Having mentioned The Blood Beast Terror
recently whist discussing The Body Stealers
, I thought it might be an opportune time to take a longer look at my favourite completely barking mad Tigon film. Blood Beast Terror
sees Tigon in full mock Hammer gothic mode, complete with period setting and even Hammer's main star, Peter Cushing, in the lead. And there the resemblance ends. In place of the typical Hammer gothic horror's tight plotting and obsessive explorations of the insidious nature of evil, we instead have a meandering plot whose various elements - Cushing's pernickety policeman investigating a series of murders, Professor Mallinger's experiments, murky goings on involving Mallinger's butler and the African prologue are slow to come together. Indeed, at first it isn't clear what's going on, as, after the aforementioned prologue, we find ourselves confronted by a violent murder and dumped into the middle of an ongoing plot. The viewer confusion this results in is not necessarily a bad thing - it certainly creates an immediate sense of intrigue - but it presages what is to be a feature of the film: an overly episodic structure in which we are constantly being introduced to entirely new sets of supporting characters and new locations, which ultimately hinders any coherent plot development.
But to get back to the beginning: the murder we witness after the opening titles turns out tobe the latest in a series of brutal slayings on 'the common' somewhere in the London suburbs. The victims are drained of blood and show the signs of having been attacked by some kind of wild animal. The police, in the form of Cushing's Inspector Quennell and Glyn Edwards' Sergeant Allen, are baffled. So baffled that Quennell seeks advice from noted local naturalist Professor Mallinger (played by Robert Flemyng, replacing Basil Rathbone, who died, at the last minute), who lives at the local manor house - with his beautiful daughter - where he regularly gives evening lectures to students from the local university. At this point, the red herrings start to proliferate - an obviously shifty Mallinger dismisses Quennell's theory that a large bird of prey couldbe responsible for the killings (the only, insane witness, jabbers on about 'wings') yet is quickly revealed to own such a bird, which his shady looking and acting butler regularly provokes by poking it with a stick. Later, Mallinger is seen putting on a protective mask to enter a mysterious, brightly lit and humid room. On top of all that, Mallinger's daughter, Clare (played by Wanda Ventham, mother of both Sherlock
star Benedict Cumberbatch in real life and
Sherlock's on screen mother in the TV series) has a fit and faints at the sight of a fake spider placed on her arm as part of a student prank. What does it all mean?
Well, what it means, obviously, is that Mallinger has succeeded in breeding a giant death's head moth which takes human form as his 'daughter'. Unfortunately, her need for human blood means that she has to keep murdering men - first seducing them in her human form before turning into a moth to kill them and drink their blood. Like I said, obvious really. Equally obviously, Mallinger is now engaged in creating a mate for her. Quite why he created 'Clare' in the first place is never really explained. The 'how' is alluded to at various points - the larvae seen being collected in the prologue have something to do with it and we later learn that the larval mate will have to be nurtured on human blood, as had 'Clare'. Which point presumably 'explains' the ability to take human form and the thirst for blood. The message of the film here is clear: beware of libidinous, liberated women who take the sexual initiative - not only will they lure you to your doom, they aren't even 'proper' women. They're giant moths in disguise. 'Proper' women, in this world, are clearly chaste and demure, like Quennell's teenaged daughter.
Said daughter is another character introduced late in the film and whose main purpose seems to be being imperilled by 'Clare' and Mallinger. She at least fares better than other characters, like the pith-helmeted insect collector from the prologue, who turns up in London to visit Mallinger and looks set to be a major character before being abruptly killed by the moth woman. Later on, a young gardener meets a similar fate, having been briefly built up as a potentially significant character. The film also takes various bizarre diversions, including a visit to the morgue tended by comic relief Roy Hudd and an amateur dramatics macabre play staged at Mallinger's house by the students. None of which helps the narrative flow, which finally judders to a halt when Mallinger flees the manor with his 'daughter' and assumes his alternative identity of 'Mr Miles' in far flung Surrey. New narrative threads then have to picked up as Quennell - travelling incognito with his daughter as holidaying bank manager Mr Thompson - follows Mallinger's scientific equipment to Surrey and books into a country Inn. New characters proliferate before a conclusion is reached.
All of which probably makes Blood Beast Terror
sound like an unholy mess of a film. Which, in many ways it is. Yet it contains so many incidental pleasures - not to mention the sheer lunacy of its central conceit - that I find it impossible to dislike. Amongst those incidental pleasures is that, despite an obviously low budget, the production values are quite good, with the Victorian setting effectively evoked through a series of well chosen locations. That said, there are times when the film's sense of period go awry - its grasp of history seems shaky, for instance. Whilst the conversation at a Scotland Yard case conference seems to obliquely refer to the Jack the Ripper murders being a recent event, putting the date in the late nineteenth century, the Police Commissioner is seen using a quill to write with and Sergeant Allen still seems to view steam locomotion on the railways as a novelty! The low budget means that the monster itself is only briefly glimpsed - even then it is woefully unconvincing. The actors, for the most part, keep commendably straight faces. However, at the demented climax, which sees Quennell build a bonfire - as moths are attracted to heat and light - which the giant moth obligingly flies into, briefly turning back into 'Clare', before turning to ashes, Sergeant Allen queries: "How are we going to write this up, Sir? They'll never believe it at the Yard." To which a somewhat bewildered looking Quennell replies: "They'll never believe it anywhere
!" The note of exasperation in Cushing's delivery of the line seeming to sum up his feelings about the whole film.
As I indicated at the outset, Blood Beast Terror
remains a firm favourite with me - despite the fact that it leaves numerous loose ends hanging. But perhaps it is that ramshackle plot and meandering narrative which appeal to me, not to mention its sheer novelty value. Where else can you find a film where Sherlock's mum turns into a giant blood-drinking moth? Which leads us, finally, to the unanswered question implicit in the movie which perplexes me most: was 'Clare' a woman who sometimes turned into a moth, or a moth that sometimes turned into a woman?
Labels: Forgotten Films