In my look at The Devil’s Rain, I mentioned how in the mid -seventies, my main window into the world of horror movies was via the good old television, and the late-night horrors played on ITV after the ten o’clock news on Mondays, and the occasional summer double bills on Saturday nights over on BBC2. This was where I got my fix, this was where I was introduced to the films of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and a whole lot more.
Some of these films played quite frequently, practically annually on TV, and in my early teens, I would watch every single screening. Then, inexplicably, in the eighties – all those wonderful old horror movies disappeared from TV screens, as the lead time between a cinema release and the TV premiere became shorter and shorter, audiences demanded newer, I guess more sophisticated entertainment. (I say more sophisticated with my tongue lodged in my cheek. There’s nothing remotely sophisticated about the X-factor, Naked Attraction or Lord help us, the Kardashians). Add to that, satellite and cable and now streaming services, and it adds to bigger, louder, brasher films with faster pacing strobing on the screens, while the quieter, more genteel classic films of my youth and earlier languishing, largely forgotten, mostly dismissed.
Sadly, Karloff, Lugosi, Price, Lee and Cushing who were superstars in their day are now considered largely passé and cliched. But, rest assured – they’re very much alive on DVD, and are very welcome here every Shocktober.
Which leads my (by a tortuous and meandering path) to this instalment of The Thirteen Screams. One of those films I saw several times back then was The Blood Beast Terror. What a magnificent title. This is one of those that I remember seeing, I remember the gist of the film, what the Blood Beast that caused all the Terror actually was, but I’d forgotten what a fun film it was – though in my defence, I took my horror deadly seriously back then.
It’s a film that is probably assumed to be an either Hammer or Amicus production (most people seem to think they’re one and the same) but you’d be wrong on all counts – it’s a British Tigon release. I always saw them as the “third” British horror specialists, with Hammer firmly at the fore, and Amicus coming a close second – though controversially, these days, I see Amicus films having retained more of their punch over the years, while Hammer are actually quite quaint.
The star of the show here is Peter Cushing, whose delivery and performance here as Police Inspector Quennell is as earnest and clipped as his Victor Frankenstein or Van Helsing. Despite the frankly ridiculous premise and plot, Cushing, as ever sells it. The film actually wouldn’t work without Cushing specifically as the lead. Price would’ve oversold and camped it up, Lee would’ve been out of place.
The film is set in Victorian times, where a series of very grisly and messy deaths are happening not far from London. The only witness to one of these murders is a coachman who has been driven crazy with what he saw – so we’re off to a great start in an opening that’s pretty much Hammer all the way which makes the confusion by some viewers over who produced what completely understandable.
There’s a wonderful scene in the beginning as well, where an intrepid British explorer is being rowed down an African river – the problem here being that these films were made very cheaply, and although the child me who saw these films forty-five years ago was gullible enough to swallow that they were in Africa, the adult me can’t keep from smirking that there aren’t actually oak trees over there. Nice try, guys – but an overcast English river bank won’t substitute. But again, it just adds to the charm and naivete. And we have to swallow a lot more unlikely scenarios before the film is done.
So, the coachman is babbling incoherently about something with wings and ‘orrible eyes. The bodies have been drained of blood. Peter Cushing is investigating – clearly then, we’re dealing with a vampire.
Or are we?
Inspector Quennell (Cushing) has a notion that perhaps a bird of prey like an eagle would be the murder weapon in view of the scratches on the victims. He decides to seek the advice of an old friend, Professor Mallenger (Robert Flemyng) who dismisses the eagle notion. Quennell shows him some peculiar scales that have been found at the scene of the latest carnage, and Mallenger starts to act suspiciously – as well he might, because he’s experimenting with genetics and for who knows what reason, thought it would be a great idea to include his daughter Claire (Wanda Ventham – mother of Doctor Strange himself, Benedict Cumberbatch) in his weird experiments.
He has (get ready for this) made his daughter into a creature that transforms into a giant Death’s Head Moth with an appetite for blood. So, there’s a were-moth on the loose. (Remember what I said about unlikely scenarios?) And the good professor is busy trying to create a male were-moth mate for his horny daughter. Thankfully, that experiment is stopped when the lab, as all mad scientist’s labs must, catches fire.
But how to stop the now rampant Claire, who is making her escape, airborne?
Easy and silly solution – build a quick bonfire and set it alight, poor Claire is drawn to it like…. Well… a moth to a flame and she dies.
Ludicrous plot, but a fun film and a good time is had watching it. The first half is very atmospheric and Hammeresque, wonderful performance by Cushing in full Van Helsing mode, taking a no-nonsense approach to the script, which is clearly nonsensical. Also, a great appearance by comedian Roy Hudd as Smiler, the coroner. They sure don’t make them like this anymore.
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