Hammer Films were the undisputed kings of British horror in the 1960s and ’70s, but Amicus Productions wanted a piece of the action too. Amicus was most famous for their portmanteau horror films, like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The House That Dripped Blood, Asylum, and most notably, Tales From the Crypt; However, they are also responsible for one of the strangest werewolf movies I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing, 1974’s The Beast Must Die. It’s a Gothic horror story told in modern day with a score that sounds like it was leftover from the Shaft soundtrack. It has a pretty laughable gimmick that really only works once and a werewolf which is really just a big dog. Oh, and like any good British horror movie of the time, it stars Peter Cushing. What more do you need?
The Beast Must Die has a pretty interesting setup; a millionaire named Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart) invites a group of people to his mansion for a days-long party with he and his wife (Marlene Clark), only to reveal that he knows one of them to be a werewolf and he’s going to keep them all there on his highly fortified grounds until he finds out whom. And kill them of course. Among the people at the party are a diplomat (Charles Gray), a famous pianist (Michael Gambon), his ex-student-now-lover (Ciaran Madden), an ex-con artist (Tom Chadbon), and an archaeologist with a vast knowledge of werewolves (Cushing, who else?). Newcliffe and the professor concoct a number of tests to try to force out the apparent werewolf, creating red herring after red herring. Monitoring everything is Newcliffe’s chief of security, Pavel (Anton Diffring), who, it has to be said, does a pretty terrible job considering he gets killed early on.
Right up at the beginning of the movie, we’re told that WE are the detectives who have to solve the mystery, and for the most part, the first two acts play as your typical whodunit that you might read in Agatha Christie’s Poirot or Miss Marple, with, of course, the added twist of lycanthropy. And, like any good Christie, there’s a few red herrings in the mix. For instance, I thought surely Charles Gray was going to be the bad guy, seeing as he’s Charles Gray and played bad guys a lot (including Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever, but, just to upend our suspicions, Gray’s character is viciously murdered to establish that there’s a bad guy out there. You get an actor like Charles Gray and make him the halfway point victim?! The cajones on these people….
The film has a very odd gimmick that would only work in a theater or a group of people all watching for the first time. Before the film starts officially, the narrator tells us that we’re watching a detective story in which we are the detectives. Our objective is not to guess the murderer, but guess the werewolf. After all the clues have been presented, we will have an opportunity to make our prediction. He finishes by telling the audience to look for “The Werewolf Break.” The movie then plays as normal until a certain point about three quarters of the way through, when the narrator interrupts again to tell us, “This… is the Werewolf Break,” shows us each of the suspects again, and gives us 30 seconds to guess. When the Werewolf Break has concluded, he says, “Let’s see if you’re right.” It’s this kind of weird Clue board game silliness that makes the film standout. As silly as I thought it was at the beginning, when the Werewolf Break actually began, though I was watching it by myself, I still said my answer out loud. Such is the power of the Werewolf Break.
This movie was pretty cheap, but that didn’t stop the filmmakers from trying to go big. There are lots of helicopter and foot chases through Newcliffe’s grounds, a couple explosions, and a decent amount of gore. The werewolf itself, aside from a tiny bit of makeup on the actor during transformation, is played by a large, black German Shepherd, which does rather lessen the effect, I’m afraid. What makes the action sequences even more bombastic, though, is the funky, wah-wah guitar score that sounds like it was done by Isaac Hayes’, Curtis Mayfield’s, and Jimi Hendrix’s collective step-brothers. This may have to do with the fact that the lead of the film, Calvin Lockhart, is a black man, though I hope it wouldn’t seriously be that empty a reason. Still, when sitting down to watch a werewolf movie, I had certainly not expected to hear the opening of “Voodoo Child.”
While far from perfect, The Beast Must Die has a great deal to offer in the “oh, that’s interesting” department. It’s very much a product of its time and small budget, but the cast and setup make it a pretty fun experience. And, I’ll admit it, I guessed the werewolf incorrectly. Perhaps you can do better.