Saturday 16 April 2011

The Blood Beast Terror (1968)

Oh dear.  Oh dear oh dear.

It has long been my belief that the continued and dedicated interest in British horror films by fans is largely based on affection and nostalgia, rather than admiration for a consistently high quality output.  Because, let's face it, it wasn't.  Film fans over the age of about 30 probably have similar memories of watching a small but endlessly repeated selection of British horror films, mainly on Friday and Saturday nights on BBC1 and 2.  That's certainly how I remember getting acquainted with the output of Hammer, Amicus and Tigon and I know a lot of other fans who do too.

But I can't really recall ever being frightened by any of them, with the possible exception of THE WICKER MAN (1973) and DON'T LOOK NOW (1973), both of which (interestingly and probably not coincidentally) were released not by one of the big three British horror productions companies but by British Lion.  In fact, it's probably because the majority of the films were a bit cheap, a bit cheesy and not at all frightening or upsetting that so many fans like myself sat up late watching them with mates and few cans of Tennents Extra.  The point is so what if the films weren't very effective - they were fun to watch, we associate them with happy times and so they stick in our memories.

I didn't ever see Vernon Sewell's THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR with my mates when I was a kid so it's unfortunate in that rather than being recalled fondly, it got the full force of my adult taste.  It's dreadful.  The only good thing about it is Peter Cushing.  In this one he plays a detective who is investigating a series of violent murders which he traces to an eminent entomologist.  Cushing's great: what I like about him is that whatever the quality of the material, he always gave of his absolute best.  There's no such thing as a poor Cushing performance.  I understand that he regarded this film as one of the worst he ever made but you'd never know that to watch him in it.  There's a moment when he first appears and you expect his character to be another of those cultured, upper middle class types he played so often.  Cushing does this sort of chewing motion with his mouth, as if he is just finishing something he'd been eating, and you immediately realise this character is of a lower social status than is normal.  It's conveyed more information about the character in one gesture than a whole scene of expository dialogue would do.  A seemingly effortless piece of acting technique from a truly great actor.

Sadly the rest of the film falls to bits around him.  Robert Flemyng, who was a fine if limited actor, does the exact opposite to Cushing.  He can't quite get the look of sneering contempt off his face and, to my mind, looks thoroughly uncomfortable all the way through.  You can't really blame him because the script and special effects are terrible.  I hesitate to use the term 'special effects' because the giant death's head moth which is behind all the murders is someone dressed in a giant moth suit.  It's not 'special effects' so much as it is fancy dress; that's the standard we're talking about here.  To be honest, the alarm bells were ringing literally from the very first scene.  We see some stock footage of an African heron or some such, and then cut to a scene of a great white hunter being paddled along in a canoe by two black guys wearing the inevitable leopard-skin loincloths.  The problem is that the scene was quite clearly shot in England.  Not for one moment does it look like anything else.

Now I don't know how audiences at the time would have reacted to that.  Were they sophisticated enough to see not just something fake but something obviously and distressingly fake?  Difficult to know but seeing the film for the first time in 2011 lays bare all its flaws.  Some films can survive that: watch the original KING KONG today and it looks primitive, so to speak, but is still plainly a quality piece of work.  THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR is the worst of Tigon: a shoddy, amateurish and lazy piece of film-making - and with that approach would have been shown up as such in whatever period it happened to be made.

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