Monday, 21 March 2011

The Beast in the Cellar (1970)

Country: UK

Are You Dying, Young Man?
Young Man, I Think You're Dying

The Beast in the Cellar is one of the more eccentric and peculiar British horror films of the 1970’s. In a way its unconventional narrative is entirely in keeping with Tigon’s general approach to the horror genre. It formed a double bill with one of Tigon’s most creatively successful films The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and a comparison of both films tells you all you need to know about the companies inconsistency. To be fair to James Kelley who both wrote and directed The Beast in the Cellar his vision was continually hampered by Tenser’s efforts to make it marketable. The powerful family melodrama that Kelley envisioned soon gave way to the prurient title Tenser chose and a series of inserted murder sequences, which stylistically at least, are totally at odds with the rest of the film. One such sequence opens the film, and while we are afforded some beautiful shots of a rural landscape courtesy of Desmond Dickinson and Harry Waxman, this is soon forgotten as the camera spins and weaves to indicate the chaos of a violent attack. I’m not sure who directed these set pieces, but their strategy of shaking the camera around uncontrollably makes these killings feeble and unimaginative. The victims of these frenzied outbursts are exclusively soldiers, who are regularly on manoeuvres in the woodlands (thus continually in harms way) and this makes for an element of intrigue that just about merits further viewing. The early conclusion that a leopard might be responsible for the attacks is an absurdity that is soon thankfully forgotten.

The film then shifts to the small village of Littlemore, a restrictive budget does not afford us a view of this place, and instead the principal location is a rambling old house which belongs to two elderly spinsters. Ellie (Beryl Reid) and Joyce (Flora Robson) Ballantyne spend their time arguing about celery, and whose turn it is to make coffee. Ellie is a flaky, slow witted, and submissive hypochondriac who is dominated by the steely confidence of duty bound Joyce. The screenplay seems to delight in just allowing these two old women to gossip and chit-chat, and a camera which spun uncontrollably minutes before now barely moves. These scenes are interminable, and were it not for a brief moment in which Joyce dons full military regalia before descending into the dank cellar, there would be no mystery at all. The whiney and vaguely comical Ellie is at least offset by the stern authoritarianism of Joyce, and the two veteran actresses possess a genuine chemistry. But this is the cinematic equivalent of being sat in an old people’s home all afternoon, without the tea, cake, and bingo to offer distraction. However the young soldier who stops by to visit them (are there no pubs in Littlemore?) is constantly plied with coffee and tea. This character emerges soon after each attack, to tell the women there has been another attack. They might be thankful for the information, but do we need to see and hear it twice? Despite the incompetence of the murder scenes the fresh outdoors and pastoral topography offers a much needed antidote to the stuffy decay of the Ballantyne household.

It is clear that the fear and apprehension of the two women means that they have intimate knowledge of the super strong beast that has been stalking the moors, and it is here that the screenplay shows some invention. Despite its shortcomings the film emerges as quite an effective anti-war statement. The sisters endured a torrid time with their father, who returned from the trenches of World War One changed forever. Regardless of suffering abuse at the hands of their mentally damaged father, Ellie still remembers him with rose tinted spectacles. A theme of the film is memory, but more pertinently those memories we choose to reject in favour of positive nostalgia. At this point the film is gearing up to tell us the beast is in fact the father, but in an effective twist it turns out to be the sisters brother. In order to ensure that Stephen (Dafydd Havard) does not suffer the same fate when he chooses to enlist in World War Two, the sisters decide to brick him up in the cellar. Thirty years later he has grown enormous talons, and more disturbingly a huge beard. Quite how this wasted wreck of a man has the strength of a Leopard remains unexplained. This is obviously ridiculous, but as Ellie recounts the story, we see a number of flashbacks that add a strange poignancy to the events. The behaviour of the sisters could be interpreted as sadistic and certainly extreme, but they are utterly convinced it was for Stephen’s benefit.

In his own way Stephen is a victim of World War Two. He didn’t fire a single bullet in anger, but he nonetheless became a casualty of the conflict. His hatred of soldiers still remains slightly perplexing however. Especially as the sight of Joyce in military garb is some kind of calming influence. If handled better and divested of the trappings of the horror genre this might have been a very effective drama. It has a certain static theatricality which lends itself well to the strong performances of the elderly leads, but director Kelley is unable to elicit one iota of suspense from his premise. This was Kelley’s directorial debut and it is almost a disaster. It fails totally as a horror film, in spite of plot elements that have promise. Amazingly Kelley was invited to direct again, and his second stab at the horror genre resulted in the much more effective Night Hair Child (1972). For The Beast in the Cellar a combination of producer interference, amateurish filmmaking, and a static dialogue driven narrative confine this to the dustbin of British horror.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. I remember seeing this on Elvira's Movie Macabre years ago and that notation is the only thing I remember about the movie. I do recall some shaking of the camera, though. Isn't there a Tigon book as well, Shaun? I think I have some Tigon films a friend sent me down your way transferred from tape.

  2. I have a nice little Tigon Collection coffin shaped box set put out by Anchor Bay a few years back. It looks great, but the discs often fall out if you're not careful. I only just got around to this film, and its no wonder I kept putting it off! Yes an excellent book called BEASTS IN THE CELLAR by John Hamilton. I think it made the cut in my guide to books on British Horror Cinema I wrote last year. They are now chiefly remembered for WITCHFINDER GENERAL and BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW, but they also did some other interesting things; THE SORCERERS, CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR, HANNIE CAULDER, and NEITHER THE SEA NOR THE name a few.

  3. I am a huge fan of BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW, so it is sad to hear that this isnt as much of a success. I've only heard of it in passing, but won't be seeking it out based on the review Shaun.

  4. Shaun, just to put things into a much better perspective again, "The Beast In The Cellar" might indeed be a film that will forever be consigned to "the dustbin of British horror" but i`d still rather watch it any day of the week over "The Kings Speech" ! ! !.

  5. @ Carl - I'm a huge advocate of British horror as you know, but yes this is certainly one to avoid!

    @ Anonymous - I haven't seen THE KING'S SPEECH, and while everything I know about it turns me off, I'd be incredibly surprised if it is less enjoyable than THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR! How about creating a google profile, it'd be good to see who you are?

  6. Once again, "The Kings Speech" is a drama about people with nothing imaginative (or at least semi-imaginative) going on in it there-fore it is rubbish by definition, where-as something like "The Beast In The Cellar" has at least got something odd, edgy and strange going on in it (albeit, as we know, executed and put together in laughably bad way) which, for me, makes it better and more watchable than the most (supposedly) brilliant drama about people. Another absolutely classic example: i`d rather watch "Plan 9 From Outer Space" than "Lawrence Of Arabia" anyday.

  7. Yeah I agree with what you're saying in principal, but I really dont think THE BEAST IN THE CELLAR is the best example. I really did it find it abysmal. I won't entirely dismiss THE KING'S SPEECH because its all too easy to have a reverse snobbery towards films considered higbrow.

  8. I literally cannot watch non-genre movies any more, i now ONLY watch horror, science fiction, fantasy, animation and bizarre surreal stuff. As far as i`m concerned everything else is now totally unwatchable.

  9. Does anyone know just what footage hit the cutting romm floor? And does it still exist? Towards the end after Reid has spilled the story to the detective, when the young nurse and Allen are talking, they seem to be talking about events we havn't seen.

  10. Circumstance might make a film. I had a heavy day or probably weekend on the booze and crashed out in my little flat early on the Sunday evening. I was wide awake in the small hours of the morning, five hours away from going to work. I switched on the telly and watched this fantastically disturbing horror film which I later found out was, 'The Beast in the Cellar.' I loved the juxtaposition between the sweet old ladies and the horror they had created. I also found it completely believable that they could have done such a terrible thing to their brother. I thought it was a superb film and the more innocent sister (I forget her name) who tells the policeman about her father coming back from the war and what they did to their brother as a result, was superb. So feck off all you superior film hacks who probably never wander outside your front door; this was a very scary and thought-provoking film.


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