The Beast Must Die (1974)

Directed by Paul Annett

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“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. Watch for the werewolf break.”

The Beast Must Die is silly.  It opens with the above text, immediately distancing you from the story and calling attention to the game-ification of the narrative.  The movie tells you that this isn’t a story as much as a straightforward mystery.  It’s not about these characters and how they may shape or be shaped by the story.  Rather, it’s about something that one of them already is, and in spite of a plot development or two there will be no real sense of discovery within the film.

That means stasis.

Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart) speaks in a grandiose manner from the moment we meet him.  He invites five friends to his estate and speaks to them with an air of superiority, like he’s speaking to robots as part of the Turing test.  That’s because Tom suspects one of them to be a werewolf, and as a big game hunter the werewolf is the last beast Tom has yet to kill.

Because the film tells us up front what this is about there’s no use in delaying the reveal, so Tom is quite candid with his guests.  He first shows up as the hunted, running around his estate while armed men chase after him.  It’s a big spectacle, like Willy Wonka’s first appearance in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), and he immediately explains himself, telling them what he believes and what he will do.

With the imminent full moon, Tom’s plan is to rope out the werewolf and kill it.  In addition to his five guests, he even includes his wife in his suspicions.  Tom regards his guests as less than, and by the end of the story his suspicions will be validated.

When Tom does finally discover the werewolf, his excitement is tempered by the strength of his initial convictions.  He had an idea about the world, and it’s simply been confirmed, that’s all.

So Tom remains the same throughout the film.  He’s a fascinating character, but a frustratingly simple one if you’re really looking for a solid character study.  But this is a film called The Beast Must Die, so that’s probably not why you’re watching it.

This is a fine B movie, one that capitalizes on the blaxploitation popularity at the time (‘Tom’ was written for a white actor), complete with the cool, funky jazz music which tells you to sit back, relax and enjoy whatever the hell is about to happen.  It poses a question but the tone of the film suggests the question doesn’t matter.  We’re watching something strange and strangely sensual, like a very long advertisement for confidence or a male aphrodisiac.

This film, with its Clue-style mystery, is like if Agatha Christie wrote her version of Shaft (1971).  Because of the insistence on the game of the story, none of the characters really stood out, and thus the answers to the questions posed are underwhelming.

Still there is plenty to like about The Beast Must Die, at least as long as your interest hinges on something other than what the movie pretends to be about.  There is spectacle, absurdity and wonderfully campy performances.  There’s even a German Shepherd with hair gel playing the werewolf, and when it tears out a person’s throat you have to admire the low-budget passion put into the scene.

This feels like a movie that should be remade, but with a greater focus on Tom.  I want to know more about him, what makes him tick.  He’s appealingly delusional, but the story keeps us at arm’s distance.  All we know is that he’s driven to kill a werewolf, and we watch his mission unfold.  We don’t know why he’s so convinced they exist or why his plan even works.  He’s one of those neurotic single-minded testosterone-driven heroes, like Travis Bickle or any number of Paul Schrader protagonists, and there is a strange appeal to these kinds of characters, both the passion and the delusion that fuels them.

But The Beast Must Die is taken with its characters objective and never bothers to analyze it, to break it down and figure out what’s underneath.  This is a film about a game that should surely attempt to make sense of that game.  Instead it just plays along.

That being said, the opening text lets you know that this is all the story plans to do.  So just sit back, relax and roll with whatever happens.

Up Next: Fitzcarraldo (1982), The Ring (2002), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

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