Thursday, May 28, 2009

Ah-ooooo, ooooooo: Werewolves of London

The Beast Must Die
Dark Sky Films // 1974 // 94 Minutes // Rated PG

Reviewed by Steve Evans

“One of these eight people will turn into a werewolf. Can you guess who it is when we stop the film for the WEREWOLF BREAK? See it…solve it…but don’t tell!” — from the lobby poster.

Opening Shot
The Beast Must Die is silly drive-in fun with a gimmicky climax and the always-welcome Peter Cushing (Curse of Frankenstein) to lend a little class to the proceedings.

A Bit of Plot…
Millionaire big-game hunter Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart, Predator 2) invites half a dozen unrelated guests to his mansion in the English countryside. They are wined, dined, and dealt a surprise: Newcliffe says someone at the party is a werewolf and no one is leaving until Monday morning. How he comes by this information is vague, although Newcliffe proposes to hunt and kill the brute when the creature finally transforms. His mansion is tricked out with a secret room stocked with enough surveillance equipment to get Q-Branch all lathered up in a fit of techno-weenie jealousy. Big Tom plants microphones and motion-sensors in the garden. He totes around expensive rifles and tricky flashlights. Doesn’t matter. All the high-tech gear that money can buy won’t stop a wily werewolf.

Guests include Peter Cushing and the right proper Charles Gray (who played Blofeld in the James Bond adventure Diamonds are Forever and was later the narrator in The Rocky Horror Picture Show). They play chess and act peeved over their host’s blanket allegations of lycanthropy. Michael Gambon (who has since taken over the role of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films) has no interest in board games, but a powerful thirst for the contents of Newcliffe’s liquor cabinet and the millionaire’s former girlfriend, who’s also hanging out for the weekend.

Come the night, there’s a bad moon a-risin’. Ah-ooooo, oooooh: Werewolves of London.

What’s All This Gibberish, Steve?
Let’s get the main problem on the table right now: There’s no werewolf in this talky picture. What passes for a werewolf is actually a big damn dog, possibly wearing a remnant of shag carpet. And he’s barely glimpsed at that. Who needs silver bullets when a box of dog biscuits would put a halt to this nocturnal threat? Cheating an audience with misdirection and plot contrivances is bad enough; don’t shortchange the customers with a tail-wagging monster.

Our secondary problem is the woefully underutilized Peter Cushing, who deserved better than this nothing part. He has maybe a dozen scenes, yet it’s Cushing’s familiar face featured prominently in the credits and on the DVD keepcase. This is sad and more than a tad disingenuous. After all those years of keeping Hammer Studios in clover by battling mummies and vampires, while stitching together the occasional Frankenstein monster, by the early 1970s Cushing was popping up in dozens of B-movies of varying quality. Some, like Horror Express, were absolutely fascinating. Others, like this low-budget mess from Amicus Studios, were probably mere paychecks for the great character actor. Three years after this foolishness, Cushing enjoyed a career revival of sorts with the original Star Wars. Director George Lucas would pay similar respect 25 years later to Cushing’s longtime co-star Christopher Lee (Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones). But let us return to our feature presentation.

On balance, The Beast Must Die is essentially a reworking of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians,” minus the suspense.

The “werewolf break” is hokey fun, if tedious, as the picture literally stops for 30 seconds to give the audience time to guess the killer while a superimposed clock ticks down. Most astute viewers will nail the culprit with ease; nevermind the ridiculous “twist” ending.

Directed by Paul Annett, who devoted most of his career to television, The Beast Must Die plays like a made-for-TV movie, with abrupt scene breaks every 12 minutes where a commercial could be inserted. The film plays equally well as a cheap action picture. The jive-talking protagonist and incongruous wacka-wacka guitar music make this film come off like a blaxploitation flick, rather than a horror film with mystery elements. Whatever he was aiming for, Annett had no feel for genre films.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Dark Sky delivers a sharp anamorphic transfer with deep, saturated colors that connoisseurs of early 1970s cinema will appreciate. There are no annoying artifacts or obvious edge enhancement. The mono soundtrack is merely humdrum — audible but unremarkable.

A surprisingly solid set of extras includes a director’s commentary track (Annett is a bit delusional about the film’s enduring worth), trailers, a gallery of production stills, plus cast and crew biographies, and a featurette on the making of the film. Still, like polishing a bucket of crap, when a studio crams a disc with added-value content it doesn’t change the fact that this is a mediocre picture.

The Contrarian View
The Beast Must Die is unique. In the history of motion pictures there’s no other flick that comes with a built-in “werewolf break.” I leave it to devoted cult-film fanatics to decide whether a “werewolf break” merits the purchase of this disc.

This lycanthropic foolishness delivers ample B-movie fun, though the film induces belly laughs that are entirely unintended. The Beast Must Die is goofy as hell, with a macho hero possessed of less common sense than a bag of potting soil. I enjoyed it anyway.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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