A macho and eccentric millionaire named Tom Newcliffe sees himself as a natural hunter who has made it to the top by preying upon those beneath him. There’s one game in particular, however, that he has not yet managed to bag: a real live werewolf. Determined to pot himself a lycanthrope, Tom goes through the trouble of rigging a vast array of security and surveillance systems around his secluded mansion, thereby ensuring that if a werewolf arrives at his door he will be ready for it.
Gathering together at Tom’s home to take part in this experiment are some colourful guests with questionable pasts. Paul Foote was convicted of eating samples of human flesh as a medical student. Bennington was once a United Nations diplomat, but his career ended in scandal when members of his entourage mysteriously disappeared. Jan is a concert pianist whose career has been followed by unexplained throat-tearings. Davina once hosted a house party in which a man was found killed and partially eaten. Dr. Lundgren, meanwhile, is obsessed with werewolves and has spent years studying the topic. Rounding off the cast is Tom’s wife Caroline. One of these people is a werewolf – but which one?
While The Beast Must Die was adapted from a 1950 short story by James M. Blish entitled “There Shall Be No Darkness”, reference points more likely to pop into viewers’ heads are The Most Dangerous Game and Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, elements of which appear to have been mixed up with lycanthropy and given a healthy dose of 1970s aesthetic. Above all, The Beast Must Die feels like Amicus trying in their own way to do what their better-known rival Hammer attempted with Dracula A.D. 1972: drag a classic horror monster jiving and grooving into the era of flares and afros.
The cast is brimming with character, Calvin Lockhart starring as Tom Newcliffe alongside Peter Cushing, Charles “Blofeld” Gray and a very young Michael Gambon as suspects. Both Lockhart and co-star Marlene Clark (who plays Caroline) had multiple Blaxploitation credits to their names, possibly explaining why the film was later released on VHS as Black Werewolf, misleadingly presented as a counterpart to Blackula, Blackenstein et al. Surrounding the actors is a setting that truly does the cast justice: thanks to the surveillance cameras around his property Tom is able to keep tabs on his guests from a control room, like some sort of Big Brother: Bond Villain Edition.
It’s hard to say that the plot stands up to inspection. Most obviously, there’s no reason whatsoever for Tom to be convinced from the start that he’s got a werewolf staying at his home. In a typical whodunit, talk of suspects doesn’t begin until after the murder takes place; but Tom deduces that there’s a lycanthrope present long before the first transformation occurs. The premise of the film rests on the assumption that if you put a convicted cannibal, a folklorist and three people with circumstantial connections to unsolved murders in a room together, then clearly one of them will turn out to be a werewolf. Hey, law of averages!
The thing is, though, this really isn’t the sort of film that needs make sense. This is the sort of film where the main character can climb into a helicopter and fly around machine-gunning silver bullets at a rampaging werewolf and we all accept it. The outrageous, medallion-flaunting silliness that ran rampant through so many 1970s genre films is on full show here, and the result is all the better for it.
During its finale, the film deploys a charmingly rubbish high-concept twist: a thirty-second “werewolf break” during which an onscreen counter ticks away, giving the audience time to decide for themselves which of the suspects is a werewolf. This is something that would have been more at home in a fifties William Castle film than in a seventies Amicus production, and it merely underlines the point that The Beast Must Die is a load of bash, colourful nonsense.
But then, perhaps brash, colourful nonsense is exactly what was needed for a genre still haunted by Universal-era clichés. Certainly, werewolf films had never been quite like this before – nor would they ever be again.