkey god statue. Hard upon that, a leper (Mark Bovino), whose skin shines like silver, rushes up to Fleete and presses his deformed head upon the drunken man's breast. Frightened, the trio of revelers flees back to Strickland's house.
And things don't go well from there. Fleete becomes ill, getting a strange inflammation on his chest where the leper touched him, and soon develops a craving for rare pork chops and perhaps a little long pig as well. Soon, he becomes crazed, and has to be restrained. And his friends will go to any lengths to lift the curse that has been laid upon him.
The original short story doesn't provide an enormous amount of direct material for adaption, but a lot of material for expansion and development. Co-directors Tom Seymour and Jon Gorman do a good job of staying faithful to the story, while exploring its themes more fully. There's not a lot of plot to speak of, but loads of atmosphere and mood. The idyllic back woods setting and the very lived in practical sets help a lot. The image, though shot digitally, is manipulated to give it a washed out sixties horror film look, with some intentional "film" damage thrown in. The leper makeup is extensive and quite effective, especially in the torture scenes toward the back end of the film. The leper is seen only in glimpses at first, but it can certainly stand up to a prolonged inspection.
The makers of Mark of the Beast aren't afraid to take their time, developing characters, tension and mood, but also wrestling with some fairly weighty subject matter: loyalty, comparative religion, and the morality of torture and its effect on both the subject and inflictor, to name but a few. This isn't a film that fits neatly into a genre box, even within the more select horror subset. It's not a T&A film, or torture porn, or a ghost story, or... anything simple, really. But it's definitely a horror film, and a good one.
It's not without problems. The performances are not uniformly great. Debbie Rochon is a seasoned pro, and can play this kind of role with ease, and does so effortlessly here. Dick Boland is good generally, but there are a few stumbles, and at times he fails to reach the emotional depths necessary for the scene. The rest of the cast, which includes Ellen Muth of Dead Like Me, do their part admirably as well. The script often chugs along just fine, and Rochon's narration is very evocative, but the writing in general could probably have used some polish, and the story doesn't have the classical emotional beats and payoffs. (Though lines such as "I may be a Christian, but if God isn't going to help on this one, he'll just have to forgive me for beating up a cripple in the woods" are definitely keepers!) But what's admirable about the film is what they're able to accomplish with a miniscule budget on a very short shooting schedule. And these folks aren't afraid to be different, to defy convention, or to stretch themselves. The fact that they don't always hit the mark dead on is inconsequential compared to the fact that they were really trying for something difficult and unique.
This isn't a film for everyone, but if you're a fan of sixties and seventies European horror, or low budget horror generally, you'll enjoy this. Recommended.
Behind the Scenes