Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Beast in The Cellar

The Beast in The Cellar (1970)
Dir and written by James Kelly
Starring Beryl Reid, Flora Robson, John Hamill, T. P. McKenna

Yeah, none of this is in the movie. And I don't know who those two young ladies in the corner are but they're definitely not our protagonists.

What we got here is a dishwater-dull entry into the “crazed-cannibal in the cellar” genre. Except without the part where the crazed cannibal does anything. There are a handful --maybe four or five at the very most-- of brief POV stalking scenes, which end abruptly with either A) a scream and a quick edit or B) completely indecipherable closeups and rapid editing of some kind of injury occurring, but completely obscuring precisely what is happening or what is causing it. This takes up maybe a generous 5-7 minutes of screentime total, and that’s all the crazed cannibal action you’re going to get. You should know that up front. This is not a movie with any good stuff in it. I already had my suspicions when I noticed it was a Tigon Production; as we all know, as far as British schlock studios go, Tigon was the poor man’s Amicus Productions, and Amicus was the poor man’s Hammer Productions, and Hammer was the poor man’s “a real film studio,” so this is pretty far down the line. Tigon did manage to produce a small handful of low-budget winners in the late 60’s and early 70’s (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW) but the words “from the studio which brought you THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR” do not exactly inspire confidence that they’re working overly hard to entertain.

So yes, there IS a beast, of sorts, in the cellar. But the vast, vast majority of the movie is actually a two-person familial drama about two elderly sisters (Beryl Reid, THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU, THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS, and Flora Robson, BLACK NARCISSUS, CLASH OF THE TITANS) who drink tea and talk in a polite, roundabout way about how they fear someone or something they keep locked in the cellar may have been getting out and causing murders. That’s a solid 80% of the movie, right there. While there’s something kind of endearing about a exploitation genre movie which is almost entirely devoted to two older ladies drinking tea and elliptically speaking around any specific details about their past, it’s also absolutely unbearably dull going. I mean, Reid and Robson are both fine actresses, but this is not exactly gripping dialogue here. One scene finds a visiting soldier (John Hamill, the fantastic-sounding THE OVER-AMOROUS ARTIST) recounting, in almost word-for-word, beat-by-beat detail, every single moment from a scene that the audience watched in full not five minutes prior. He returns maybe five more times to similarly gripping results, and to have a baffling nonromance with a pretty young nurse (Tessa Wyatt, ENGLAND MADE ME)  who keeps being brought back into the story as if she’s eventually going to be important, but never turns out to be.

The explanation as to who or what is locked in the cellar doesn’t arrive until the very end, when one of the old ladies, more or less unprompted, relates what turns out to be a meandering, multi-generational family history in such a long-winded way that it appears day turns to night and even the police inspector learning the truth behind the sudden increase in mutilated corpses appearing in his district looks like he can barely keep his eyes open. Which would make sense, because of all the possible reasons to have a beast in the cellar you could possibly imagine, this has to be the single most uninteresting one the mind could devise. I’d spoil it for you but there’s not really a twist or anything to spoil, given that the explanation manages the amazing feat of being both utterly nonsensical and staggeringly boring. It does involve both World Wars, and the physical and psychological toll they took on those who fought in them, which sort of begs you to read this as some sort of allegory, but if that’s how it is intended it would take a more sophisticated scholar of wartime British history than I to parse it. If you’d like to try your hand at wrestling some meaning out of it, here are the pieces you’ve got to work with, boiled down from what seems like 90 minutes of exposition to four basic points (SPOILERS, obviously, not that this is really interesting enough to be spoiled):

1: The sisters are really into their Dad, and keep talking about how great and handsome he was to an uncomfortable degree, and I really assumed the “beast” was going to be the result of some sort of repressed incest incident. But nope. Instead: (SPOILERS CONTINUE)

2: Dad Went off to WWI, and they thought he had died. But then he came back but was physically and psychologically scarred and really kind of an asshole thereafter. But not enough so that they had to lock him up or anything, so he’s not the beast in the cellar. Just a dick. (SPOILERS CONTINUE)

3: They also had a younger brother, who for some reason Dad never liked. They really stress this point but it doesn’t matter because then Dad died of old age, and that was the end of that. Good thing we know his whole fucking life story now. (SPOILERS CONTINUE)

4: Then World War II came along, and, remembering the bad times their Dad experienced after the first World War, the sisters decided they didn’t want their brother to join the army, and figured it would be a better idea to just wall him up in the basement until he became a mindless cannibal. So they did. And that’s the story of the Beast In The Cellar. (END SPOILERS)

Obviously that feels like it should have some kind of subtextual interpretation about war, but whatever it’s supposed to be I can’t figure it out. Obviously war is bad, but maybe the point is that trying to prevent people from going to war is even worse? But even if that’s what the movie’s getting at, what real-world parallel does that have? The only thing I could come up with is maybe some kind of rebuke to Chamberlain and the pre-WWII Nazi appeasement crowd. But was there really much point in criticizing Chamberlain by fucking 1970? And even if there was, I don’t see how the actual Beast In The Cellar fits into that metaphor. What, Nazi appeasement turned the nation’s potential fighting force into insane, isolated cannibals? I don’t get it. Even at my most generous interpretation, it’s as shitty a metaphor as it is a movie, and it's 30 years too late to be relevant or even bold. Subtext rejected.


The movie briefly shows some flickers of life halfway through when one of the two old ladies has to try and cover things up by disposing of an inconvenient corpse with its eyeball hanging out. You don’t get to see too many horror movies where a polite old British lady has to awkwardly drag a mutilated corpse around, and I approve. But that’s only one scene and it’s indifferently executed. There are essentially no other entertaining scenes of any kind. A total anticlimax of an ending definitively puts the nail in the coffin, and firmly establishes this one as aggressive anti-entertainment, though kudos to the composer Tony Macaulay for really, really working hard to try and sell us on the idea that any of this is interesting. I mean, it’s a big, rich dramatic score which is almost laughable in the face of how boring the actual story is, but you gotta respect the guy for trying. Fortunately he had a day job to fall back on: he was a songwriter for what looks to be half of the big hits of the 60s, including Build Me Up Buttercup (performed by The Foundations) and Don’t Give Up On Us (performed by David Soul) as well as singles for Donna Summers, The 5th Dimension, Andy Williams, Scott Walker, and others. I can neither confirm nor deny that Build Me Up Buttercup is loosely based on the plot of THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR, but it would make about as much sense as anything else in this turkey.

I didn't think it was possible, but this French poster is even more misleading than the British one. And the "beast" is definitively NOT "Moitie Humain, molitie Animal... 100% Terrorisant!"  that is just a filthy French lie.

Good Kill Hunting

A Chill-Filled Festival of Horror! -- a blatant lie if I ever heard one, unless you find old ladies drinking tea and talking evasively about their childhood to be in any way “Chill-filled” a “festival” or a “horror.”
It’s not a beast, I guess there is a cellar, though.
Cannibal killer (basement-dwelling variety) / Maniac. I guess in the loosest possible sense also Slasher, since we do get some stalking and killing scenes peppered in there occasionally.
Yes, we get a beast-in-the-cellar POV
“Don’t lock people up in the basement until they go insane because you fear that going to war will have a negative impact on their psyche.” Really though, the real moral is we definitely need more horror movies starring nice old ladies. But they need to be a lot better than this.

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