*. I can’t help feeling that Amicus missed an easy trick by not putting an exclamation mark at the end of the title. On some posters I’ve seen they have added one, and it’s something they’d done before (And Now the Screaming Starts!). I think the title should really be The Beast Must Die!
*. But, believe it or not, I think they were aiming for class with this one. At least producer Max Rosenberg said he wanted something “monolithic.” Nobody knew quite what he meant.
*. And Then There Were None meets The Most Dangerous Game. And those were both good movies. Plus this one has a werewolf in it. So it couldn’t really miss, could it?
*. But wait, there’s more to like! There’s a swingin’ ’70s soundtrack (they wanted a “gothic-sounding Shaft sound,” construe that how you will), and a gimmicky “werewolf break” where the movie stops and you’re given 30 seconds to decide who’s the lycanthrope.
*. There’s also a black lead: Calvin Lockhart, apparently cast in a bid to cash in on the blaxploitation craze. There was even an alternate version released as Black Werewolf, a title which manages to be both sleazy and totally inaccurate (though this version does omit the “werewolf break,” which some may take as a blessing).
*. Even some of the stuff you probably should hate isn’t all bad. The werewolf, for example, gets a lot of criticism because it’s just a German Shepherd wearing a ruff. But I like this kind of werewolf. Let’s face it, most werewolves look pretty stupid. Whereas a real wolf on its own can be pretty scary. I liked the real wolves in Wolfen for the same reason. And as director Paul Annett says, since they had no budget for this film, any werewolf makeup they did was going to look terrible anyway. So: good call.
*. At least most of the time it’s a good call. Annett does his best to sell us on the werewolf-dog with lots of quick cuts, but in the final stand-off between it and the Great Black Hunter, let’s face it, he just looks like a big goofy dog who wants to play. I mean, he isn’t even snarling like he’s angry. He’s just standing there with his tongue hanging out, looking silly.
*. All of this, plus a more than capable cast, and we should be in for a good time. Or, as Kim Newman calls it, “mindless, trashy fun of the first order.”
*. Unfortunately, it’s not as much fun as it sounds. And I’m not sure why.
*. Part of the problem might be the pacing, which lost me early. The opening chase goes on too long (13 minutes), and is slackly handled. Especially since we’ll probably twig to what’s really going on pretty quickly if we’ve ever seen the opening of a Bond movie (the beginning of From Russia with Love comes to mind). Then there’s another long, pointless car chase later in the movie as Jan tries to escape. This was another addition made at the producer’s insistence, and what they were trying to do was get more action into the movie. But it’s just filler (Annett: “extremely gratuitous”), and the time could have been spent on more interesting things.
*. Actually, I wonder if the Bond films were in mind in more ways than one. Tom Newcliffe’s estate sure looks like the lair of a Bond villain (I believe it’s the Little Park House at Shepperton Studios), and Lockhart has the right eccentric look and urbane, overconfident patter. By the way, did you know he played King Willie in Predator 2? I didn’t, and was surprised to find out.
*. The concept suggests a well-made plot full of red herrings and clever intricacies, but in fact it boils down to something hard to swallow just from the set-up. Why is Tom so sure that one — and only one — of his guests is a werewolf? His evidence is circumstantial at best.
*. Then Tom alienates us further by the fact that he is both a lousy detective and a lousy hunter. In the case of the former, surely it wouldn’t be hard to figure out who among the guests is the werewolf. One can think of several certain, and safe, ways to do so. But at times he seems to be actually trying hard not to solve the mystery. As for the hunting, he’s good at blowing off lots of silver bullets on full auto, but he can’t hit anything unless it’s lying right on top of him. Unless it’s putting Old Yeller down, or blowing up his own helicopter.
*. Some of these script problems resulted from freestyling on a source story, “There Shall Be No Darkness” by James Blish, that the final script has almost nothing in common with aside from some of the characters’ names (on the commentary Annett admits he hadn’t read the story before making the movie, but wishes he had). Even the scientific explanation for lycanthropy given by Dr. Lundgard is different (its root is given in the story as the pineal gland, but here the mutation is located in the lymphatic system).
*. I love the story Annett tells on the commentary about how, when he told Peter Cushing and Charles Cray to get started playing a game of chess so they could be a few moves into it when filming, they told him that neither of them knew how to play. This surprised him, and it would have surprised me too. I’m no chess player, but I do know the rules and I guess I’ve always thought that most people do. But I wonder how many people actually do know how to play chess.
*. Annett thought the business of passing the silver bullet from mouth to mouth was “sexy.” I’m not sure modern audiences will agree. Cushing at least wipes his down. It’s not at all clear though whether they are each using different bullets or circling with the same one. There’s some discontinuity between the action and what people are saying.
*. The “werewolf break” is silly (and was added by the producers, much to Annett’s displeasure), but it still might have worked if this had been a true “fair play” whodunit. The model here isn’t William Castle but those detective stories (I believe by Ellery Queen) where there was a note in the text saying when you (the reader) now had all the evidence you needed to solve the crime. But the evidence here is pretty vague, and in any event is never gone over by Tom. Instead, he relies on another silver test.
*. I’ll back Newman up part way and call this mindless, trashy fun, if not of the first order. Still, in the annals of horror there’s nothing else quite like it. That alone makes it worth a look.