Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned.
“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.”
This film is a nutty story, one in which you the view are left alternating between dropping your jaw and curling your lips into a smile. Amicus Productions was just a few short years away from shuttering its doors in 1974, and after gifting genre film lovers with more than a few gems — including a trio or horror anthology films from the gloriously twisted mind of Robert Bloch — they were struggling for something new. And what’s newer than a bunch of old things mashed together against their will?
The Beast Must Die blends the three known quantities of horror, mystery, and blaxploitation into something wholly unique, for better or worse, and the result is a movie that remains highly memorable nearly half a century later.
Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart) is an immensely wealthy man who spends his weekends as you’d expect someone of his financial status would spend them. Yes of course I’m referring to his penchant for running around his vast, forested estate while armed men hunt him down. There’s a method to his madness as he’s testing out a new security monitoring system with a very specific purpose. He’s invited six friends to spend the weekend with him and his wife for a few days of gossip, drinks, and accusations of lycanthropy!
That’s right. He suspects one of them is a werewolf.
Most of the men and women dismiss his theory as preposterous while humoring him all the same, but one friend, Dr. Lundgren (Peter Cushing), is fully on-board with the possibility. The pair make various observations about detecting a werewolf and the rules the furry beasts must live by, but every test comes up empty. They hold a silver candlestick, they breathe in wolfsbane pollen, they shake hands instead of sniffing behinds.
Of course that doesn’t stop Tom from accusing everyone — more than once — of being the creature.
He’s soon proven right though when his fancy security system detects the monster roaming the woods, but when Tom heads out to bag the beast it doubles back and slaughters the man manning the system. As others begin to fall victim and the pool of suspects threatens to dwindle Tom gathers them all in one room to determine once and for all who the werewolf is. The screen pauses, a ticking clock appears, and a narrator says it’s the “werewolf break” where we have thirty seconds to voice our guess as to the creature’s identity before the truth is revealed!
It’s a glorious beat, and the knowledge that it was a desperate bid added in post-production does little to diminish the joy of the moment. It’s The Beast Must Die‘s calling card and most well-known element, but there’s a lot more goofiness to love here than just the one gimmick.
The title beast’s appearance is less werewolf and more your neighbor’s big, fluffy dog, and while saving money on prosthetics by simply giving the mutt a bad haircut is a cost-effective move it’s unclear if they reinvested it back into the movie. Maybe it went to rent the mansion or to blow up a helicopter — my hope is they gave an extra bump to the always great Cushing — but it probably went to Amicus’ favorite composer, Douglas Gamley, to buy him tickets for as many blaxploitation films as he could find. The score diverts from his more typical efforts (Asylum, The Monster Club) to instead channel the sounds of Shaft or Super Fly. It adds an unexpected funkiness to scenes of Cushing witnessing his one thousandth transformation of a human into a beast.
The gimmick does add a cool Agatha Christie-like feel to the film as we’re told to pay attention early on knowing the opportunity for our own guess is on the horizon. Are the clues really there for astute viewers to pick up on in any realistic way? Not a chance, but it’s a fun game anyway as there’s reason enough to suspect each of the guests up until the point where they get their throats ripped out.
The glue holding all of this together is Lockhart’s ridiculously over the top performance. Known for films as varied as Melinda and Predator 2, he’s shown himself capable of restraint but clearly chose a different path here. Every action is a dramatically sweeping one, every utterance a grand announcement, and his aristocratic-sounding madness propels the film forward on the power of his certainty alone.
The Beast Must Die is an unusual and entertaining creature feature, and that’s a beast worth keeping alive for new movie fans to discover. The “werewolf break” remains a fun surprise even on re-watch as it literally interrupts the action to talk to you, the viewer, and hopefully a few of you will answer.
Buy The Beast Must Die on DVD from Amazon or watch via Amazon Shudder.
Check out some past Missed Connections.
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