If you’re a regular reader of Schlock & Awe, you know I love British horror films from the ’60s and ’70s. From Hammer to Amicus and all the independent ones along the way, this very specific subset of movies has its own distinct look and style and the stories and plots are unique and memorable. Like, you remember that one where Peter Cushing plays a detective inspector in Victorian London trying to solve a series of vampiric murders and it turns out it’s actually a genetically engineered human-moth creature played by Benedict Cumberbatch’s mom? No? You don’t remember that one? Well, let me tell you all about it! It’s 1968’s The Blood Beast Terror and it’s just as entertaining as that title and short description would imply, which is to say brief and fleeting.
Directed by Vernon Sewell, who is known for directing a bunch of other movies I’ve never heard of, The Blood Beast Terror (alternately known as The Vampire-Beast Craves Blood) sees horror stalwart Peter Cushing’s Detective Inspector Quennell utterly stumped about the cause and culprit of a recent string of murders wherein the victims (all young men) are completely drained of blood (and smeared with grey paint). He seeks the assistance of genetic scientist and lepidopterist, Dr. Mallinger (Robert Flemyng), who just so happens to have a very fetching daughter named Clare (Benedict’s mom, Wanda Ventham). Mallinger also has a facially-scarred butler named Granger (Kevin Stoney) who looks pretty sinister at all times. Though initially not much help, subsequent victims start having one thing in common: they were all last seen going to or coming from Mallinger’s estate. When Quennell finally puts two and two together, the Mallingers have up and gone to their summer home in the country, where the inspector takes his naïve teenage daughter (Vanessa Howard) and the true nature of Mallinger’s experiments is revealed.
Now, this movie is only about 88 minutes long, yet somehow it feels like it’s well over two hours. Surely this has to do with the large supporting cast that is introduced at various moments in the film, seemingly for some kind of narrative purpose, but ultimately just for body count. It has to be said, once you’ve seen one dashing young Englishman with perfectly parted hair and a high-collared shirt, you’ve pretty much seen them all. Most of the film follows horror-by-numbers pacing, however a certain sequence stood out to me as interesting, if not slightly superfluous. At about the 1/3 point, we’re treated to a stage play that Mallinger is watching in which Clare is an actress. It seems roughly to be a mixture of Frankenstein and Burke & Hare, which director Sewell would later make as his final film in 1972. We see quite a lot of this play and it’s entirely meant to reinforce the themes — to get you thinking about Mallinger in the mad scientist role, and to get Mallinger thinking about his own genetic experiments in a different way. It was like the Player King moment from a vivisectionist’s Hamlet. It’s the only part of the movie I could honestly say I didn’t see coming or that I’d seen it before.
Peter Cushing, whom I love, does his best with the material. Even though he’s known for playing some of filmdom’s scariest and meanest villains (like Frankenstein and Grand Moff Tarkin), to me he’s at his best playing the smart and distinguished hero, as when he plays Van Helsing or Sherlock Holmes. He has a sinister look, but is really much more of professor. If Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been a thing in the late 1960s, I have no doubt Cushing would have played Giles. I read after watching the film that, of the many horror and sci-fi films Cushing was a part, The Blood Beast Terror was his least favorite. I’ve personally seen worse Peter Cushing films, but I don’t think I’ve seen any quite as boring as this. Most of the film plods along waiting for more bodies to pile up and then we even get to see a nice, relaxing vacation in the country. The few times we actually see the monster, a human-sized Death’s Head Moth, it’s about as believable as the eponymous cats of the Broadway musical. Wanda Ventham is lovely, but her character is a bit all over the place, even before we realize she’s the one killing the men we somewhat twig on her uneven demeanor.
I love the fact that these obscure old horror movies are finding new life with Blu-ray releases and inclusion on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. From a purely historical aspect, The Blood Beast Terror is quite interesting, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good or interesting film. If you’re curious or want to lord knowledge of movies nobody’s ever heard of over your friends, then this movie is for you. For most people, though, it’s nothing more than “the one with the moth lady.”