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Beasts was a 1976 ITV series of standalone horror plays by Nigel Kneale. Although best known for his pioneering TV science fiction work - Quatermass and a controversial adaptation of 1984 - Kneale seems at heart to have been a horror writer. Apart from Year of the Sex Olympics and 1984, most of his famous TV work has been horror-based. Quatermass was better known for being scary than being scientific, and other works like The Stone Tape and his early 90s adaptation of The Woman in Black are definitely horror.
Kneale seems to have been a curmudgeonly old cuss, who seems to have had a low opinion of almost every aspect of modern life you might care to name (except, presumably, for TV). Apparently he especially hated hippies, which I guess I can relate to. Of course, a mean-spirited streak is a positive advantage when writing horror, and some of the tales in Beasts are very cruel indeed.
All the stories feature some kind of animal, even if not always in a straightforward way - and inevitably, man is the worst animal of them all. These aren't the kind of twist-in-the-tale horrors of things like Tales of the Unexpected, or the kind of mind-bending concept-horror of things like The Twilight Zone. If there's a unifying theme apart from animals, it's probably the ghastliness of modern life, although that's by no means present in all of the stories.
Episodes are 50-odd minutes each (they only seem to have one ad break, in the middle. What a contrast to today). They're all shot on video, so the image looks a little flat and a little bright, but that's standard for British TV in the 70s (it doesn't hurt I, Claudius, so we can tolerate it here).
Kneale's general misanthropy is very much in evidence in the first story, Baby. A young vet has moved to the country with his pregnant wife. During renovation work, they uncover a large jar bricked up in a wall. Inside it is a grotesque, mummified creature of indeterminate species. Local tradition suggests that the land around the cottage is not the best place to be pregnant - cows and dogs invariably miscarry. A conveniently superstitious workman suggests that the creature in the wall was put there by a witch centuries ago to make the house barren.
It's a thoroughly nasty idea for a horror story, and there's a fantastic sensation of creeping wrongness about it. There are spooky noises when the wife, Jo, is alone in the house (a couple of which are a bit fake sounding, but you can't have everything). It builds a fantastic atmosphere of unease, as we can tell something horrid is going to happen, but it keeps us guessing right up until the last moments about what it will be. If the special effect at the end is perhaps a bit weak, it's certainly macabre enough to still be scary. I really shouldn't have watched this just before going to bed, as it freaked the hell out of me and kept me awake (obviously that's kind of what I was hoping for, but still...).
The cast is very good (this is generally true of all of these episodes). Jane Wymark is excellent as Jo, starting out with a vague unease about the house, but moving convincingly to full-blown terror as things progress. Simon MacCorkindale as her husband is patronising, overbearing and wrapped up in himself, and the great TP McKenna is just as good as his boorish business partner. The poor woman doesn't stand a chance really, caught between repellent menfolk and a malevolent supernatural force. This is probably the best episode.
This one is bizarre. A pornographer wants to buy a disused dolphinarium to turn into an adult cinema. The previous owner seems to have killed one of his dolphins because it was disobedient, and a scrawny girl who's been sleeping rough in the disused building may have some kind of psychic link to the dead animal. Or something like that.
This doesn't quite work, mainly because it's far from clear what on earth is actually going on. Its main fault is simply not being scary, at all. A few disembodied dolphin noises aren't likely to have much effect on anyone, and the basic idea of a haunted dolphinarium is bit too daft to work.
However, the central performance by a young Martin Shaw as the porn baron is excellent He insists that his product is classy while cynically driving a harder and harder bargain with the stressed dolphinarium owner. He holds the thing together very nicely. The other performances are good too, and it was great to see Stuart McGugan, who I remember from Playschool, as Shaw's dim-witted henchman. Sleaze fans may also recognise Marianne Morris, from the lesbian vampire epic Vampyres, as the girl who gratuitously shows off her breasts close to the beginning. This does feature a few flashes of nudity, which perhaps goes with the territory when you've got a character who's a pornographer, but does feel a bit cheap.
Unfortunately the story as a whole feels a bit slight, and it's difficult to see what the end amounts to. Dolphins are never scary, and ghostly dolphins are even less scary than live ones. It feels like an attempt to try something a bit different that doesn't really work, but Martin Shaw is good enough to still make this worth seeing.
This one is fun. A dirt-cheap horror movie company is shooting the latest in their cheap and cheerful series of movies featuring The Dummy, a ridiculous-looking big monster. Unfortunately the guy in the Dummy suit is having a nervous breakdown. The younger, more handsome actor who ran off with his wife has landed a part in the film and is generally making himself obnoxious. Pretty soon the monster actor starts to take his part a bit too seriously...
It's likely that this one expresses some of Kneale's contempt for Hammer, who had made the film versions of the three Quatermass serials. Kneale felt that they were a bunch of idiots who made lowest-common-denominator drivel to satisfy the masses. Having a monster called 'The Dummy' is pretty contemptuous, and the exploitative producer and hack director are probably based on real people who annoyed Kneale (almost everyone seems to have annoyed Nigel Kneale, so I hope no one took it too personally). While I think he was way too harsh, and think that Hammer's Quatermass films are actually very good, but Kneale was never happy with them.
This is self-consciously a bit daft - the Dummy is far too stuopid an idea to ever have based a real film around, even in the horror-happy 60s. But the story does get quite dark towards the end. The acting is what makes it work, with Clive Swift and Micheal Sheard on good form; Hammer regular Thorley Walters appearing as an old luvvie; and Bernard Horsfall is a little OTT but ultimately pretty great as the disintegrating actor. It's not really scary, but it is an enjoyable episode.
This time a supermarket is troubled by a poltergeist, which seems to be the manifestation of the mental turmoil of troubled shopgirl Linda.
The special effects in this are understated but effective, and the sound effects are particularly good. The problem is that the characters are unappealing. Linda is so wet and passive you want to give her a good slap, while her boss, Mr Grimley, is too nasty for us to care what happens to him. Her crush on him is ridiculous under the circumstances, as he's constantly unpleasant to her and flirts with prettier girls.
It's well acted - a very young Pauline Quirke plays Linda, and is perfectly decent, blissfully unaware of the hellish sitcom future that awaited her. But the poltergeist activity isn't really scary and the story doesn't go anywhere. I thought it was going to throw a vaguely clever plot twist at us towards the end, but it didn't. This is the weakest episode.
***What Big Eyes***
This one has an RSPCA inspector investigate why wolves are being sent to a modest pet shop. He soon discovers that the old shop owner believes that he can scientifically engineer a lycanthropic transformation in himself. He's been vivisecting the wolves to create a serum to try and turn himself into a werewolf, and believes he is on the verge of making a crucial breakthrough.
This is probably the cheapest episode, as the bulk of it is a lengthy dialogue sequence between the inspector and the old man. But it is really compelling stuff. The old guy is played by Patrick Magee, one of the most unusual actors ever to have graced a screen, and a veteran of horror films and classical theatre. He brings his usual array of crazy vocal inflections and raspy-voiced intensity to the part. It would be easy for a younger actor to be overwhelmed, but Michael Kitchen holds his own as the idealistic RSPCA man, and Madge Ryan is also excellent as Magee's downtrodden daughter.
This has probably the best dialogue of the series (although it might just seem that way because Magee and Kitchen make it shine). It's the most ambiguous, and very watchable. Unfortunately it isn't really scary, and it contains perhaps the worst example I've ever seen of someone very visibly still breathing when they're supposed to have died.
***During Barty's Party***
The last episode is the most famous. A couple are trapped in their house by an infestation of increasingly aggressive and menacing rats.
It's a slow burner that takes about 20 minutes before anything nasty starts, but which builds to a beautifully judged crescendo. This was well-worn territory, with James Herbert's novel The Rats having been a bestseller a few years previously. Rather than take the uber-gory James Herbert approach, doubtless constrained by budget and broadcasting regulations, this shows us nothing at all - we don't even see the rats themselves. Instead it uses scary sound effects. Initially it's just scurrying, but eventually there are really creepy squeaking noises too.
There's also a radio show, Barty's Party, which breaks its cheesy ad breaks and old rock n roll hits to bring increasingly unsettling news of unusual rat activity. This is a nice touch, and the background songs do help provide atmosphere (Johnny Remember Me especially). The DJ is seems to be modelled on Kenny Everett, and the radio show is a cruelly cheerful counterpoint to the action.
We only see two actors - Anthony Bate and Elizabeth Sellars as the threatened couple - and they're both very good. This would probably have worked just as well as a radio play. It possibly takes slightly too long to get going - it could easily be five minutes shorter without losing anything important, but I guess they had to fill their timeslot. I think Baby is the best of the episodes, but this runs it a close second.
This wasn't part of the Beasts series, it was written by Kneale for a different series of standalone dramas on ITV. It's included here as an extra. Tone-wise, it could very easily have been part of Beasts, which is probably why it was included.
A vet (yes, another one!) is trying to treat an outbreak of a mysterious disease killing a farmer's pigs. The farmer and other locals believe the local crone, Mrs Clemson, is a witch, and that she has brought the plague upon the pigs, dried up the local spring, and caused a boy to become ill. The modern young vet refuses to believe this, and tries to help the seemingly harmless old lady.
It's a good story, and one which benefits from never quite committing itself. At first it feels like it's going to be a story about local prejudice and ignorance, but after a while you start questioning whether Mrs Clemson really is as harmless as she seems. In its ambiguity, it's closer to What Big Eyes than any of the other stories, and sadly, like that episode, it contains a terrible example of a supposedly dead character still very obviously breathing.
It's not scary, but it is a good piece of one-off drama. The cast handle their stock roles with aplomb. Una Brandon-Jones is great as the old lady (she later played the old woman who slams a door in Paul McGann's face in Withnail & I). The main farmer is played by Bernard Lee, best known as M from the Connery Bond films. It's odd seeing him with a heavy northern accent, but he's also very good.
Apart from Murrain, the only extras are an image gallery and a few of the scripts in PDF form. Nothing essential, but nice that they're there. There's also a decent booklet explaining a bit about the production. The picture quality is decent enough, although mid-70s TV always looks a bit cheap and flat compared to what we're used to now.
I'd say just over half the stories on offer here are well worth seeing, and the others, while not brilliant, are far from terrible. Nigel Kneale's become something of a legendary name in TV drama, hearkening from the days when TV drama meant more than just Downton Abbey and Dr Who. Beasts is a decent example of mid-70s TV horror with one or two exceptional episodes, and is worth seeing if you're interested in things like that.