Paul Annett, 1974
Starring: Calvin Lockhart, Peter Cushing, Marlene Clark, Michael Gambon, Charles Gray, Anton Diffring
Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart), an eccentric millionaire and big game hunter, has called together a number of unusual people to his isolated island home. He tells them that they are all connected by one thing — death — and that he believes one of them to be a werewolf. His plan is to use his hunting prowess and an elaborate surveillance system to force the werewolf to reveal him or herself, so that he can kill it once and for all. He uses a number of methods to induce this, including exposing them to silver, wolfsbane, and moonlight, but things don’t quite go as he expected…
This fucking movie. I am both horrified and delighted that my series on Amicus’ genre films will go out with this incredibly strange — and not entirely successful — werewolf film by way of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game, though the script is actually based on the short story, "There Shall Be No Darkness,” by James Blish. It’s gimmicky, thanks to something describes as a “Werewolf Break” (I wish I was kidding) and the opening the following declaration in both voice over and text: “This film is a detective story — in which you are the detective. The question is not, ‘who is the murderer?’ but ‘who is the werewolf?’ After all the clues have been shown, you will get a chance to give your answer.” And, no joke, there is really a break at the climax of the film that cuts to the faces of the various suspects and asks you to name the killer.
I really might be The Beast Must Die’s target audience, as it’s a horror-mystery hybrid and I am an absolute junky for mystery/crime fiction (and films), whether they are well-made or are just entertaining garbage. This falls somewhere in the middle and I have to admit to finding the “Werewolf Break” to be a really fun idea, even though director Paul Annett apparently hated it and it was inserted after the fact by producer Milton Subotsky. It reminds me of a little bit of a forerunner to something’s like Clue’s alternate endings, though it is of course no where near as entertaining or successful as that example.
Admittedly, the film is a bit schlocky. There’s absolutely no way to know who the werewolf is, so there’s not even a point in having the break. Hilariously, the mythic beast is actually a dog wearing a fur coat, because of budgetary constraints, though there is some decent gore on occasion. It’s easy to make fun of, but the film really does have a few interesting moments. First and foremost is the fact that a successful black character is, quite unusually, the protagonist, played with charisma by Calvin Lockhart (in everything from Predator 2 and Wild at Heart to Coming to America and Twin Peaks; Fire Walk with Me). He sort of inadvertently winds up becoming the hero, when he makes an ultimate sacrifice at the end of the film. He could have easily become an antagonist, but the film curiously doesn’t go in this direction, though it also doesn’t give any of the other characters much motivation or direction.
A primary issue is that the script veers much too far from the course of both its source stories. On one hand, there aren’t enough murders or red herrings as in And Then There Were None, so the group isn’t forced to band together for survival. They wander sort of aimlessly for the majority of the film. And though they’re all introduced as having some sort of dark past, very little is made of this (with the exception of one character who is a cannibal and has exceptionally hairy hands and arms). Secondly, The Most Dangerous Game pits a desperate protagonist against a malevolent genius driven mad by power — and this film instead tries to combine those two figures loosely into one, which just does not work.
The real delight, at least for me, is in the casting of some of England’s finest genre actors: Peter Cushing as an eccentric doctor who happens to be a werewolf expert; Charley Gray as a snooty diplomat, who has sneering down to a fine art; and Anton Diffring as a sort of security consultant that hides out behind the scenes, keeping track of all the cameras and monitors (at least until he is bumped off). Creepily, none of the other guests know of his existence and also do not learn of his death. And let’s not forget Michael Gambon (!!) as a sickly, suffering musician and the heavenly Marlene Clark (of Ganja and Hess ), who really shines as the impatient wife, at least when the script allows her room to do so.
I can’t help but recommend The Beast Must Die, which you can find on DVD. As I said, it’s not perfect, but it’s a lot of fun, especially if you’re a sucker for any of the elements that hooked me in: the incredible cast, nonsensical werewolf elements, and a murder mystery that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — not that that slows anyone down in this case.