❉ ‘Anyone care to play the candlestick game?’ Watch out for the werewolf break!
When a big-game hunter invites his closest acquaintances to a secluded retreat, he knows that one hides a terrible secret…and the ultimate hunt has begun. What will happen? How will it end? One thing, only, is for sure…The Beast Must Die!
A quirky curio of 1970s horror, The Beast Must Die was a unique foray into the creature feature genre – with a whodunnit element straight out of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians – from Hammer Studios’ younger sibling Amicus, making its Blu-ray debut thanks to genre specialists Indicator Films, with a brand new High Definition master.
Founded by American producers and screenwriters Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, Amicus Productions came out of the starting gate in 1963 with cash-in musical comedy It’s Trad, Dad and brought Dalekmania to the big screen with Dr Who & The Daleks and Dalek Invasion Earth 2150 AD (causing canon-botherers 50 years of headaches and establishing that the Doctor could be re-cast before William Hartnell handed over to Patrick Troughton), but it was with their ‘portmanteau’-style horror anthologies that they established (in modern terms) their brand identity – from 1965’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors to 1974’s From Beyond The Grave, at which point it was felt that this particular format had been exhausted commercially.
As with their anthologies, Amicus didn’t entirely break tradition with The Beast Must Die – the action-horror-whodunit boasted a star-studded cast headed by Amicus favourite Peter Cushing, everyone’s third-favourite-Blofeld Charles Gray and Stunt Nazi Anton Diffring, and the screenplay (written by Michael Winder) was based on an existing property plucked off the shelf: The short story There Shall Be No Darkness by James Blish which was originally published in Thrilling Wonder Stories.
What made The Beast Must Die different to previous Amicus efforts were factors that suggested a production company striving to stay relevant with the evolving tastes and trends of ‘70s cinema: Firstly, it turned its attention to werewolf romps, which hadn’t troubled fleapits to the same extent as other forms of Gothic horror since the ‘50s (and which wouldn’t return to vogue until the ’80s with An American Werewolf In London), and cross-fertilised it with the Bond-indebted hi-tech action movie with its gadget- and surveillance-heavy setting of a millionaire’s country estate, and cast a black alpha-male as its protagonist, Tom Newcliffe, as a nod towards the Blaxploitation craze, in the form of film and theatre actor Calvin Lockwood of Cotton Comes To Harlem fame. Although his race isn’t acknowledged in the film, it’s striking for a British film of this era to feature an African-American as a man of high status, so fair play to Amicus.
A heady brew, but The Beast Must Die failed to really spark with audiences, and is best remembered for its William Castle-indebted gimmick: The film begins with the sonorous tones of Valentine Dyall asking the viewer to try to identify the werewolf, and near the end there is a 30-second “Werewolf Break” for the audience to think over the evidence…
The basic premise is solid and ripe for a remake. Big-game hunter Tom Newcliffe and wife Caroline (Marlene Clark, dubbed by jazz singer Annie Ross) have invited a disparate group of guests to their mansion in the English countryside. His huge country estate has been rigged up with video cameras and a high-tech security system, overseen by Pavel (Diffring). He believes one of them is a werewolf… and, before the weekend is out, he’ll find out who it is. 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?
A great concept, enlivened by a really funky score from Amicus regular Douglas Gamley, awash with Superfly-influenced bow-chicka-wow guitar and bass flutes, but the first half of the film is beset by pacing issues and a lack of meaty material for the cast to really get their fangs into (Cushing is Basil Exposition), although Lockhart does a lot of the heavy lifting with an central performance that’s arch as a flying buttress and viewers of various sexual persuasions may enjoy his scenes in a skin-tight PVC jumpsuit. There’s also fun to be had, as is an Amicus tradition, seeing thesps on their way up the ladder, in this case a thirtysomething Michael Gambon as concert pianist Jan and a scene-stealing Tom Chadbon (best known to readers of We Are Cult as Duggan in the Doctor Who serial City of Death) on louche form as dissolute artist Paul Foote.
Like all genre films, to fully appreciate The Beast Must Die the viewer needs to meet it on its own terms, as entertainment rather than art, for all its flaws – the titular beast being the most disappointing (Pop fact: The ‘beast’ in the movie poster was lifted from near-contemporary The Boy Who Cried Werewolf, which shows how much faith Amicus had in their own were-mutt), closely followed by Amicus’ aversion to gore. As filmmaker Jonathan Sothcott, whose extras for this release have been ported over from a previous release, recounted to We Are Cult:
“The film itself is a fun time capsule, completely different to anything else Amicus made and although it is let down by some very hokey effects (the ‘werewolf’ and Peter Cushing both seem to be wearing particularly bad hair pieces made by the same person) it has a lot of energy and some striking performances from Tom Chadbon and Calvin Lockhart.”
Sothcott also has fond memories of the film’s director Paul Annett and producer Max Rosenberg:
“I got hold of the director Paul Annett and we shot an interview at his home in Highgate and recorded a full-length audio commentary. Paul was a delightful man, and had become a big TV director, helming many of the best-remembered episodes of Eastenders at the show’s peak. He was a fun, witty gay man and I don’t think he had much affinity with horror he just loved making films and TV. At around the same time I was doing some work with Max J Rosenberg, who owned the company which made Beast, Amicus, and was one of the film’s producers. I must preface this by saying I was and am very fond of Max but he had a propensity for making deals he didn’t have any rights to make and was always trying to relaunch Amicus with updates of the classic pictures. I suggested a remake of The Beast Must Die and mentioned it casually to Paul who took it upon himself to write a bizarre semi-sequel in which a werewolf which is vaguely related to the first film is experimented upon. I recall Paul and I, in my tiny Pimlico flat, having a couple of Transatlantic calls with Rosenberg about it who was spectacularly optimistic and then went (quite rightly) completely silent on us! Sadly both Max and Paul are no longer with us and the world is a poorer place without them.”
Amen, indeed. After The Beast Must Die, Amicus had one last roll of the dice with a trio of Edgar Rice Burroughs potboilers (The Land That Time Forgot, At The Earth’s Core, The People That Time Forgot) although Subtosky revisited the portmanteau framework with Canadian co-production The Uncanny (1977) and The Monster Club (1980), veteran British film director Roy Ward Baker’s last film.
Upholding the standard of previous Powerhouse/Indicator Blu-ray titles, the 4K restoration of The Beast Must Die is a significant optical upgrade from the Optimum/StudioCanal DVD, and comes with the now-standard wealth of extras and an informative booklet including liner notes and contemporary coverage and publicity materials, and a baffling 8mm cut-down version.
❉ High Definition remaster
❉ Original mono audio
❉ Audio commentary with director Paul Annett and author Jonathan Sothcott (2003)
❉ Interview with Max J Rosenberg (2000, 48 mins): archival audio recording of the famed producer in conversation with Sothcott
❉ The BEHP Interview with Jack Hildyard (1988, 92 mins): an archival audio recording, made as part of the British Entertainment History Project, featuring the Oscar-winning cinematographer in conversation with Alan Lawson
❉ The BEHP Interview with Peter Tanner – Part Two, 1939–1987 (1987, 81 mins): an archival audio recording, made as part of the British Entertainment History Project, featuring the celebrated editor in conversation with Roy Fowler and Taffy Haines
❉ Introduction by Stephen Laws (2020, 4 mins): appreciation by the acclaimed horror author
❉ Directing the Beast (2003, 13 mins): archival interview with Annett
❉ Super 8 version: cut-down home cinema presentation
❉ Image gallery: publicity and promotional material
❉ Original theatrical trailer
❉ Kim Newman and David Flint trailer commentary (2017, 2 mins): short critical appreciation by the genre-film experts
❉ New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard- of-hearing
❉ Limited edition exclusive 40-page booklet with a new essay by Neil Young, an archival article on Amicus Productions, a look at the James Blish short story which inspired the film, an extract from the pressbook profiling actor Calvin Lockhart, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and film credits
❉ UK premiere on Blu-ray
❉ Limited edition of 5,000 copies
❉ ‘The Beast Must Die’ Limited Edition Blu-ray (UK Blu-ray premiere) was released June 29, 2020, by Powerhouse Films. Cat No. PHILTD178. BBFC cert: 15. RRP £15.99. Click HERE to order!
❉ James Gent is the Editor of We Are Cult.