Amicus were the rival British studio to Hammer and most well known for creepy anthology films such as Asylum and Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors. But they also made single narrative tales, an example of which is their unique entry into the werewolf genre The Beast Must Die. After an opening monologue (more on that later) the story begins with a man on the run, attempting to make his way through a security camera filled forest pursued by armed forces and helicopters, all to the sound of a funky opening theme. Bursting through the undergrowth the man, clad in black, is gunned down, shattering the calm of a group of individuals relaxing in the gardens of an English country estate. However, it turns out that this man is not dead nor was he on the run, he was testing his security systems, as anyone would, well, anyone who aims to hunt down a werewolf! After this shocking welcome multimillionaire businessman and big game hunter Tom Newcliffe informs the astonished guests of his plan and the real reason they were all invited. One of them has an uncontrollable urge to ‘wolf out’ when the moon is full and engage in some unsavoury nocturnal dining habits! As he explains they all have somewhat murky pasts, all linked to various grisly crimes and over the next three days Tom intends to bag himself the greatest prize of all.
So the scene is set for a bizarre horror film that combines elements of Agatha Christie whodunnits with familiar werewolf lore. No doubt influenced by the blaxploitation boom of the time (as evident by the score) black actor Calvin Lockhart was chosen for the lead role. Calvin, who less than two decades later would face an altogether otherworldly kind of beast as King Willie in Predator 2, gives a great scenery chewing performance. He presents Tom as a man who always gets what he wants at any cost and displays his rather single-minded, somewhat obsessive nature to perfection. Even when the bodies start piling up he doesn’t quit from his goal. Bordering on insanity and always chomping on a fine cigar his portrayal is helped by a few comic book style one-liners in the script and a great costume designer, clad in stylish black clobber the blinkered Tom Newcliffe is a pretty memorable character.
The diverse individuals invited to partake in Tom’s bizarre plan are in the main well played. The ever-reliable Peter Cushing is on fine form despite an accent that seems to change nationality throughout the proceedings! As Professor Lundgren, an expert on werewolves, he brings his authoritative serious edge to the movie and in another attempt by the film to give the werewolf legend a more contemporary feel, delivers a slightly more scientific explanation for the phenomenon. Charles Gray is well cast as the snooty ex-UN official Arthur Bennington, investing his character with the right air of aloofness, showing disdain to the other guests as well as the whole proceedings. Michael Gambon is passable, giving a nervous disbelieving touch to his portrayal of pianist Jan Jarmokowski. The remaining performance of note comes from Marlene Clark as Caroline, the long-suffering wife of Tom.
Most of the film is set within the confines of Tom’s lavish mansion and this adds to the claustrophobic nature of the film. At times it’s as if the outside world and its normality don’t exist with Tom putting his guests through various tests to determine which one is the lycanthrope. These scenes, such as the passing of a silver candlestick from suspect to suspect may remind viewers of the blood test moment from John Carpenter’s excellent remake of The Thing made almost a decade later. Indeed The Beast Must Die could have benefited from a bit more distrust between the characters as was evident in the chilly confines of Outpost 31.
As for the FX? The film won’t win any awards on that score as the beast is less a werewolf and more a weredog, well a dog wearing an old fur coat! That said the use of a four-legged beast again reinforces the more realistic mood this film is aiming for. There are also only a couple of gory moments but this doesn’t detract too much from the movie as a whole, neither does some obvious mismatched day for night shooting.
As the tension mounts and all the clues have been put before the audience another original element is added. At the start of the movie a voiceover and onscreen text informs the audience that they are the detective and must work out who is the werewolf. Well, as the film reaches its conclusion we get the ‘werewolf break’. The same narrator puts before us all the suspects and with a clock ticking away much like Countdown we have 30 seconds to decide who is the werewolf in this lycanthropic conundrum. But will you guess correctly? Or does the film have a final twist up its sleeve?
Aiming for originality, which is a rare thing in modern cinema (this film probably wouldn’t get made today) The Beast Must Die is a fun, quirky entry into 70s British horror cinema. Mixing together familiar werewolf chills with plot elements similar to Christie’s Ten Little Indians. Whilst not truly out and out scary it does have a fine cast, great score and enough red herrings to keep you guessing right up until the final reel. Most of all it is a film attempting to put a new spin on to werewolf movie conventions, and just for that alone it deserves to be commended.