The opening voiceover and dramatic white-on-black text of The Beast Must Die sums it up nicely:
“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.”
There we are then: Amicus is presenting us with a country house whodunnit featuring a werewolf. Lon Chaney Jr. meets Agatha Christie, with an audience-participation gimmick straight out of the William Castle playbook. The Beast Must Die is cheesy in a funky 1970s way, but it’s those same elements that make it fun.
The story starts off somewhere in the remote Scottish countryside, with a black man (Calvin Lockhart) being hunted in the woods. A man in a helicopter reports on whether or not he has “visual contact” whenever he sees “the target” or loses sight of him through the trees. Another man (Anton Diffring) seated in a control station with a wall of monitors and 1970s big computers reports “scanner contact” when he detects the runner on cameras placed in the trees or via sensors buried in the ground. A bunch of armed men drive around in a jeep, following the directions provided by these two men to locate their quarry. Some of men get out of the jeep to pursue “the target” on foot.
When the black man hides in the underbrush, unfortunately near a microphone, he’s discovered. One of the armed men points a rifle at him, but the control-room guy–who seems to be in charge–orders, “Give him another chance. Let him go.” The man with the rifle withdraws. “The target” runs off. The hunt resumes.
This introductory action sequence looks like a high-tech version of The Most Dangerous Game, but it’s all a clever inversion of our expectations.
The pursued man has a few more close calls with the armed men, but eventually he makes his way out of the woods, sweaty, out of breath, clothes a bit tattered and muddy. He steps onto the well-kept lawn of a large country house. A group of people are having tea. The armed men catch up with him and, to the horror of the tea party, shoot him. As they gather around him, he laughs.
The man is millionaire big-game-hunter Tom Newcliffe. The house belongs to him, and the people having tea on the lawn are his wife Caroline (Marlene Clark) and their guests for the weekend. The men who have been chasing him work for him, and the high-tech hunt is his idea of a fun way to check out his newly installed monitoring system.
I’d call Tom the hero of this story, since he’s the central character and the one who’s going to be playing detective, but he’s a self-centered, entitled jerk.
Tom Newcliffe made his way up out of childhood poverty in Barbados by using his instincts as a born hunter to get what he wants. “On safari or in the boardroom, it’s all the same,” he tells his tech expert Pavel, the man in the control room. He’s shot animals all over the world; there’s a stuffed tiger in the front hall and heads on walls all over the house. But he’s bored with this kind of killing. He’s hired Pavel to set up this top-of-the-line system around the house, not for security, but to help him hunt “the greatest prey of all.”
Which brings us to the guests, and why they’ve been invited. They all have one thing in common: Death.
Arthur Bennington (Charles Gray, last seen here in another supernatural country-house mystery, The Legacy) was a UN delegate when two members of his entourage mysteriously disappeared. Bennington says that he was cleared of suspicion, but Tom notes that he was thrown out of the diplomatic corps immediately afterwards.
Jan (a young Michael Gambon) is a world-famous concert pianist, but Tom observes that there are certain cities where he’s not welcome to play any more. “There were nasty killings in those cities, and always when you were playing there.” The victims throats were torn out.
Artist Paul Foote (Tom Chadbon, who was one of the nerdy tech guys in The Stone Tape) has had personal experience of cannibalism. In medical school, he and eight other students tasted samples of human flesh from a cadaver. He went to prison for it. Why did he do it? Tom wonders. “Curiosity. Bravado. I don’t know,” Paul replies. Paul also had a partially eaten body turn up on the same island where he was on vacation. And, for a fair-haired man, he’s exceptionally hairy on the backs of his hands.
Even Davina (Ciaran Madden), Caroline’s best friend and former flatmate from the old days when she worked as a model, has a history of “funny things happening,” like someone turning up dead and partially eaten when she’s in the vicinity.
Dr. Lundgren (Peter Cushing, most recently seen in From Beyond the Grave) is an anthropologist whose passion is the Loupe Garou (a French term for werewolves). It’s not clear if Tom suspects him, or has invited him as an expert on the subject.
For Tom is certain that one these persons, “sitting in this room,” is a werewolf. He means to identify which one it is, then hunt them down. It would be the greatest kill of his hunting career.
I don’t see why there can’t more than one of werewolf among this group, but that’s the premise of this movie, so we’ll go with just the one.
His wife knows that Tom doesn’t make jokes, so he must be out of his mind. “What would you do if I turn out to be the werewolf?” she asks him later when they’re alone.
Tom, in reply, points his finger at her as if it’s a pistol and says “Pow!”
Jan’s reaction is to try to drive off the estate and get away, but Tom goes after him in an extended car-chase action sequence and brings him back. No one’s getting out of here until Tom gets his werewolf.
That evening over dinner, the butler serves rare roast beef with a red sauce that looks very much like blood while Dr. Lundgren gives a lengthy dissertation on the lymphatic system and the medical symptoms of lycanthropy. The ladies lose their appetites. Tom also insists on a test and makes everyone seated at the table grasp a silver candlestick; the werewolf will react to the touch of silver. No one at the table does.
Dr. Lundgren says that this test didn’t work because there needs to be wolfsbane pollen in the air. Wolfsbane doesn’t grow in the UK, but Tom just happens to have some growing in the greenhouse. While he’s out checking on whether or not it’s coming into bloom, someone unseen in the darkness flings first an axe then a pitchfork at him.
The wolfsbane has pretty purple flowers on it, so Tom brings it back to the drawing room to blow some pollen around to the further irritation of his wife and guests.
Since there’s going to be a full moon that night, Tom is certain that someone’s going to go all wolfy.
By the way, you’ll see Dr. Lundgren and Bennington playing chess in several scenes in this movie, but it was through the commentary by director Paul Arnett on this DVD that I learned the most shocking thing I know about Peter Cushing: neither he nor Charles Gray knew how to play chess. When he first gave them direction for one of these scenes, assuming that two such worldly and sophisticated men would be chess players, Arnett told them to just go ahead and start a game. “I’m sorry, but we don’t know how, my dear.”
Hidden cameras aren’t just up in the trees, but installed all around the house and grounds too, so Tom and Pavel can spy on everyone. They listen in on conversations between Jan and Davina; she used to be his music student and girlfriend and the two are still a bit sweet on each other. They also check out the hair on Paul Foote’s hands. At this point, Jan and Paul are the primary suspects.
Pavel doesn’t believe in werewolves, but he’s paid very well for sitting in his glass-ceilinged control room all weekend, eating a little cup of yoghurt while everyone else is at their bloody dinner, and watching the monitors.
He’s just settled down in the control room to keep watch during the night, when something trips the ground sensors that circle the house. Perimeter alert!
Something has just passed out of the area. “A large four-legged animal,” according to the sensors.
Tom jumps up and grabs his gun to go a-hunting while Pavel remains to monitor the supposed werewolf’s location and report it to his boss.
“Target heading straight for you,” he tells Tom, now outside, and counts down the yards–200… 150… 100… 80… as it draws closer to him.
The creature leaps out of the underbrush, running past him. We don’t get a good look at it at this point, only a large, dark-furred doggie shape. Tom fires two shots but doesn’t slow it down.
Pavel asks if it’s Tom or the target moving back toward the house. Tom replies that he’s not moving. The blinking light indicating the target heads straight for the house and re-enters the perimeter. Once it’s inside the perimeter–on the lawn–there are no ground sensors to track its location.
“It’s coming for you, Pavel,” Tom shouts into his walkie-talkie. “To stop you from guiding me.”
Pavel scoffs, but he’s about to become the first victim. In response to Tom’s urgent advice to protect himself and grab something silver, he takes a pistol out of the storage cabinet and loads it. He checks the security cameras in and around house but all is quiet. Then a shadow passes over him and he looks up.
The werewolf is looking down at him through the glass of the skylight.
I say “werewolf,” but now that we get a good look at it, it’s not a wolf; it’s a Belgian sheepdog with a thick ruff of extra fur around its head and shoulders. According to Paul Arnett’s commentary, the dog’s name was Sultan and it was a friendly, happy animal. So I don’t feel entirely wrong when my first reaction on seeing it is Who’s the big booful woofums boy!
Pavel fires at it, shattering the glass but not hitting the wolf. It jumps down through the opening.
Tom, who is running toward the house, hears a scream but by the time he gets back to the control room, Pavel is dead. Since he was the closest to a friend Tom had among the people in the house, Tom is angry now and gunning for werewolf blood.
Caroline and some of the guests are up; they heard the shots. Tom tells them it was him, shooting at what he thought was a prowler. Davina says she thought she heard a scream too, but Tom doesn’t attempt to explain that. Since Paul is not among the group gathered on the upstairs landing, Tom goes up to see if he’s in his room.
Paul is there, asleep. He seems to have taken some pills.
None of them are missing, Dr. Lundgren observes. Tom repeats this, and looks suspiciously at the wide-open window of Paul’s room.
The next day, while the guests play croquet on the lawn, all but one of them blithely unaware that there was ever another person in the house and now he’s dead, Tom has a night-vision camera installed on the helicopter and disables all the cars in the garage so that no one else can try to drive off as Jan did. The nearest village is 12 miles away, a long hike. Since his own dog is running around, he ties it up outside a dilapidated old barn near the greenhouse. He’s ready for one more night’s hunt.
Over dinner, he wants to play the silver candlestick game again, but the others all refuse. Tom taunts them with being werewolf suspects, and Caroline, who’s had enough, flings the candlestick into a mirror. While she’s telling him off, she accidentally breaks a wine glass and cuts her hand.
“This is what you wanted–blood?” she says as she shows him her hand. Then she leaves the dining room and her guests sitting over another awkward meal.
At dusk, in spite of his wife’s protests, Tom goes up in the helicopter with a high-powered automatic rifle loaded with silver bullets. Using the night-vision camera, he quickly locates the werewolf heading toward the old outbuildings and shoots the greenhouse glass to pieces.
Tom is a jerk in many ways, but the one thing I really can’t forgive him for is that he left his dog tied up there at the barn all day. Did anybody bring the poor thing water or food? The dog runs up to Tom when he has the helicopter land and gets out to see if he hit the werewolf. He unties the dog.
But now that the werewolf is nearby, the dog senses it. When the werewolf emerges from its hiding place inside the barn, the two get into a fight. I’m a little concerned about the two dog actors, since there is a lot of realistic-looking snarling and bared teeth.
Caroline appears. She wasn’t in the helicopter so I assume she came out of the house when she heard all the shooting to see what the hell her husband was up to now. Tom’s pilot also gets out of the helicopter and stands outside the barn to see what’s going on, although he isn’t in a position to watch the canines fight as the Newcliffes inside the barn are.
The werewolf is bigger and more vicious, and so it wins the fight. Tom tries to shoot it but misses again. While Caroline sobs over her fatally injured pet, the werewolf darts out of the barn and takes the time to savage the pilot, who also shoots at it and misses. Tom tries to shoot the werewolf yet again and instead hits helicopter, which goes up in fireball. (For an expert hunter, he really is a bad shot.)
Davina and Dr. Lundgren are there by this time. Tom tells Davina to take Caroline back to the house while he puts the wounded dog out of its misery with one of his silver bullets. The bite of the werewolf, as Dr. Lundgren will tell us, is infectious… although I’m not sure what a lycanthropic infected dog would turn into.
When Tom goes back to the house, he demands to know where everyone has been, to see if they have alibis. Davina and the doctor were present immediately after the werewolf ran off, but what about the others? Jan and Paul both admit they were out, but not together and nobody else saw them.
And where’s Arthur Bennington? Tom races upstairs to Bennington’s room, and finds the man dead in bed with bloody handprints on the walls. So he’s off the suspect list, but it doesn’t seem like there ever much of a case against him. That diplomatic incident isn’t discussed after his introduction and he never does anything particularly suspicious. Although he did get in a few nice bon mots.
In the morning, the others want to phone or send for the police, but Tom refuses. There’s just one more night of the full moon, one final chance to get the werewolf. “Tonight, the beast must die.”
Paul makes a last, desperate attempt to escape, but the fence around the garden has been electrified and, besides, Tom’s right there with his rifle.
And now… The Werewolf Break.
One other thing I learned from the director’s commentary is that this gimmick was added at the last minute in editing by the producers. Arnett didn’t know about it beforehand and doesn’t like it.
The narrative voiceover returns to ask us:
“Do you know who the werewolf is?
“Is it Paul Foote? Jan? Davina? Dr. Lundgren? Caroline?
“You have 30 seconds to give your answer…”
Each name is accompanied by a still photo of that suspect. A clock face appears, very much like the one in the Fright Break in Homicidal.
Well, the mystery aspect of this story has been kind of thin. We only have a couple of clues to work with: Who was near the barn at the time the werewolf was there and therefore are excluded? And which suspects behaved most suspiciously by trying to escape? The answers to these questions leave us with just two possibilities, and a 50/50 chance of guessing correctly by the time the 30 seconds are up and the story resumes.
Spoilers from this point on.
Everyone who’s still alive has gathered together. It’s the classic suspects-in-the-drawing-room scene.
Tom is certain that Paul is the werewolf, and the film has been pushing him as the prime suspect. Paul insists that he wants to get away because he’s terrified and he doesn’t want to be the next victim. To prove that he’s not a werewolf, he grabs the silver candlestick.
Davina protests that they’ve all held the candlestick and yet Bennington is dead.
Dr. Lundgren says that it’s easy enough to protect the skin of your hand from contact with the silver, using any of a number of thin coating substances. Nail polish, for example. But he checks Paul’s hands and there’s nothing on them.
So Tom declares that no one would varnish the inside of their mouth, and he hands out silver bullets. Each person in turn pops one into their mouth and nothing happens.
Until it’s Caroline’s turn… and this twist comes as a genuine surprise the first time you see it.
As she raises her hand to her mouth, we see that the back of the hand has grown hairy and her fingernails are like claws. When she puts the bullet into her mouth, she turns into a wolf.
In spite of his astonishment, Tom does just what he said he would do at the beginning. Pow.
“It can’t be her! It can’t be Caroline!” Davina shrieks hysterically. But she’s absolutely right, as Tom soon realizes. Caroline was right there with him all the time the dog and werewolf were fighting. Dr. Lundgren explains that she must have been infected by the injured dog’s blood through the cut on her hand.
Tom has killed his wife, but she wasn’t the werewolf he’s been hunting. The original werewolf is still among them.
There’s one more bloody death before Tom finds the werewolf waiting for him on the lawn, taunting him. It leads him into the woods for the final confrontation. After a struggle, Tom does finally shoot and kill the werewolf, but only after he’s been wounded himself.
The dead wolf’s face slowly changes, becoming less of a wolf and more of a man… until the true culprit is revealed.
Yes, Future Dumbledore was once a werewolf.
Although he’s behaved horribly throughout this film, at the ending Tom Newcliffe attains a sort of tragic status. All that’s happened here has been brought about by his own flaws–his arrogance as a rich man who thinks he can control everything, and his growing bloodlust as a hunter, as well as his poor aim. With the knowledge that he’s been infected by the werewolf’s bite, and perhaps grieving and feeling responsible for his wife and the other people who have been killed this weekend, Tom understands what he must do now. He loads up one last silver bullet for himself.