THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1967)
Synopsis: A cabbie travelling a lonely stretch of road outside London hears a horrifying scream in the woods. Pulling up his horses, he grabs his lantern and goes to investigate, finding a young man whose throat has been torn open. Suddenly, a huge winged creature dives at the cabbie, who recoils in terror…. At his house, doctor and entomologist Professor Carl Mallinger (Robert Flemyng) lectures on insects to a group of university students. Unseen by Mallinger, Detective Inspector Quennell (Peter Cushing) slips into the back of the room. When the lecture concludes, the students are served refreshments by Mallinger’s daughter, Clare (Wanda Ventham), while Quennell asks Mallinger some questions about another student of his, who was recently found murdered. The questioning comes to an abrupt halt when Clare screams in terror and faints, the victim of a practical joke involving a rubber spider. Mallinger angrily orders the students from his house. Quennell himself is also called out by Sergeant Allen (Glynn Edwards), who tells him that there has been yet another attack – the sixth – and that the still-living victim is outside in a carriage. Quennell asks Mallinger for help. The doctor tells Quennell to stand well back and leans into the carriage….only to straighten again with the news that he was too late. At Scotland Yard, Quennell learns that the cabbie who found the latest victim has gone mad, and can only babble frantically about a strange creature with wings. Quennell and the coroner visit the morgue to inspect the victim’s injuries. They find that his throat was torn open, as if by an animal, yet surprisingly little blood was spilled. The next morning, Sgt Allen oversees a search of the heath. The only discovery is a number of flat, shiny objects that the police cannot identify. Quennell takes some of these to Mallinger’s house. He asks the Professor whether an eagle could have been responsible for the recent killings, and when Mallinger dismisses the idea, asks him if he can identify the objects found on the heath. Mallinger agrees to try, reaching out for the whole packet. Quennell stops him, offering instead a single specimen for examination. When Quennell has gone, Mallinger goes down into the basement of his house. There, he dons protective clothing before unlocking a door at the far end of the room. As he enters, he is greeted by a strange, harsh cry…. At the local police station, naturalist Frederick Britewell (William Wilde), just returned from Africa, asks directions to Mallinger’s house. There, Clare makes herself agreeable, inviting the young scientist to attend some home theatricals the following evening. Mallinger himself is delighted with the enormous chrysalids that Britewell has brought him, but reacts in fury when his visitor touches one of his experiments. The following evening, after the play, Clare invites Britewell to take a walk in the garden. Teasingly insisting that he cover his eyes, she runs from him into the woods. Britewell follows eagerly – only to be confronted by a monstrous winged beast, which instantly tears at his throat….
Comments: At the conclusion of this film, as he stands staring down at the smouldering remains of its titular beastie, Police Sergeant Allen is moved to inquire helplessly of his superior, “What will we tell them? They’ll never believe this at the Yard!” To which that superior, the equally gobsmacked Inspector Quennell, can only reply sadly – and with more truth than, perhaps, screenwriter Peter Bryan ever intended – “They’ll never believe it anywhere!”
There was a part of me that was sorely tempted to take this review no further than that quotation, which sums up The Blood Beast Terror as well as anything could, not to mention about as well as it deserves. But there was another part of me, a much larger part, that was compelled to make public confession of the fact that I have for The Blood Beast Terror a quite unwarranted degree of affection. Don’t get me wrong: my judgement isn’t so blind that I’d try to tell you that this is by any standard a good film. What I would say, though, is that in spite of all its shortcomings, it does possess a certain daffy charm, chiefly by virtue of the fact that its story – which centres upon a mad scientist, his lepidopterous daughter, and the kind of “science” that could make Bela Lugosi weep with envy – makes no sense whatsoever.
Wait a minute! I hear some of you exclaim. Did you say – his lepidopterous daughter? Yes, indeed, gentle reader: this film’s monster, the “Blood Beast” of its title, is nothing less than a gigantic, rampaging, vampiric….were-moth.
There are a few positive things about The Blood Beast Terror, I guess – Peter Cushing’s performance, the unusually realistic nature of the police investigation subplot, the determined sex reversal of its main story – but let’s face it, with a monster that idiotic, the thing was doomed from the outset. Even Cushing himself considered this to be his very worst film. (A bit harsh, in my opinion: personally, I’d vote for The Uncanny.)
The Blood Beast Terror begins courageously enough. Brazenly defying those people (i.e. my colleagues and myself) who insist that the use of stock footage in a film’s opening sequence is one of the major cinematic warning flares, it not only serves up some wholly unconvincing shots of a stork, a monkey and a macaw, it inserts them into “real” footage that manages to be even less convincing, as a short stretch of a patently English river struggles heroically to make itself look like a portion of Darkest Africa. (Hang on – a macaw…?) Out on the water in a canoe are two no doubt hugely embarrassed extras playing at being “native bearers”, and a young man dressed in a I’m-British-so-dirt-can’t-touch-me gleaming white explorer’s suit and pith helmet. The explorer directs his bearers to paddle towards shore. Once on land, the young man immediately glances down into a tree stump and finds therein two large chrysalids, which just happen to be what he came all the way to Africa to find. Luck, hey?
One jarring cut later, the opening credits are rolling over footage of a hackney carriage travelling down a lonely road in the middle of the day. As the credits finish, a loud, and definitely masculine, scream sounds from nearby. (You will hear more male screaming in The Blood Beast Terror than in almost any other horror film I can think of.) The cabbie stops his horses, grabs a lantern, and plunges into the woods to investigate – and suddenly it’s the middle of the night. (This day-for-night confusion, which will recur throughout the film, is by no means its only Larry Buchanan-esque aspect, as we shall see….) The cabbie finally stumbles over the body of a young man, who has had his throat torn open. Suddenly, there comes the sound of flapping wings, and the cabbie himself starts screaming as something huge and dark swoops down towards him. At this point, we are given only the most indistinct glimpse of the mysterious creature. Later on, we shall learn to appreciate this all-too-brief directorial reticence.
Things pick up then, as Peter Cushing makes his first appearance onscreen as Inspector Quennell. If The Blood Beast Terror can indeed be said to hold together, it is certainly due to the straightfaced but not humourless conviction with which Cushing undertook the role of Quennell: the man’s ability to sell almost anything was truly extraordinary. (Conversely, if Robert Flemyng was appalled at having to appear in that excellent Italian shocker, L’Orrible Segreto Del Dotto Hichcock, the mind positively boggles at the thought of what he must have made of this.) Quennell calls upon Professor Mallinger who, we learn, is giving his “usual Thursday night lecture” to a group of university students. The lecture itself consists of little more than a slide-show accompanied by “this is a picture of a moth, and this is another picture of a moth”, which makes the wrapt attention displayed by the young men in the audience a little hard to understand – at least until the lecture concludes, and refreshments are brought in by Mallinger’s busty daughter, Clare, towards whom the young men instantly stampede. Quennell sidles up to Mallinger, speaks briefly but enthusiastically of entomology as a subject, then starts to question Mallinger about a former student of his who, we learn, is one of a string of recent murder victims. What Mallinger may have said we are destined never to know, since he and Quennell are startlingly interrupted. One of the students, evidently a graduate of the Errol Flynn School Of Courtship, has chosen to play a practical joke on Clare with a rubber spider – who belies her robust appearance by screaming hysterically and then fainting. Mallinger furiously orders all of the students out of the house, while Quennell is summoned by Sergeant Allen, who – through pathways unexplicated – has the body of the young man from the woods in a carriage outside. (Glynn Edwards’ performance as the phlegmatic Allen is one of the film’s better aspects.) Finding that “He’s not quite dead yet”, Quennell begs Mallinger – one of those useful movie doctor-scientists – for help. Mallinger agrees. Insisting that Quennell stand right back, Mallinger leans into the carriage, and--- “Oh, he’s died!”
Quennell is next seen talking to the coroner. (The geography of The Blood Beast Terror is at all times hazy, but it seems that Quennell is attached to Scotland Yard, and Mallinger’s house is on the outskirts of London.) The cabbie who found the most recent victim is, mysteriously, alive, but has been pronounced insane, as he does nothing but rant about giant flying creatures. Quennell and the coroner then visit the morgue, allowing for an appearance by that character most beloved of horror movie screenwriters, The Comical Morgue Attendant Who Has Lunch Amongst The Corpses. In fairness, this particular example of the breed does get one unexpectedly witty moment when, after pulling the usual half-wit routine, he suddenly pronounces of the latest murder victim: “Severe injury to the cranium region, thorax severely damaged, and ribcage subject to extreme pressure.” And just as well the morgue attendant is on the ball, too, since we subsequently learn that this is the first of the six murder victims that the coroner has bothered to examine! The tearing of the throat is commented upon, as is the lack of spilled blood. (Hmm….) Quennell then meets up with Sgt Allen, who is supervising a search of the heath where the murder took place (and never mind that we saw the cabbie run into the woods). Allen hands Quennell a number of flat, shiny objects about an inch across, which were found at the scene. These send the puzzled Quennell back to Mallinger. First having his theory about a homicidal eagle dismissed by Mallinger (who, like all good movie scientists, is an expert on pretty much everything), Quennell then flashes the strange objects from the heath. At the sight of these, Mallinger gets a little….sweaty….and after a brief Whoops did I try to take them all how silly of me! tussle, Quennell hands the scientist a single specimen and departs.
Indignant squawks come from nearby, and we cut to Mallinger’s scar-faced butler, Granger, who is tormenting Mallinger’s – gasp! – pet eagle. The bird appears to be of that rare species, Seenonceonly redherringus. Mallinger abuses the butler and sends him from the room, then begins feeding the animal himself – and Robert Flemyng very nearly loses a finger. Owie! Mallinger then goes down into his basement, where again like all good movie scientists, he keeps a secret room behind a locked door. First donning some singularly goofy protective headgear (which looks like it was designed by the makers of The Return Of The Fly: you know, the guys who decided that Andre Delambre’s human-sized fly head wasn’t scary enough – or silly enough) – Mallinger ventures in, to be greeted by a series of strange harsh cries….
And then it’s time to catch up with Mr The Sun Never Sets Upon The Empire – aka Frederick Britewell, naturalist and explorer, our old friend from the opening sequence. Britewell ventures into the local police station to ask directions to Mallinger’s house, and as a stranger instantly draws the attention of Sgt Allen. Determining that Britewell could not have had anything to do with the murders, Allen sends him on his way with the unfortunate bobby who has drawn the night watch duty on the heath as a guide. At the house, Clare greets the visitor warmly – very warmly – and has just gotten around to inviting him to attend a small theatrical party at the house the following evening when Mallinger shows up. Britewell comments favourably upon Clare’s interest in entomology – so unusual in a woman! – provoking the exchange of A Highly Significant Look between father and daughter. Mallinger carts Britewell off to the lab, where the specimens collected by the young explorer have been delivered. Britewell is surprised by Mallinger’s interest in the largest of the chrysalids that he has brought back, as they are remarkable for nothing but their size. But no, no, Mallinger assures him, it is the size that matters. Btitewell then has a flash of inspiration, and inquires whether Mallinger is trying to breed a larger species…?
Upon reflection – he probably shouldn’t have said that….
We cut abruptly to perhaps The Blood Beast Terror’s most inspired sequence – and typically, it has absolutely nothing to do with the business at hand. The “theatricals” we heard about involve Mallinger’s students, plus Clare, staging a play featuring mad science, resurrection of the dead, and a (tin sheet) violent thunderstorm – not to mention Clare flashing more leg and bosom than you’d expect from a young lady of this era. (Amusingly, much of this film’s original poster art prominently featured this non sequitur of a scene, and Clare’s cleavage in particular.) Engaging in its own right, the scene is capped when Quennell, who just happens to be passing, glances through a window at the shenanigans on stage – and Peter Cushing has what I’m quite sure was a genuine laugh at the distinctly Frankensteinian nature of the proceedings. Afterwards, a flirtatious Clare invites Britewell for a walk in the garden, to which the young explorer, doubtless in the belief that he’s about to get lucky, readily agrees. But it’s Clare whose luck is in. No sooner are the two out of sight of the house than she begins to transform….
….and we finally get a good view of the film’s monster – which, I swear, looks like nothing so much as the bastard offspring of Roger Corman’s Wasp Woman and Larry Buchanan’s Zontar.
It is usual for reviewers – or apologists – to speak of the tiny budget for which The Blood Beast Terror was produced; and while that may be true in relative terms, I find it hard to believe that the film didn’t cost rather more than The Wasp Woman and Zontar, The Thing From Venus put together. And yet that – that! – was the best monster they could come up with! It could just make you cry. Or giggle hysterically, however the spirit moves you.
Anyway--- The newly lepidopterous Clare (and yes, I do like the word “lepidopterous” – so there!) latches onto Britewell’s throat. He immediately lets out a series of screams – remarkable screams, for someone having his throat torn open – which attract the attention of the wandering Quennell. As he draws near, the re-transformed Clare flees – and in doing so raises all those old questions about what, exactly, shape-shifting monsters do about their clothing, only more so. The Blood Beast Terror really does strike a blow for the female sex here. To paraphrase that famous quote about Ginger Rogers, not only can its female monster do everything that a male monster can, she does it while having to deal with bustles, corsets, and an impossibly elaborate hairdo.
Quennell finds Britewell bloody and dying, and tries vainly to get him to say something useful. The explorer, however, a traditionalist if ever there was one, and mindful that all last utterances must be cryptic ones, gasps out only, “Death’s Head!” – which, in these pre-Silence Of The Lambs days, conveys to Quennell precisely nothing. Quennell hauls Britewell to Mallinger’s house, only to have Mallinger (i) pronounce him dead; and (ii) deny all knowledge of his identity. He also, it seems, decides that Clare has made the vicinity to hot to hold them any more. Next we know, all the furniture in the house is swathed with covers. Granger the butler takes this final opportunity to torment Mallinger’s eagle just once more. This time, however, the bird is waiting for him, and Granger is soon an ex-butler. And no, I haven’t the faintest idea what that whole Granger subplot was supposed to be about, either.
Quennell, meanwhile, is reporting Britewell’s last words to his superior, who takes the opportunity to suggest – seven unsolved murders in – that Quennell might want to take a break from the case. Quennell takes perfectly proper British exception to this, and is immediately reassigned. As with so much in The Blood Beast Terror, there seems to be very little point to this scene, except that we get our first mention of Quennell’s daughter, Meg. I can’t help wondering whether the film’s producers felt that, with their sexually charged female monster and her exclusively male victims, they were going a little too far off the beaten track. At any rate, Meg Quennell ultimately serves no purpose at all in the story, beyond providing a little balance by being menaced in a thoroughly traditional manner.
Upon being introduced to Meg, we realise that the film-makers adhered to one more movie tradition, namely the one that insists that clever fathers have moronic daughters. Consequently, Meg is a dithery airhead with a singularly annoying baby-doll voice. Quennell is about to see her off on the holiday he’s not taking himself when Allen reveals that Mallinger knew very well who Britewell was. This sends Quennell hot-foot to the house, where he proceeds to find first that secret basement room – a web-shrouded dungeon, containing skeletal human remains and more of those strange shiny objects found on the heath – and then Mallinger’s lab, with Granger’s body poorly concealed in a cupboard. (In another totally pointless side-trip, we visit the morgue again to learn that Granger was murdered “at least three hours” after the eagle attack!?) Questioning of Mallinger’s abruptly dismissed servants and two porters at Waterloo Station reveals that Mallinger and Clare have fled to Upper Higham, a locale known for its excellent fishing. Not yet believing that they have sufficient evidence to get a warrant for Mallinger’s arrest (!!!!!!!), Quennell decides to follow him incognito, with Meg as window dressing. Meanwhile, at their new abode, while Clare is amusing herself by going all D.H. Lawrence over the under-gardener, Clem, Mallinger is--- Well, it turns out I spoke more truly than I knew when I made that crack about Bela Lugosi: Mallinger’s research into galvanism bears a distinct resemblance to experiments once carried out by a certain “kindly Dr Carruthers”…..
Clare’s abrupt entrance provokes an exchange of dialogue full of loaded phrases such as, “How much longer must I wait!” and “You must be patient!” It doesn’t take much mental effort to figure out to what immediate end Mallinger’s “research” is directed. At the same time, this scene underscores the fact that The Blood Beast Terror never does bother to explain Clare’s existence: whether Mallinger has, for reasons best known to himself, transformed his daughter into a gigantic, rampaging, vampiric were-moth; or whether he simply has a gigantic, rampaging, vampiric were-moth masquerading as his daughter. Certain events do tend to point in the latter direction – but on the whole, the screenplay kindly allows us to make up our own minds on that point…. (Come to think of it, the screenplay never explains why the were-moth feeds on human blood instead of nectar or honey, either; or why it has two legs instead of six; or why Britewell should have died gasping “Death’s Head!”, when Clare bears about as much resemblance to a Death’s Head Moth as The Blood Beast Terror does to a good film.) Anyway, Mallinger tells Clare that his work will progress much more swiftly if she stops interrupting him, and warns her to stay inside the house. Of course, now that Clare has laid eyes on the toothsome Clem, fat chance of that.
At the local inn, Quennell – aka “Mr Thompson” – is discovering that his fellow guests are a fishing enthusiast from Birmingham and his son, William, who just happens to be – well, what a co-inky-dink! – a budding entomologist. The young William is just as insipid as Meg, so before long the two are conducting a decidedly syrupy romance. One of William’s butterfly-catching expeditions leads him and Meg into the grounds of the Mallingers’ house, where until now he has had a free run. This time, however, Clare angrily orders the two from the premises. Inside, Mallinger is charging an odd little device with electricity. This he takes to another dungeon-like room where, encased in a see-through cocoon, hangs a second giant were-moth. Mallinger zaps the creature with his strange little galvanic doo-dad, but seems displeased with the results. Clare bursts in on the proceedings, and swiftly intuits that something is wrong. “Galvanism isn’t working,” confesses Mallinger. “It needs – nourishment!” Clare is quick to interpret this as the need for – “The blood of a young girl!”
Ah, well – nice to know that Meg is good for something.
Clare drives out and overtakes Meg in the midst of a walk, apologising for her previous rudeness and offering to take her up. If we needed any proof of the fact that Meg’s presence in this story is pure Contractual Obligation, we have it in the abrupt cut to the girl lying unconscious in Mallinger’s lab, her capture, overpowering and hypnotising taken completely for granted. Having transfused some of the girl’s blood into the developing were-moth, Mallinger orders her to return the following day, same moth-time, same moth-channel; and further orders her to remember nothing of what has happened. Meg then returns to the inn, where her vague and spaced-out behaviour causes her fond father no concern whatsoever. Clare, meanwhile, has her eye – and her mouth-parts – fixed on the hunky Clem. She leads him away from the bonfire he has just lit – “I don’t like fire!” she breathes, in a line that just reeks of Subtle Foreshadowing – and before long Clem is going the way of the previous seven….
At the inn, William serves his purpose by showing Quennell a specimen of a Death’s Head Moth he has just captured, and some moth scales under a microscope. And that ping!ping!ping!ping! noise you hear is the sound of pennies descending in a positive torrent.
Clare, disobeying orders, stands contemplating her future mate. Mallinger storms in, having just stumbled over the remains of Clem out in the garden. “You couldn’t wait, could you?” he rages and, when Clare laughs at him, slaps her. “Wasn’t it I who created you? And how have you rewarded me?” Mallinger further rants – the notion that a gigantic, rampaging, vampiric were-moth ought to feel grateful for its creation being one of this film’s odder notions. It transpires that while Mallinger was prepared to put up with seven murders, eight are just too much. He douses the developing male were-moth with – something – and it instantly goes up in flames in a most impressive manner (if you ignore the fact that the blaze actually starts on the floor in front of the monster). Mallinger then informs Clare that he intends to destroy her, too – and has the temerity to look surprised when she promptly transforms and tears his throat out.
(For the record, those clothes just….disappear.)
William’s father is out fishing when he manages to hook the hastily disposed of body of Clem. At the inn, Sgt Allen arrives in answer to Quennell’s summons, bringing with him files on Mallinger and Britewell than allow the Inspector to join the few remaining dots. Allen is then mistaken by the landlord for the copper he sent for, and asked to inspect Clem’s body. Immediately realising that it is, as he puts it, “one of ours”, Allen blows Quennell’s cover. The landlord then identifies Clem as under-gardener at The Old House, which is occupied by “Dr Miles and his daughter”.
Every time it rains
It rains pennies from heaven
Don’t you know each cloud contains
Pennies from heaven….
And then, there being only minutes left to go, events conspire to bring all the remaining characters together in one place. Quennell and Allen hare off to The Old House. Meg obeys her hypnotic suggestion and heads that way too, where she stumbles over Mallinger’s corpse, comes out of her trance with a shriek, tries to run away, trips, knocks herself out, and sets the house on fire by dropping a lamp. Ugh! William calls on Mallinger to show him his specimen of a Death’s Head Moth, and having unwisely shown it to Clare instead, gets invited to “take a walk”. Having arrived in time to rescue Meg and put out the fire, Quennell and Allen then get to rescue the menaced William, too. Hey, like I keep saying, it’s an equal opportunity film! Clare, in moth mode, is circling the garden and proving darned hard to shoot, considering her size. Quennell then has a moment of inspiration, and---well, we all know what they say about moths and flames, don’t we?
You know – I’ve seen some truly lame monster disposals in my time. The aliens being “lighted” to death at the end of Attack Of The The Eye Creatures probably still takes the cake, but Clare-the-were-moth’s decidedly out-of-focus descent upon a bonfire runs it a close second. Anyway, like her male counterpart, Ms Were-Moth goes up in flames as Quennell and Allen look on making “What the @#$%!?” faces – as well they might. The were-moth obligingly transforms back into Clare for a moment, just to let the police officers in on that little secret, and then she collapses in a heap of ash. And now, let’s have that line again, shall we? – this time rightly positioned as an epitaph:
“They’ll never believe it ANYWHERE!”
Want a second opinion of The Blood Beast Terror? Visit The Bad Movie Report.
Alas, poor Inspector! Well--- At least he won’t be detained for too long….
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