Splatterfest 2015 has come and gone. Junk food was procured and devoured, bad horror movies were rented and voted upon. The movie my friends chose to watch: The Beast Must Die, a 1974 horror whodunnit starring Grand Moff Tarkin and Albus Dumbledore.
The premise is fantastic, just full of cheesy good potential. There’s even a Werewolf Break! (It may be the best thing I’ve ever seen.) Unfortunately, the rest of the film . . . well, the rest of the film leaves a lot to be desired.
This movie is old like disco, not to mention actively terrible. SPOILERS will commence immediately.
Tom (Calvin Lockhart) is the Best Hunter Ever. He has bagged every type of prey out there, all except one: the werewolf! To satisfy this manly need, Tom researches a handful of people who could be werewolves and invites them all to his schmancy dinner party, intent on discovering the truth and killing the beast once and for all.
Naturally, shit hits the fan. Or it kind of taps the fan, anyway, after gliding there at a stupidly slow and leisurely pace.
1. The Beast Must Die is the quintessential example of a film that deserves to be remade: great concept, terrible finished product. Almost any remake at all would have to be an improvement. I think it might actually be a kind of mathematical impossibility, making a worse film than the original. And the good news is that some the fixes would be absurdly easy.
For instance: while making a film, try to remember that time is money, specifically your audience’s money, and your audience will not be happy if they spent any of their own for a ten minute opening scene that could easily have been two minutes instead.
Like so many before it, The Beast Must Die is a hapless victim of 70’s pacing. This is apparent throughout the entire film, which unfortunately stretches the story out over three nights instead of just taking place in a single evening, but at no point is the pacing more egregiously terrible than in the opening act, when Tom, our supposed first victim, attempts to escape what appears to be paramilitary forces in the forest.
Now, it turns out that Tom isn’t a victim, of course. He’s the millionaire testing out his new Werewolf Security Defense System, a system that includes a whole bunch of armed dudes, a whole bunch of awkwardly placed cameras, and an honest to God attack helicopter. This isn’t a bad reveal at all, except that it feels like the scene itself goes on for about 80 YEARS. Tom is caught and let go by the guards not once, not twice, but three times. He’s running for his life in weirdly random giant boots, at the kind of pace you might expect from a small child casually frolicking after butterflies. We also zoom in on the “hidden” cameras at least five times. The whole thing is awkward and slow as hell.
2. The car chase scene is honestly almost as bad.
So, the fake-out chase scene only ends when the armed dudes dramatically shoot the hell out of Tom in front of his party guests. The guests are appropriately horrified by this, although the fact that they run toward the gunmen instead of from them is a little hard to swallow. Regardless, Tom the Asshole reveals that he’s not dead. He also reveals his top secret purpose in inviting them all to his mansion. Understandably, they’re perturbed.
No one is more perturbed than Jan (Michael Gambon), who decides to hightail it out of there. Frankly, I think everyone should try to hightail it out of there, including Tom’s wife, Caroline (Marlene Clark), who didn’t know about her husband’s awful plans and, also, has this charming exchange with him:
Caroline: “Tom, what if the werewolf turns out to be me?”
Tom (with a finger gun): “POW!”
Leave him, honey. Leave him now.
Anyway, Jan takes off like any normal person would after his dinner host has calmly announced his intention to murder one of the guests. Tom, naturally, hops in a car to give chase. This filler scene lasts roughly three minutes but mostly seems to consist of three or shots over and over again, with Tom constantly taking supposed shortcuts that don’t seem all that short and really don’t manage to close the gap at all. Jan basically just gives up.
Once they’re stopped, Tom the Asshole tells Jan, “You’re trying to escape!” Jan does not immediately respond by saying, “Dude, I’m not a prisoner,” or “Hell yes, I’m trying to escape your violently delusional behavior!” And honestly, I’m not sure why. He just meekly goes back to the mansion. Meanwhile, this whole chase scene could have been an excellent opportunity for the dinner party guests to sneak away (“That right there? Exactly the kind of diversion we could have used.”) but they chose not to, presumably because Rich People Food is worth the risk of being horribly murdered? Seriously, guys. Either your host is crazy and liable to kill you, or your host is not crazy, and the guy passing you the salt is liable to kill you, by tearing out your throat and eating it as an appetizer. This is commonly referred to as a ‘no-win, let’s get the holy fuck out of here’ scenario.
3. I suppose I could potentially buy that the dinner guests would agree to stay one night. Dr. Lundgren (Peter Cushing), the werewolf expert desperate to get his hands on an actual live werewolf certainly would — but the longer this party goes on for, the harder it is for me to buy anybody else’s reactions.
It’s also just a terrible idea to stretch out this mystery into a three-night affair because it thins out all the inherent tension from the setup. The whole mystery, really, is pretty poorly plotted. For one thing, I completely forgot that one of the suspects even existed until he was dead. That’s kind of bad. For another, there’s really very little in the way of actual evidence or clues.
Now, I want to be upfront with you about this: it’s entirely possible that I missed some of the clues, partially because it was hard to hear the characters talking even with the volume at 70, and partially because my friends and I sort of gave up and chatted through a lot of the film. (Socially unacceptable, I know, but it really is such an insanely dull movie.) Still, there is precious little mystery to this whodunnit; rather, every suspect is introduced with a thirty-second bit of exposition on why they might be the werewolf (Jan is barred from some European towns where violent murders happened to coincide with his visits; Paul Foote once went to prison for eating human flesh, etc.) and sometimes the guests pass around this silver candle to see if anyone might die from it. (On the second night, Davina, I believe, suggests they play the “Candle Game” again, because nothing says riveting party game like a group of people sitting in a circle, literally just passing around a candle to see if anyone turns into a werewolf. Actually, I kind of want to do that for my birthday now.) That’s about as much time as The Beast Must Die really bothers to spend on secrets and suspicious behavior.
What would make this story far more effective is to cut all the worthless introductory exposition (as well as most of the film) and center the entire movie around dinner, where each of the guests slowly begin learning clues about one another as they (and we) try to figure out who the werewolf is. Actually, now that I think about it, why isn’t this movie shaped more like a How to Host a Murder party game? You guys ever play any of those? They’re the best! Each player is a murder suspect given a certain amount of info at the beginning, like the information you can publicly share, along with some of your dirty secrets you want to keep hidden. You’re also given clues that you reveal at specific times during the game, clues that will implicate everyone else in the murder.
The Beast Must Die could totally work that structure, with everyone interrogating everyone else, slowly revealing clues about one another until the very end . . . when dessert is served and a werewolf is revealed! It’d be like My Dinner With Andre, only there’d be a werewolf mystery in it! (Note: Clearly, I’ve never actually seen My Dinner With Andre, just Community’s tribute episode for it. Still, I feel pretty safe assuming the lack of werewolves.)
Obviously, The Beast Must Die would still be a ludicrous story, but it could be such a fun ludicrous story. It could be silly, engaging, and completely enjoyable. I would rewrite the hell out of this movie.
4. Although. It’s probably worth mentioning that if you’re hosting a dinner party in order to find out which of your guests is a werewolf, maybe it would behoove you not to tell them? Like, who does that? “By the way, I think one of you is a supernatural beast that I plan to murder before the evening is through, but I’m sure that won’t influence your behavior. Please carry on like nothing is wrong. Possibly I’ve put the werewolf among you on Red Alert, but I’m certain he won’t try to act even less like a werewolf than he normally would. Because I’m a hunter. I know these things.”
5. The werewolf’s reaction to all this, by the way, is to try and covertly kill Tom. He does a pretty poor job at it, but I’ll forgive him for now because accurately throwing an axe is probably harder than it looks and, presumably, he’s used to killing people with his teeth.
Tom the Asshole, however, has no such excuse.
Remember how I said in the summary that Tom was the Best Hunter Ever? Well, that summary was a blatant lie. Tom is an embarrassment to hunters. Tom is a FailHunter. He misses on multiple attempts to kill the wolf, even managing to blow up a helicopter in his attempt to bag the werewolf who — and this can’t possibly be stressed enough — is a practically a stationary target right in front of him. I’m sure he’s trying not to hit the pilot who’s busy been chomped on, but it’s like Tom goes out of his way to shoot his machine gun around the wolf. It is the most laughable thing you may ever see on film. There were a lot of jokes going around in this apartment, like the safest place for the werewolf to be is directly in Tom’s line of sight, or that if you want Tom to hit something, just dress up like a helicopter and wait.
Tom Newcliffe, clearly, is the Gilderoy Lockhart of hunters.
6. It should be said, though, that Tom actually does manage to intentionally kill four things in this movie, and two of them are even werewolves. Let’s go over them one by one.
Tom the Asshole’s First Victim: His Wife’s Dog
Yup. Sorry, animal lovers, but if you’re the kind of person who can’t make it through a movie where a dog dies, this isn’t the film for you. (Of course, I’m not sure who it’s a film for, exactly. Masochists and snarky movie reviewers, maybe?) Caroline’s dog valiantly attacks the werewolf, (temporarily) saving her life, but the dog himself is badly wounded and Tom, shockingly, manages to put it out of its misery without killing anyone else in the process.
Tom the Asshole’s Second Victim: His Wife
Alas, Caroline — the woman who has the serious misfortune to be married to this loser, not to mention the only person who can actually dress in this movie — is a werewolf. She’s not from the start, though; in this film’s one and only clever move, Caroline cuts her hand earlier at dinner, then gets infected with werewolf blood when she’s trying to help her dog. It’s a surprisingly well-handled twist, actually. Especially because while I considered early-on that there might be two werewolves, I never thought that one of those werewolves wouldn’t become one until after the story started. (Well, until Caroline’s reveal, anyway, since Caroline couldn’t have been the original werewolf.)
Caroline’s downfall comes when Tom the Asshole decides to take the Candle Game to the next level and makes everyone put a silver bullet in their mouth. Once Caroline fails this test, Tom kills her, despite the fact that Tom is almost entirely the reason Caroline turned into a werewolf in the first place. Seriously, who invites a bunch of suspected werewolves into their house anyway? Wouldn’t you send away your family before doing that, or at least ask their permission to have supernatural sleepovers? Tom, you’re not only the worst hunter; you’re the worst everything.
Tom the Asshole’s Third Victim: Jan the Werewolf
So, it turns out that Dumbledore is the werewolf! I’d like to say I called this, but I didn’t. (I think only Kirsten accurately guessed Michael Gambon.) I guessed Peter Cushing was the bad guy solely because he’s Peter Cushing, and I wasn’t giving the movie much credit, for what I feel by now should be pretty obvious reasons. I was less sure about Cushing’s guilt by the time the Werewolf Break came around, but I stuck with him anyway, mostly because there’s nothing more annoying than correctly guessing the killer and then changing your mind at the last minute.
Tom knows that Caroline can’t be the only werewolf because she was in the barn with him when the first werewolf attack attacked. He decides, for God knows what reason, that obvious red herring Paul Foote (Tom Chadbon) is our villain, but realizes his mistake when Foote is found dead.
Tom finally manages to bag the werewolf — three nights, five people, one dog, and one helicopter later — and we reveal that it was Jan all along.
Tom’s the Asshole’s Fourth Victim: Tom the Asshole
Alas! Tom was bitten in his final struggle with the werewolf and decides to kill himself rather than become a creature of the full moon. The full moon, I imagine, says, “Good fucking riddance, Tom. I didn’t want you anyway. Sweet dreams, ya dick.”
7. The best part of the movie, as previously mentioned, is THE WEREWOLF BREAK.
All movies should have werewolf breaks. Even if there are no actual werewolves in the movie.
What happens is this: the narrator — who has had no previous narration thus far — stops the entire film to give the audience thirty seconds to guess who the werewolf is. It is, in a word, hilarious. It is, in more words, the cheekiest, most unapologetic gimmick I’ve ever seen in my life, and I adore it. If the rest of the movie could be so brazenly ridiculous, it would be a lot more enjoyable to watch.
8. If you’re a fan of werewolf movies, you must know that werewolf makeup/special effects are pretty routinely terrible. The Beast Must Die didn’t even have the budget to splurge on awful makeup, though, so they just used a German Shepherd instead.
Honestly, I’ve seen worse.
9. The night-for-day shots, though, are intensely terrible. And you know this is bad because I don’t generally notice shit like that. It’s so light out in one scene that my first thought, honestly? “Wait, did we skip forward several hours with no transition and now it’s suddenly dawn, cause . . . no, no, it’s still supposed to be the middle of the night. Wow, that’s actually worse.”
10. Finally, this movie is not only a victim of 70’s pacing: it is also a victim of 70’s music and fashion.
The music . . . well, just listen to it. It’s, like, super funk. Werewolf Funk! That’s a cover band name if I ever heard one. Meanwhile, the 70’s fashion, man. It’s something special. And to be fair, Caroline really does have some incredible outfits. I’m particularly fond of her white dress and matching head wrap. (I’ve totally got a thing for head wraps.)
But everyone else? Not so much. Davina wears one downright horrifying dress, but it’s Tom who really shines here. First we have a Disco Dining Shirt . . .
. . . obviously spectacular, shortly followed by his Sleeping/Hunting outfit:
This one isn’t so much the outfit itself, but how he he puts it on, definitively, like, “Okay, I’m in my Badass Jacket and I’m ready to go some kick Werewolf Ass!” And then he just curls up in a chair and goes to sleep until his security associate, Pavel, wakes to tell him about possible werewolf action. It’s very weird. (I haven’t really talked about Pavel, but that’s okay. He dies too. Actually, he dies and gets his eye eaten. Poor dude.)
Tom also primarily wears black throughout the film until the last day, when he wears white and kills himself to stop from turning into a werewolf. Meanwhile, Caroline primarily wears white throughout the film until the last day, when she wears black and is killed because she turned into a werewolf. I feel, though I’m not sure, that there may be symbolism here.
Well. It could have been fun. Unfortunately, it’s mostly just terrible due to the extremely dull pacing and, also, Calvin Lockhart’s acting. Not that anyone’s masterful in this, but most of Lockhart’s line deliveries are just excruciating, and since he has the majority of the lines . . . yeah, it goes poorly.
Um . . . Peter Cushing, maybe? His primary role is selling exposition, which is hard even when you’re not being asked to explain how lymph nodes are vital in creating a werewolf, or something.
If a man hires you because he wants better protection from werewolves, don’t take the job. If your host invites you to dinner because he thinks one of you is a werewolf and plans to kill you, make a coordinated effort to escape this lunatic together. If your husband invites people over to your house with the express purpose of killing one of them for fear they’re a werewolf, join the coordinated effort to escape and hire a divorce lawyer the moment you’re safe. If you’re a helicopter, sorry. You will inevitably blow up.