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January 2013

The Beast in the Cellar

cast: Beryl Reid, Flora Robson, John Hamill, Tessa Wyatt, and T.P. McKenna

director: James Kelley

85 minutes (15) 1970
widescreen ratio 1.66:1
Odeon DVD Region 2

RATING: 4/10
review by Andrew Darlington

The Beast In The Cellar

Post traumatic stress syndrome was not something much talked about back then. But that is clearly what this curious little film is about. For the shattered generation returning from the World War I trenches even to discuss the horrors they'd endured was to dishonour the fallen. The popular myth of the stoic 'Tommy' must be maintained, anything else would be considered a form of patriotic betrayal. So they lived with their night-terrors. In flashback, when little Joyce Ballantyne was just six-years-old, her adored and idolised daddy marches off to the Great War. There's a sequence of still photos of the trenches.

When he arrives home from the 'big push' at the railway station, he's shell-shocked and hideously disfigured. He's become 'strange'. The consequences alter the lives of Joyce and her sister Ellie, and of their brother Stephen who is born later, in 1921. Both sisters still talk to the uniformed portrait of daddy, as he was before the war changed him. Of course, all this detailed backstory is only teased out gradually, as the slasher narrative unravels. But, as the basis for a horror film, it provides an unusual premise, one that maybe could have been done better, more sensitively.

As it is, The Beast In The Cellar stands as one of Tigon Films weirdest oddities. The storyline is dubious, the horror content negligible, there are no action sequences, and few tense thrills. Instead, the film's early focus and entire appeal revolves around the wonderful two-handed performance delivered by Flora Robson, as Joyce, and Beryl Reid, as Ellie, those two Ballantyne sisters grown up into batty old ladies.

Beryl Reid (1919-96) started out as a variety and music hall performer under the comic Brummie character-persona 'Marlene', until she crossed over into national awareness through the bizarre concept of a BBC radio ventriloquist, with her supporting part as naughty schoolgirl 'Monica' in the light programme's Educating Archie. She graduated into films as 'Miss Wilson' in the original The Belles Of St Trinians (1954), with Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell. Until two outrageous movie-roles shifted her out of comedy into the shock mainstream, carrying over her West End stage portrayal of a lesbian soap-star in The Killing Of Sister George (1970), and as sexually-frustrated 'Kath' in Joe Orton's black farce Entertaining Mr Sloane (1970). Then she found time for this hammy chiller set in the "cold endless winter" of the bleak Lancashire moors.

There are explosions and military manoeuvres as armoured cars race through muddy moorland splash-pools. Until unit 'Zero-Seven' breaks down and gets stranded. As he's trudging his way back towards his Little Mere base-camp, he's savaged by something nasty. "Animal, vegetable, or what..?" speculates investigating Detective Chief Superintendent Paddick (T.P. McKenna, quoting popular radio quiz show Twenty Questions). There are gashes on the body, the claw-marks of razor-sharp talons wielded with brutal strength. Sir Bernard Newsmith (Vernon Dobtcheff) is the dapper pathologist with a carnation buttonhole and stylish swagger-stick. Was it some kind of beast-attack..? No, not a puma, he ponders, but something bigger, heavier, a leopard? "In Lancashire?" gasps the dumbfounded cop.

Flora Robson (1902-84) was the Grande Dame of UK acting with a thespian career going all the way from Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde, equally at home on the stage since the 1920s as she was on a film set. As Joyce, she's perfectly cast as the stronger of the two sisters. She's the realist. But although the sometimes child-like Ellie is the dreamer, her fidgety energies and deviously manipulative abilities are not to be underestimated. Their well-observed bickering banter maps their mutual interdependence. The two spinsters live together in the remote family farmhouse they were born in. It's a chintzy old place with lace tablecloths, antimacassars, and an aspidistra in the alcove.

Theirs is a meticulously mapped-out character-interplay reminiscent of the darkly comic Whatever Happened To Baby Jane (1962), a decade earlier, with Bette Davis as a crazy, alcoholic former child-star who acts as virtual jailer to her crippled showbiz sister Joan Crawford, once a major star. In their only co-starring film together it unites Davis and Crawford as ageing sisters who are also bound together by a terrible secret. Now, Joyce hears the news of "a vicious brutal slaying" on the phone, and she gets dressed up in an army greatcoat, complete with medals, and grimly heads for the basement. To the visiting district nurse, Joyce and Ellie might seem like "two dear sweet old ladies," but they know what's going on, and they're concealing something grisly dark and sinister in their cellar.

Soon, there's a snogging couple rolling in the hay in the barn. Her knickers are wriggled down her legs - the closest we're going to get to gratuitous titillation, until the squaddie boyfriend is abruptly wrenched away and slashed, blood splashing. Then there's another lone soldier on a bicycle. He's the next victim. Something is targeting and mutilating army personnel. Could it be a wild animal; or something worse..? At first, details are kept vague. But the sisters share a secret. Has the 'someone' bricked-up in their cellar escaped? They search the outbuildings and find the opening of the exit tunnel he's excavated... and they find the body of the cyclist. They block up the hole with daddy's old workbench and - as Joyce is now under Doctor Spencer's orders following a fall; Ellie must bury the corpse, as feral night-cats howl.

Both sisters fancy helpful Corporal Alan Marlow (John Hamill) who calls around to enquire after their welfare. He tells them the soldiers have been issued with small-arms, just in case. But when one of the night patrol slips off to buy fags - something nasty drops out of a tree onto him... Incidentally, the song he hears sound-tracking the NAAFI-scene is She Works In A Woman's Way, provided by Tony Macaulay. He most usually - but far from exclusively, worked with John MacLeod, churning out slick fine tuned pop-catchy song-writing that saw him glide through the 1960s with a string of easy-listening hits centred around studio-concocted groups with names like Pickettywitch, Brotherhood Of Man, or Edison Lighthouse, although big-hitters the Hollies, Scott Walker, and Donna Summer also scored success with his compositions. The NAAFI song is a piece of pop-fluff typical of his style, although he was using the opportunity of scoring this movie as a bridge to his second career in the 1970s, writing for musical theatre.

Meanwhile, Tessa Wyatt is district nurse Joanna Sutherland. In real-life she was once Mrs Tony Blackburn - their highly-public break-up transformed into a national soap opera as he blurts out on-air details during his Radio 1 Breakfast Show. She later encountered visiting aliens in an episode of UFO (episode The Long Sleep, 15 March 1973), and decoratively co-starred with Richard O'Sullivan in the so-so sitcom Robin's Nest.

Ellie is shocked when nurse Joanna brightly tells her of the new soldier-murder. She scuttles down to the cellar where their childhood rocking-horse still rocks, and peers through a hole in the wall into the empty chamber beyond. Joyce sleeps, overdosed on tranquilisers. And without her older sister's resolute guidance to rely on, Ellie confesses all to the police. Troopers with tracker dogs arrive, and others dig in the garden, as with quiet dignity she sits down to tell their tale. "It was such a long time ago, there's so many things to explain..."

Mindful of the horrific effect war had had on daddy - who's since died, "we were quite glad really," the sisters are unsettled by the looming prospect of a new European war. Their brother Stephen is keen to enlist, to do his patriotic duty. They must save him from himself, protect him from suffering his father's fate. So they drug him and imprison him in the bricked-up part of the cellar constructed by daddy. "We both thought it was best for him." The problem is, once the war is over and it's presumably safe for him to re-emerge, the combination of drugs and incarceration has taken their terrible toll. So he must stay down there, for 30 years. Except now he's escaped, and he's on a killing spree.

Alan and Joanna arrive just as the traditional horror story storm begins. And Stephen is slouching up the stairs, creepy-crawling towards his sisters' room, his nails brandished like claws. His shadow briefly recalls the famously sinister image from Murnau's Nosferatu. But Joyce is wearing daddy's uniform, and the medals momentarily stop him in his tracks. Then Alan appears, just in time to shoot him dead. But no, he wasn't coming to wreak vengeance on his sisters, but to savage the picture of dear dead daddy. "He will never know now, everything we did, the whole thing was all done for him," laments Ellie.

As a slasher film the build-up works reasonably well. There are some eerie and atmospheric scenes set around the old farm. The repartee between the two ageing sisters is both authentic, and wonderfully comic. But the climactic horror reveal might have worked better if the monstrous brother didn't resemble Michael Palin's ragged wild-man from the "it's Monty Python..." intros! Some recent news stories have dramatically shown how long-term incarceration in converted basements has actually happened, although more usually it's perpetrated by predatory male paedophiles against female victims. None of whom regressed to the savagery we're expected to accept happened to the luckless Stephen. And if this curious little film is really about daddy's PTSS, the horror elements tend to distract from any serious consideration of its effects. Nevertheless, The Beast In The Cellar stands as one of Tigon's weirdest oddities, which is a recommendation, of sorts.

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