Friday, 26 October 2012

CLASSIC BRITISH HORROR BLU-RAY: The Blood Beast Terror (1967)

This review contains giant moth-related spoilers!

Following hot-on-the-heels of producer Tony Tenser's first post-Compton production of 1967 (the often underrated, Michael Reeves-directed Boris Karloff vehicle, The Sorcerers) which came in the wake of his break with former Compton Club partner and distributor Michael Klinger, this bizarre attempt to emulate the box office success of two grisly period-set Hammer classics, The Plague of the Zombies and The Reptile (both of which had been filmed back-to-back at Bray the previous year), also became the first film to officially sport the Tigon British moniker; it went into production at the tiny Goldhawk studios in London’s Shepherd’s Bush in the summer of 1967 (coincidentally, on the same day that Terrence Fisher commenced shooting the stylish The Devil Rides Out at Elstree), under its original (and better) title The Death’s Head Vampire, but was eventually held back until after the release of Michael Reeves’ next Vincent Price-starring project, which turned out to be the classic Witchfinder General. By this point the film had been retitled with its current, much more potent-sounding, moniker. (In the US it was to trade under the even more disreputable-sounding The Vampire Beast Craves Blood!) In any case, the finished article initially opened as part of a double-bill with the Italian-shot, black & white Christopher Lee Gothic vehicle, Castle of the Living Dead, but was quickly overshadowed by the success of Reeves’ critically acclaimed masterpiece, and promptly paired up with it for national distribution by ABC's chain of cinemas, though now relegated to support feature status; even so, this canny pairing saved the day for Tigon’s investment and ensured that the film didn’t sink into total obscurity.

The Blood Beast Terror has not exactly gone on to enjoy a particularly distinguished reputation since then, with even its lead, the great British horror star Peter Cushing, damning it as one of the worst films of his career. But beyond the questionable belief that its cheap-looking veneer of rush-job, cut-price Victoriana is somewhat unconvincing, and despite a sometimes insipid script of (often) only barely-developed plot ideas cadged from seemingly every piece of Gothic horror literature going, the film today stands peculiarly proud -- a murderously rich, gas-lit testament to a faintly perverse but deeply mischievous brand of British-made macabre on the cheap, pioneered by Tony Tenser during what turned out to be the high summer of British Gothic cinema.

At the helm of this opus was Vernon Sewell -- a true British veteran, at the time considered a reliably safe pair of hands by Tenser (‘you don’t go far wrong with chaps like Vernon’) who had worked with Michael Powell during the making of his The Edge of the World in 1937, and whose work went on obsessively to develop and return to one particular haunted house tale which the director continually re-made across three decades-worth of pictures, starting with his 1934 film The Medium and ending with a deeply creepy Beaconsfield Studios second feature released in 1960, called House of Mystery (currently available with volume four of Network’s excellent The Edgar Wallace Mysteries series). Sewell had certainly proved his mettle by this point, during a long career which had now spanned four decades; he was attracted to this particular low-budget offering because of his friendship with its screenwriter, Peter Bryan. But Sewell doesn't exactly get proceedings off to an auspicious start: a laughably inept and unnecessary pre-credit sequence attempts to persuade the viewer that a chilly day on what looks like a lake in middle-England surrounded by a few weeds and a lot of mud, is really an adequate stand-in for the Limpopo River and the wilds of Africa. However, a few stock footage inserts of exotic animals (along with some African extras in a canoe and a Victorian naturalist in a Pith-helmet) do not succeed in selling the illusion, and the scene ambles on for no reason for far too long before we suddenly cut to a decidedly non-African setting with a histrionic horse & coach galloping down a murky day-for-night country lane while the title credits play over Paul Ferris's traditional, period horror score. Throughout, the film's curiously sloppy editing and badly looped dialogue are faults only  compounded by rather static direction from the sixty-four year-old Sewell, none of which makes for an overly exciting visual spectacle. Next to, say, Terence Fisher's contemporaneous The Devil Rides Out, it pales horribly in comparison.
But the core idea at the heart of the screenplay (Bryan was also responsible for penning the Hammer classics The Plague of the Zombies and The Hound of the Baskervilles) is so thoroughly off the wall that one cannot help feeling rather more lenient towards it than usual when regarding its all too numerous shortcomings. Where else will you see a giant humanoid Death’s Head Moth with the ability to transform into an alluring but voraciously sex-mad young Victorian woman, and which leaves a foetid trail of mauled and blood-drained male corpses in its wake wherever it might flutter? When this unlikely creature isn’t flapping its way across the suburbs of Victorian London in search of its latest prey, it poses as the daughter of the starchy Victorian Professor Mallinger (Robert Flemying), who created it while experimenting with the artificial breeding of hybrid African moths in his home laboratory.

While Wanda Ventham's Clare Mallinger continues to engage in stealthy, black-cloaked, nocturnal prowls which all too regularly result in the delicate flapping of scaly wings mingling on the night air with the diabolical cries of thwarted male amour, her buttoned-up father affects an air of obliviousness to her rum doings, while surreptitiously using his position of authority in the community  to cover up her crimes (even disposing of one victim by throttling him right in front of Peter Cushing’s investigating police Inspector), obsessed as he is with arcane electrical experiments on toads which he conducts in his home laboratory with the aid of a mini Whimhurst Generator.

This important work is occasionally interrupted by slide-show-accompanied entomological lectures on Lepidoptera for the local students from the nearby college (although they’re perhaps really a means of his supplying Clare with a ready store of potential victims) and taking delivery of exotic moth species, brought to him by an intrepid and unsuspecting young explorer named Britewell (William Wilde – seen sporting his pith helmet in the opening African-set sequence of exploration), who, soon enough, also comes to the attention of the insatiable Clare ... with predictable results!

 It turns out that Mallinger's latest experiments have all been directed towards creating a male moth-mate for his young ‘daughter,’ which requires the blood of young females in order to precipitate its emergence, unscathed, from its giant cocoon -- although quite why anyone would wish to create an intelligent moth-woman hybrid in the first place, let alone a mate for it, is a question the screenplay refrains from making even the most cursory attempt at answering. Bryan’s script is also rather hazy on the details of precisely how Mallinger accomplished this uncanny feat in the first place. As offbeat and unusual as this whole sex-crazed moth-woman idea may be, it doesn't prove too difficult to guess what the solution is with regard to ending her/its reign of terror once the creature’s pursuer, the waspish Inspector Quennell (played by the indomitable Peter Cushing, who is, essentially, reprising his role as Sherlock Holmes here), realises what he is up against: he simply builds a bonfire and waits for his prey to flutter predictably toward its inevitable doom!
The whole thing is, of course, quite ridiculous, and, as stated previously, Sewell’s direction is mostly pretty flat throughout, although sexploitation producer Stanley Long supplies agreeably sombre lighting in his capacity as director of photography, and art director Wilfred Woods and costumer Marie Feldwick manage to fabricate between them a pretty authentic-looking late Victorian milieu, which is agreeably aided by the exterior locations at Tigon’s habitual haunt, Grim's Dyke House -- the former residence of WS Gilbert and a mainstay of British drama during the ‘60s and ‘70s (now a restored hotel). Nevertheless, what really saves the film from cod-Hammer mediocrity is a whole slew of entertaining performances from a very strong cast. All of the participants seem to be on top form here, despite the paucity of quality material they may have been given to work with. Top of the bunch, as usual, is Peter Cushing who turns what one might've assumed to have been a rather thankless investigating police inspector role into almost a definitive career performance. Cushing was apparently convinced from early on in the production that this just might be the worst film he’d ever made, and said as much to Sewell, who claimed to take it as a compliment! Tony Tenser is quoted on the subject in John Hamilton’s book Beasts in the Cellar, where he discusses how the actor was dissatisfied with Peter Bryan’s script and added quite a bit of his own dialogue. One of these additions comes at the very end of the film, after the giant moth has perished in the bonfire's flames: Quennell’s phlegmatic subordinate, Sergeant Allen (played by future Minder star Glynn Edwards, sporting a fetching pair of false mutton chop sideburns!), gazes upon the absurd scene in question and deadpans: ‘they’ll never believe this at the Yard’ to which Quennell wearily replies, ‘they’ll never believe it anywhere!’  

Roy Hudd, who has a small comic role in the film as a morgue attendant who tells off-colour ’gallows’  jokes throughout Quennell’s examination of the victims, and who cheerily balances his pie & beer lunch on the end of a mortuary slab, between the stiff white feet of one of his ‘clients’, recalls how he met Cushing in the makeup chair on his first day on set: "Have you read the script?" enquired the great horror icon, to which Hudd replied that he had. "Not very good is it... I'm sure we can do better than that! How can we make it funnier?" The two subsequently rejigged their scenes together and between them manage inadvertently to disarm any criticisms of the film's shortcomings that one might have had by sending the whole thing up beautifully.
Prior to taking this role, Cushing had just finished work on a downmarket exploitation feature called Corruption in which he had been persuaded to indulge in a seedy sexual murder scene intended for the foreign export markets which involved him groping a topless dolly bird. The Blood Beast Terror represented a return to familiar period-set horror after this unfortunate dip into the muddy waters of exploitation, and the actor enters into the role with all his usual boundless energy and fastidious attention to detail, resulting in a decent trial-run for his then forthcoming return to the Sherlock Holmes role in the BBC TV version of the detective's famous adventures, which was to be one of his next engagements after the completion of this film. The tender relationship essayed between Cushing's Inspector Quennell and his screen daughter Meg (played by nascent sex-pot Vanessa Howard of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush fame) is also represented by a few nicely played scenes which make an interesting contrast with the strange and twisted father/daughter interactions of Dr Mallinger and the femme fatale, Clare. Unfortunately though, Howard is lumbered with a forgettable role when not in the company of her on-screen father.
The role of Mallinger was originally intended for Hollywood actor Basil Rathbone. The prospect of Cushing and he -- the two Sherlocks! -- sharing a screen in the same film, must have been a very tempting proposition for Tony Tenser, but sadly the actor died just a few weeks before production started, and the role was hurriedly recast with Robert Flemyng. Genre fans will be familiar with this actor from his titular appearance in Riccardo Freda's L'orribile segreto del Dottor Hitchcock. Perhaps he was cast with the thought in mind that Tony Tenser had started his film career distributing Italian films like this and Freda's La spettro as support features for his early sex comedies. In anycase, Flemyng essentially reprises the same role in The Blood Beast Terror, and does a marvellous job in indicating the obsessive but calculating madness of Malinger in an understated fashion. The blatant incestuous necrophilia themes which were at the heart of [...] Hitchcock are not so obvious here -- but anyone who artificially breeds for themselves a moth-monster daughter endowed with an unquenchable appetite for blood and sex is obviously not your average fatherly sort! Especially when that creation is given the pleasingly curvaceous form of a Wanda Ventham, who is also excellent in the role of Clare, happily entering into the lepidopterous blood-sucking spirit of things, even when she was apparently expected to wear the moth mask and costume herself during the transformation sequences! Other notable screen presences, which draw attention to themselves even if they’re not exactly given anything much of importance to do, include Kevin Stoney as Mallinger’s disfigured butler Granger, who’s only role really, involves stalking about looking suspicious and tormenting an eagle -- used in the script as a not-very-persuasive red herring. Doomwatch actor John Paul also turns up briefly as a fly-fisher called Warrender, who hooks one of Ventham’s victims, earlier dumped in the river.

The moth creature make-up ,supplied by Roger Dicken, is not so hot of course, and is sensibly kept in the shadows for most of the film -- only a few flashes of it appear towards the end amid some lazy lap-dissolves which take no account of Wanda Ventham’s full Victorian garb; and even they are pushing their luck, particularly when the thing attempts flight! Wilfred Woods' already mentioned art direction does help furnish the film with several very memorable sequences though: Cushing's investigation of a skeleton-strewn, cobwebbed basement room where Mallinger once kept and fed his ‘moth-daughter’ is effectively eerie and unsettling (Cushing’s fastidious brushing down of his jacket when he emerges from this grim lair is another example of the actor’s thoughtful elaboration of character with the aid of specifically worked out mannerisms) while a scene set in the dank basement of the house the Professor and Clare later up-sticks and steal away to in order to continue their work (which is where he torches the twitching cocoon of the male companion, ill-advisedly created for his ‘daughter’s pleasure) is cast in the kind of lush emerald gels more familiar from the Gothic works of the Italian masters of the period.
Although the special effects may not have always been up to the job assigned to them, and despite Peter Bryan’s script to some extent simply being a slight re-jigging of certain ideas already being used on a regular basis in the Hammer cannon (it even follows a fairly similar trajectory to Bryan’s own screenplay adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles) those ideas are pretty central to the British Gothic genre, and invariably revolve around a common theme often found in those British horror movies made in the sixties & seventies that were set in the Victorian period, and in which the country’s then-fading colonial role is critiqued from the vantage point of narratives set within the period when the British Empire was at the height of its self-regarding pomp.

These narratives usually involve colonial returnees, back from various outposts of the Empire but coming home with a dark secret which eventually consumes them. The Blood Beast Terror is basically a rehash of Hammer’s The Reptile, which featured a father covering up for his snake-woman daughter after she’d previously been cursed by an ex-servant for her father’s past colonial transgressions, but with India replaced by the Dark Continent as the site of reproach for colonial crimes. The idea of an apparently virginal beauty who tempts men with her innocence and then transforms into a sexually voracious predator during the sex act is a fairly common horror movie motif founded in male anxiety regarding female sexuality in general, and which finds perhaps its best known and classiest example in the Val Lewton 1942 production Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur. In the present case, the same theme is developed in the context of presenting a challenge to male patriarchy and Victorian scientific authority by dint of the fact that nearly all of Clare’s victims are students in training as entomologists at the local college! As the film progresses she preys on a young naturalist, who visits her father bearing more specimens; and later she attempts to make a victim of Warrender’s butterfly collecting son, William (David Griffin) who is pictured bounding through the countryside indiscriminately brandishing his net and attempting to kill every exotic example he finds with an arsenic-laced killing jar!

Okay, so a giant moth perhaps isn’t the most convincing or threatening iteration of the idea of predatory female sexual transformation, but matters are made considerably easier to bear by virtue of the fact that the HD transfer included on this Blu-ray release from Odeon Entertainment is, quite simply, one of the very best restorations of a 1960s horror film I’ve ever seen. Anyone who has been exposed to previous VHS and DVD releases of this title will know that even the best transfers were always muddy and extremely faded in colour. But now, the film really does look like it was shot yesterday. Colours are extremely vibrant and the increased picture clarity is, not to put too fine a point on it, astonishing! The restoration was apparently carried out by the BBC using the original 35mm interpostive, and it is very difficult to imagine how the results could have turned out better.
The main consequence of the film’s appearance being improved so radically and to such an extent here, is that one’s opinion of it becomes almost inevitably prone to revision in the light of the sheer beauty now on display. Suddenly, one of the grottiest-looking out of the batch of some of Britain’s most cheaply-made sixties pictures has been transformed, like a (ahem…!) butterfly -- emerging from its careworn chrysalis to reveal its true majesty for the first time. The mono audio isn’t quite so impressive, but then this seems to be down to the original, sloppily recorded post-synched dialogue, which occurs in large portions all the way through the film and doesn’t seem to have been recorded to a consistent quality. There was never any chance of any restoration improving on the original elements if they were always bad to begin with. Still, the results are intelligible enough though, and considerably better sounding than past DVD releases have been.

Another plus point is that the print used for this restoration turns out to be several minutes longer than other previously released versions, and features an extended incarnation of the scene involving the amateur play that’s staged in Mallinger’s drawing room midway through the movie, as well as a previously cut sequence with Peter Cushing and Jon Paul by the riverside during Warrender’s fishing expedition.  These two added sequences turn out to be something of a surprise to Jonathan Rigby (author of English Gothic and Studies in Terror) and David Miller (author of The Peter Cushing Companion) who provide the entertaining, witty and informative commentary track for this release. The duo point out Peter Cushing’s many additions to the screenplay and his fleshing out of his rather uninteresting character with various improvised ‘quirks’ to give the role more depth. Rigby in particular is adept at finding all sorts of quotable historical materials relating to the film’s production: we learn here that if Cushing was unimpressed with the fact that he found himself appearing in such a film, then that was as nothing in comparison to the contempt that Robert Flemyng had for the whole enterprise! Doctor Who fans can rejoice in the large number of actors appearing here who have had major involvement with the series at one time or another (Wanda Ventham being top of the heap with guest appearances alongside Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, Tom Baker’s and Sylvester McCoy’s), all of them dutifully pointed out by Rigby and Miller as they appear.
In addition to this enjoyable commentary, a charming twenty-five minute video interview conducted by Hammer expert Marcus Hearn with British cult icon Wanda Ventham is included.  On the aforementioned commentary Jonathan Rigby says at one stage of Ventham that ‘she’s got cult written all over her’ and with numerous appearances in Doctor Who, The Avengers, and, probably her most famous role, as Colonel Virginia Lake, in Gerry Anderson’s U.F.O., it’s hard to disagree. Hearn’s interview covers most of the pertinent portions of Ventham’s career (now also known for being the mother of Sherlock Holmes actor Benedict Cumberbatch) and is full of anecdotes and tributes to actors she’s worked with during the course of a wide-ranging career, including her favourable impressions of Troughton and Cushing. One of her first roles was a small part in Hammer’s Pirates of Blood River, but she walked off set in a huff after one of the assistant directors kept referring to her as ‘the blonde one’! This didn't hold her back though and she went on to appear in all sorts of interesting bits and pieces, even returing to Hammer years later for Brian Clemens' Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter.

The disc also includes an unrestored cinema trailer (in 4:3) and a comprehensive animated gallery of stills which includes production stills, behind-the-scenes shots and lobby cards, as well as the often over-the-top cover art for various VHS releases down the years.
Odeon Entertainment have made available one of the very best restorations of what is objectively a fairly mediocre 1960s British horror movie from Tigon’s earliest beginnings, yet it now plays better than it ever has before -- at least since it was first released back in 1967. With it featuring Cushing and much of the mostly television-appearing cast at the top of their games,  The Blood Beast Terror is a much more entertaining prospect than many might have realised, and this excellent release certainly deserves to be added to any self-respecting British Horror fan’s collection forthwith. 

RELEASING COMPANY: Odeon Entertainment/AVAILABILITY: Out Now/GENRE: Classic British Horror/FORMAT: Blu-ray/REGION: All/ASPECT RATIO: 1.66:1/DIRECTOR: Verrnon Sewell/CAST: Peter Cushing, Wanda Ventham,Robert Flemyng,Vanessa Howard, Glynn Edwards, Kevin Stoney, Roy Hudd, David Griffin, John Paul.



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