HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.
Screenplay by Peter Bryan
Directed by Vernon Sewell
Peter Cushing: Detective Inspector Quennell
Robert Flemyng: Dr. Carl Mallinger
Wanda Ventham: Clare Mallinger
It was bound to happen sooner or later. Someone was going to make a movie about a were-moth. All the other monsters had been used. City-wrecking atomic behemoth? Done. Oozing horror from outer space? Seen it. Patchwork of corpses given unholy life by an obsessed scientist? Shoot, Peter Cushing himself did that multiple times. And so we're here, looking at a poster with a goddamned googly-eyed were-moth on it. Of course, much like Night of the Lepus was called that because nobody was going to see a movie called Giant Killer Bunny Rabbits, this one was released under two titles: The Blood Beast Terror and The Vampire Beast Craves Blood. Imagine how those poor suckers felt who paid to see the same film twice under two different titles.
Ah well. It starts with a V, and I'm hoping to extract some fun from this one based on Cushing's opinion of it--in a film career that spanned nearly half a century, this is the movie Peter Cushing thought was the worst that he'd ever made. Well, heck. Now I have to watch it, don't I?
The film starts off with one of those Great White Colonial British Explorer Guys being rowed down a river by two shirtless black dudes. You can tell this isn't an American film because the Australian Kookaburra isn't anywhere to be found on the soundtrack. The Hunter Dude walks past some stock footage of a lemur and a parrot toting his shotgun and a tiny little lunch pail. He turns out to be gathering what look like seed pods from a plant rather than seeking out a lion to shoot and mount for the foyer back in Basingstokeramtopshireingtonhempstead, but before the movie can make any sense on that score there's a jarring cut to a man on a horse-drawn coach riding through the English twilight. The credits reveal that it's a Tigon film, which means that this year's HubrisWeen has taken a distinct turn for the second-tier and Anglican. Maybe for 2018 I'll try for fewer period pieces. There's got to be a slasher flick I can talk about for a few thousand words.
The coach driver hears a blood-curdling scream, as you do in these movies, just as night falls and the darkness becomes impenetrable. Also as you do in these movies, the man halts his carriage and goes to look for whoever just shattered the night with a cry of mortal terror. He finds the body of a young man with his throat torn out (and quite a bit of stage blood for a movie of this vintage and origin) and then he hears the flapping of great leathery wings. He draws breath for his own scream of utter panic but the movie discreetly cuts away to an entomological slide show given by Professor Mallinger before we can see our Threat-Establishing Casualty get messed up. The viewer will learn a little about Potters' Wasps as the lecturer drones on and a police inspector arrives to politely invite himself to the end of the lecture so he can talk with Mallinger afterwards. Fans of period detail should really dig the way one of the students in the lecture audience turns the lights on in the room; it's a gas lamp with a chain to pull that regulates the amount of gas going into the lamp, and therefore the intensity of the light.
While refreshments are served post-lecture and small talk is made between the scientist and the detective; it turns out that Inspector Quennell wants to discuss the death of one of Mallinger's more promising students. The police know it's a murder but that's about it, "person or persons unknown" are the official killer(s) but that's not saying a heck of a lot. One of the entomology students puts a Reasonably Big Damn Spider on Mallinger's daughter Claire's dress sleeve while she isn't looking and she faints when she sees it, as women do in these sorts of films. To be fair, if I noticed an arachnid that big on my arm I probably would have set myself on fire to get rid of it. Mallinger slaps the offending student and orders him out of the manor, and before Quennell can pursue his line of questioning a police sergeant drives up with a not-quite-dead body in the back of his own carriage and Mallinger is asked to attend to the poor lad. It's the guy we saw (and assumed was dead) from the very beginning of the narrative, about two paragraphs up from here.
Mallinger asks the sergeant to fetch his medical bag but the poor young man expires before medical assistance can be rendered. Oh, and Mallinger also strangles the doomed man in the carriage so that there's no chance he'll pull through. Although I don't know for sure why that is, the woman turning into a weremoth in the poster up there makes me thing Mallinger's daughter has a slight case of homicidal lycanthropy going on. Back at the police station, Quennell sends his sergeant out to search for something I didn't quite catch, and we learn that the cab driver survived his meeting with the monster around the time the credits rolled, but has been driven hopelessly insane by the experience. Inspector Quennell says the cab driver is the first witness to any of the murders, which means there must have been a few other people getting found with a nasty case of throat torn open in the area. The cab driver says he saw some kind of creature with immense wings and eyes that flew away from him.
Next is an interlude in the morgue with an Odious Comic Relief attendant having dinner among the bodies. It's 1880, dude, you're going to catch all kinds of plague. Plus there's a body with uncovered feet in front of you so your meal's gonna smell and taste rotten as hell. He's also well fortified with ale, which is probably to be expected around this time. But the attendant does let us know that the torn-open body sporting all those claw wounds to the face and neck is the sixth one to have been killed in such a manner, and a doctor (other than Mallinger) helping the police says the body's almost completely drained of blood. All six of the victims were men sporting similar injuries to the upper body and all were almost totally exsanguinated. After some more over-broad ACTING! from the morgue attendant we are permitted to go elsewhere.
The next day the police are combing the forest and fields near the crime scene looking for a weapon or other evidence, but the only thing anyone finds are strange shimmery flakes of some type of material scattered all over the place. The inspector goes to talk to Mallinger and see if science can shed any light on what the heck is going on. Quennell uses the politeness that is expected of Mallinger's social class to talk his way into the man's private chemistry lab / greenhouse and asks if there's any possibility of a rogue bird of prey in the area; he thinks the cab driver's ravings about huge wings mean something other than a humanoid moth monster. Honestly, that sounds like it's a pretty solid idea. Mallinger puts on his best "I am totally guilty of something" face and says eagles don't live in forests, but rather mountains. So it's probably not one of them--especially since there have been no reported eagle escapes from the London Zoo.
There's a pretty wonderful exchange between the two men as they look at a taxidermy eagle in Mallinger's home and the inspector says those claws could probably hurt someone rather badly. "Why do you pay so much attention to the ravings of a maniac?" "It's all I have to work on." Quite. Although it turns out that isn't exactly the case. Quennell has an envelope full of those flaky fragments of something, and Mallinger immediately (and suspiciously) asks where he found them. When he hears they were found at the most recent murder scene by the dozens, he tries to snag the entire envelope so he can study them; Quennell gives him a single flake to work with.
As soon as the inspector leaves, we get a bizarre interlude where Mallinger's butler pokes a captive eagle with a stick and taunts it instead of feeding the poor thing. I hope he gets bitten or clawed. Turns out that Mallinger has no patience for his servant irritating the bird (so he's not completely irredeemable), but one must wonder exactly what kind of household he's got here. Even more so when he puts on a leather fencing mask or beekeeper's helmet and goes to a locked chamber in his basement to confront whatever shrieking thing lives in there...
Meanwhile, the police brass are in a meeting talking about how they can tell newspapers that they think it's a bird of prey attacking people so that 1) people stop panicking about a mad killer on the loose and 2) the real mad killer on the loose will think he is safe and get careless. Shortly thereafter, a young man in gentleman's attire arrives at the police station asking for directions to Professor Mallinger's place. The sergeant gets gruff with him about how they're not keen on strangers showing up with a backlog of unsolved murders, and the man says he's just returned from Africa, where he captured some live specimens that Mallinger contracted with him to procure. Once it turns out that the guy isn't a maniacal killer he gets a police escort to the manor, where we finally get a look at his face and determine that he's that pith-helmet wearing adventurer from the start of the film.
Claire arrives to make small talk with the man, who gives his name as Frederick Britewell. Claire, never having been far from the manor, has possibly inaccurate daydreams about how much she'd enjoy the pestilential heat and miasmic humidity of Africa as well as the profuse availability of moths there; Frederick dashes her dreams as gently as he can in an understated manner one can only describe by calling it "English as fuck". Claire invites the dashing young naturalist to the dress rehearsal for a play that will be put on at the manor; some of the college students are amateur dramatists as well as entomologists in training. Which is all well and good, but weren't we getting a Vampire Beast in this movie at some point?
Professor Mallinger bombards Britewell with questions about the specimens he found in Africa, but his daughter guides the explorer to his guest bedroom instead of letting her dad bother him ceaselessly about pupal gestation periods in the insects he's brought with him. Later that night Britewell shows off the really big moth cocoons, which Mallinger is quite taken with. When Britewell asks if the professor is trying to breed a larger moth species he gets a guilty look from the older man that would have seemed obvious even to the people living in Black Rock. There's also a terrarium in Mallinger's lab that he goes ripshit furious over when the explorer tries to lift the lid and peek inside; the professor says opening the lid for a single second could wreck a year-long experiment. Well, I'd be touchy too. But damn, the mad scientist in this flick is coming across as an abrasive jerk with a baker's dozen skeletons in his closet. I'm kind of amazed none of the other characters are calling him on it. And of course when Britewell asks him what's in that incubator that's so important to the scientist, the older man starts talking about the weather as the world's most obvious subject change.
Which leads to a pretty nifty segue, because the thunderstorm that Mallinger predicts is provided by a stagehand off to the side of the am-dram production of Frankenstein being staged at his manor. The audience seems to be interested, but possibly that's because it's their friends and classmates on stage more than the actors' inherent talent. The Burke and Hare style anatomy murderers that provide the fresh cadaver for the resurrection scene call back to another Cushing movie, for that matter. Claire plays the part of the mad doctor's recently killed daughter who is resurrected only to strangle him, so it's a play that takes more than a few liberties with the source text. But it might also be foreshadowing that Claire plays the part of a mad scientist's experiment. There's bound to be some tampering in God's domain going on in this story.
Also, the butler has a wicked gash on his forehead in this sequence; I bet the eagle got him. Good.
Britewell sneaks out onto the manor grounds for an assignation with Claire, who leads him off into the forest for some G-rated snuggling. As the clouds pull away from the moon Claire runs off for a romantic game of hide and seek. And since this is about a lycanthrope of a particular kind, I wonder if Britewell is not long for this world. SPOILER: Yeah, he gets mothed up pretty good, and also the eyes on the monster costume remind me quite a bit of Kamen Rider. If they were blue instead of red they'd be making me think of Infra-Man.
Inspector Quennell hears Britewell's screams and finds him bleeding profusely on the ground. The man manages to choke out the phrase "Death's head" before falling unconscious and the inspector shuffle-walks the dying man back to Mallinger's place for treatment. Mallinger declares that Britewell's dead and also claims that he'd never seen the man before. The inspector goes back to the police station to be told that he's not quite off the case yet, but he will be soon for reasons that the chief doesn't really articulate. It turns out that the inspector has a daughter named Meg and the two of them were planning to go on holiday together, although the screenwriter probably could have mentioned Quennell's kid earlier than halfway through the damned movie.
After covering all the furniture with dust cloths (looks like the Mallingers are about to leave for some time) the professor's butler gets himself fatally clawed by that eagle or falcon or whatever it was. This is why you should not poke birds of prey with a stick for your own amusement. Don't they teach animal safety at butler school? Anyway,that's one dose of Cast Thinner applied without the moth creature taking anyone out of the narrative.
Back at the police station, Inspector Quennell asks the sergeant to find out everything he can about the Slasher's latest victim; of course the man already knows quite a bit, having learned Britewell's name and having personally granted him a police escort to the Mallinger place earlier. Which sets Quennell's Detective Sense off pretty thoroughly. His daughter will have to wait for the start of their vacation--he's got a professor to question! Of course, by the time he gets to the manor, everyone but the deader-than-a-doornail butler has cleared out. Since it's the late 1800s and he's the protagonist, Quennell jimmies a window open and looks around for the maid, butler, Claire or Professor Mallinger. He doesn't find any of them, but he does make his way into a cellar room with a dirt floor covered in picked-clean human bones, and festooned with huge webs everywhere. At this point the inspector likely just thinks Mallinger or someone in his household is the Slasher, although when he finds one of those oddball scales on the cellar floor he figures that's got to be significant as well. (Why are there webs everywhere? I'm not sure. There's no Big Damn Spider to be seen, and as far as I know moths are known for their web-spinning abilities exactly as much as pumas are renowned for their ability to fly.)
For some reason, Mallinger stuffed his butler's body in a crate in the kitchen before beating feet back to the police station, telling his daughter that they're catching tomorrow's train. Oh, shit, that means we're going to spend time with the Odious Comic Relief morgue attendant again. Well, the butler's bird-inflicted injuries turned out to be non-fatal, but there was a sharp spike that cut his spinal cord. Quennell doesn't quite know what to make of it, other than that whatever's going on at Mallinger's place is fishier and fishier. When the cook and maid show up at the station, the inspector finds out that Professor Mallinger gave his staff a month's wages and told them to leave, since he was going out of town indefinitely.
Using his mad detective skills, Inspector Quennell finds out where the professor (and his giant luggage trunk, which he insisted travel in the carriage with him) have gone and enlists his daughter to accompany him, so he can have a working vacation while trying to track down the Slasher. Or a were-moth, you know. Since that's the real killer. His boss wishes him all the luck in the world and also tells him not to go too crazy with the expense accounts while tracking down an escaped killer. He and his daughter enjoy a carriage ride off to an inn while going to the Mallingers' destination, which he learned by questioning the baggage handlers who shipped all his stuff there.
So over in Outer Peatlingfeatheringstonehorselaughshire, where the Mallingers are hiding out, Claire has found a strapping young dimwitted groundskeeper to flirt with by day (and, inevitably, exsanguinate by night). And in his laboratory, Mallinger is using galvanic equipment to make a dead frog's legs twitch. Which, as we all know from our reading, is the first step in the development of gigantic moths that can turn into women. Because of reasons. When Claire stops by to ask when she and her father get to leave the less-than-one-horse town they're hiding in, he snaps at her and reminds her not to go outdoors while they're on the lam.
At the local inn, Quennell chats with the innkeeper about the fishing season (he's there a little early for the really good angling), and asks if a someone he used to know might be found nearby; the chap lived around the area some time ago. But there's nobody named Mallinger around the village. Right after that exchange, the other guest at the inn finds his way to the common room and sips a glass of wine with Quennell while discussing the area and the inn. By lazy-ass screenwriting contrivance, the other vacationing fisherman's son is an entomologist studying science at a university level. The guests all decide to eat at the same table because they are friendly chaps all around.
From there we are treated to an interlude of the other guest from the inn not catching a very large fish before Quennell and his daughter stop by to chat. Meg goes off to pick blackberries while the son of the other holidaymaker goes off to catch butterflies (Meg's already got one, but lets it go free rather t than see it placed in a killing jar and then spiked to a board to be on display). The butterfly hunter runs off to go do something else, and then we go back to Claire in a greenhouse looking at a moth on the wall before she notices Meg and her new friend traipsing about the grounds looking for another butterfly. Claire frees a death's head moth from the kid's net and totally doesn't look suspicious at all when she confronts the two young people enjoying a day in the countryside.
In the lab, Mallinger spends some time working on some kind of hand-cranked generator that he hooks up to a Leyden jar. which he then pokes at a massive cocooned form with big red bug eyes in an attempt to do some mad science to the enshrouded form. Electricity, in the 1880s, was as exotic and powerful as nuclear energy would be in the Fifties, don't you know. The bug zapper fails to do anything to the big cobwebbed creature, which apparently is going to be a mate for Claire once it wakes up. Since poking it with a battery didn't do anything, Claire immediately jumps to the conclusion that it needs to feed on human blood in order to complete its life cycle, which doesn't even make the slightest bit of sense.
Anyway, since Claire's been feeding off of young men, she decides to find a young woman to serve as a packaged meal for the moth-creature-to-be. Meg's the only one in the area, and after accepting a ride on Claire's carriage the next we see of Quennell's daughter is the needle-and-tube assembly sticking into her arm. She was apparently hypnotized by Mallinger into giving up her blood but this is the first we've heard of the scientist's mesmeric abilities. Meg's to return the following day to give up another pint or so in order to feed the developing monster, and to forget what happened to her until she goes back to the house for another teenage phlebotomy. Oh, and Claire drains that groundskeeper after guiding him away from a leaf fire, because she doesn't like open flames. Mallinger finds the man's body and probably grumbles about having to set up a room full of bones and cobwebs in his vacation house as he drags the corpse away for disposal.
Back at the inn, the entomologist gives Inspector Quennell a look at moth wing scales under a magnifying glass and then a microscope, which clues the policeman in to the fact that those flake things he's been carrying around are incredibly massive wing scales from a death's head moth (though the brown and tan ones in the film don't look anything like the black and grey human-sized monsters). Over at Mallinger's laboratory-in-exile, he yells at Claire about how she's his creation and he's not going to let the male moth-creature live to be her mate because all she does is kill. Well, yeah, buddy, after a nearly double-digit body count, you're having a moment of clarity? Rock on with your bad self. He tosses some chemicals on the male in its coccoon to immolate it, and is rewarded for his belated good judgment by getting killed by Claire in were-moth mode (the switch between forms is just done with a single camera dissolve and the moth costume is singularly unimpressive when one gets a good look at it).
Over at the river, that other vacationer hooks the groundskeeper's body instead of a fish, which screws up his vacation because there's no way a human body can be taxidermied for display. The sergeant shows up at the inn, having been summoned by Quennell via telegraph (I hope he was paid mileage for the trip). The inspector tells the sergeant that they're looking to capture or kill a mammoth death's head moth and the copper is understandably worried that this is some sort of colossal mistake or prank. But a look at the body from the river shows the distinctive wounds from the Slasher's victims (which Inspector Quennell appears to have overlooked entirely). The innkeeper identifies the body and the place he was probably killed and the police charge off in a borrowed cab to Mallinger's hideout as Meg wanders there in a trance and the other vacationer's kid stops by to ask Claire if the moth he found is really a death's head--because he is awful at small talk, I guess.
Once Claire finds out that he killed the moth for his collection she offers to walk him to the edge of the property; inside the house while that's happening, Meg finds Mallinger's body, screams, and runs out (tripping because she's in a horror movie and dropping an oil lamp for no readily apparent reason). At least someone in the film finally moved faster than a walk. As soon as they get out of the house, Quennell and the sergeant hear the holidaymaker getting attacked by the moth creature; he's not injured by the police officer wastes all his bullets trying to shoot a black moving target in the middle of the night. But Quennell starts a fire with a lantern and the creature dives into it, the monstrous body turning back into Claire (but still on fire) until it evaporates completely. Which means the cops can't report what really happened, because they have no proof. Neither one of them seems particularly perturbed by this; maybe they'll pin the Slasher murders on Mallinger, whose body is conveniently still corporeal. At this point, any ending is a good ending.
My friend Bryan used the word "trudgy" to describe British horror films of this vintage, and good grief, that's the best word for this one. Everyone meanders when they could walk. The score doesn't seem to find anything particularly urgent either, and it's more sedate woodwinds and mildly plucked strings than the "HOLY SHIT EVERYTHING IS GOING CRAZY" brass that the Universal monster flicks were using fifteen years earlier. The film isn't ever clear on whether or not Claire is Mallinger's real daughter turned into a were-moth or if she's a creation of his that looks like a woman most of the time (and everyone around him doesn't find it weird that he has a kid without a wife). Either way, there's some explaining to do that the movie isn't slightly interested in supplying.
So, yeah, other than the typically committed performance from Cushing, this one has virtually nothing to recommend it other than the title forms a full sentence.
"I've been saving my giant insect costume for a special occasion, but this will have to do. Time for a vacation in Britain, perhaps."