Friday, July 8, 2016


James Kelley, 1970
Starring: Flora Robson, Beryl Reid, John Hamill, Tessa Wyatt
In a small English village near a military base, soldiers are being gruesomely murdered by what at first seems to be an escaped panther or some sort of animal. But when the killings escalate, it becomes clear that they’re looking for a human perpetrator. Meanwhile, two sweet old ladies, Joyce and Ellie, have a dark secret hidden in their cellar: they’ve kept their brother penned up for decades and believe he may have broken out and might be responsible for the crimes. When one sister has an attack and must be put under bed rest with a nurse by her side, their carefully controlled routine begins to unravel and they fear their secret will get out... Embarrassingly, The Beast in the Cellar is one of those films that I had heard about for years, but never got around to watching until relatively recently, despite the fact that I had already seen nearly every other horror film made by Hammer, Amicus, or Tigon before I began this British horror series. And I really don’t know what I was waiting for, because The Beast in the Cellar is amazing — though be forewarned that most people seem to not agree with me. Also known as Are You Dying, Young Man? (come on) and Young Man, I Think You’re Dying (seriously), this very strange, unsettling film often works despite itself. It’s very dialogue heavy and is primarily set in the parlor room of two old ladies, the controlling Joyce (Flora Robson) and her batty sister Ellie (Beryl Reid). Plenty about the film is unbelievable, but the two women deliver such strong performances that you come to take everything at face value, or at least I was able to. In a sense, this reminds me of some of the films of Pete Walker, who I will explore later in my British horror series. Parallels include aged protagonists, definitely a rarity in genre cinema with the exception of older, white male doctors, family issues that include abuse and dark secrets, repressed sexuality, and the result of what happens when moral concerns are allowed to progress to their most psychotic extremes. The love the two sisters feel for their father and brother has something of an incestuous tone, something else loosely in common with a few of Walker's films, and notably his final horror film, House of the Long Shadows (1983), with Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee, involves a brother boarded up in the family home by his fearful siblings. At its heart, this is an antiwar film, weighty subject matter for a low budget horror film. It becomes obvious quite early in the film that the “beast” is their brother, who they have horrifyingly locked in the cellar for decades, but this revelation doesn’t actually take away from the film’s effectiveness or from the impacting conclusion, which reveals several twists in a row. They are essentially trying to save their brother, Stephen (Dafydd Havard), from the same fate as their father, who returned home all wrong from WWI. Called shell shock then but now known as post-traumatic stress disorder, their beloved father was transformed into an abusive monster. “Daddy was strange,” is how Ellie describes him, clearly viewing the world through rose-colored glasses that her more canny older sister does not share. This idea of hiding away or trying to uneffectively deal with a psychotic relative can be found everywhere from Shadow of a Doubt (1943) to Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), but takes on an interesting connotation around this period specifically in terms of war-themed films. It’s a bit of a stretch to connect The Beast in the Cellar with Vittori de Sica’s earlier The Condemned of Altona (1962), but both involve a sister (or sisters) with an incestuous love for their brother who they hide away in the family home. In the case of the latter, more of a dark psychological drama than a horror film, the brother in question was an SS officer and his aristocratic family is hoping to spare him from prosecution (and an implied execution). They convince him that the war is still raging outside the walls of the family estate, a disturbing theme also found in the much later Polish film In Hiding (2013). Again, it’s a bit of a stretch to really compare this film with something like The Condemned of Altona or In Hiding, as it has a number of issues that separate it from more serious arthouse fare by several thousand miles — not that that stops me from loving it in any way. The attempts at “flashback” make absolutely no sense and are seemingly shots of nonsensical stock footage that was within budget, and while I want to say that there are some eye-popping effects (a joke that you will have to watch the film to understand), the gore is very, very low budget and generally is just represented by sprays of fake blood. There’s an unintentionally comic sequence almost straight out of Arsenic and Old Lace where Joyce forces her sister to bury a body they find in the garden, just as a nurse (Tessa Wyatt) shows up to care for the injured Joyce. This shoehorns a clumsy attempt at a romantic subplot into the film, as the sisters’ loyal friend, Corporal Marlow (John Hamill), is obviously sweet on the nurse. But the real crown jewels of the film are the murder sequences with ridiculous electronic music (additionally, everyone seems to have theme music in this film for some reason) and the camera shakes so violently that you can’t really tell what’s happening. Words cannot possibly do it justice. Though it’s available as an all-region DVD, I really hope someone restores The Beast in the Cellar and gives it a proper Blu-ray release sometime soon with plenty of special features. I have no actual idea whether or not I should recommend this film, because I think, like some of Tigon’s more questionable efforts (The Blood Beast Terror, anyone?), most people will not share my giddy enthusiasm for it. One of the things I appreciate so much about Tigon is that they really made an effort to do something different than either Hammer or Amicus and, in particular, broke away from period settings and polite, often literary explorations of sex and violence in favor of examinations of contemporary themes that were often quite grisly. And The Beast in the Cellar is a particularly noteworthy example of this, whether you share my love or think it’s a dull waste of ninety minutes. (You’re wrong.)


  1. Good to see a positive, perceptive review of this obscurity. It has a baleful atmopshere, well maintained, and the performances are excellent, as you point out. I saw this only once, via a 3AM cable broadcast in the late 1980s and it really stayed in my memory. Your review makes me want to revisit.

    1. Thank you Robert! I hope it gets a release that does it justice sometime soon.