Beasts (1976) – Nigel Kneale’s Strange Creatures

I am currently watching Journey into the Unknown, which has only reminded me how wonderful Beasts was. The latter was a one-time-only series of six horror plays, all of which were written by Nigel Kneale, the creator of the Quatermass stories and the Old Testament God of television horror. That fact alone should be recommendation enough but the series was an absolutely corker.

Of the six plays, my least favorite is Special Offer, probably because I am not a big fan of Pauline Quirke, whose weird supermarket employee is the central character. Odd things are happening in a supermarket, and an unseen creature seems to create havoc there, all of which proves fun but not nearly as disturbing as the events in other stories of the series.

Baby is also okay but pales by comparison. It involves a couple who find an odd object built into the fabric of the cottage that they are renovating, an urn containing the dried corpse of a strange unnatural creature. The mixture of pregnancy, witchcraft and domestic breakdown are well developed and genuinely unsettling but, to my mind, it is still not the best of the series.

In the The Dummy, however, the series really excels and it concerns an actor who is so bound up with a horror monster that he has made his name playing, the Dummy of the title, that he becomes possessed by the monstrous creation and suffers a horrifying breakdown. Here, as in the other stronger stories, the focus is on psychological processes and there is a slow but inexorable build-up of tension as we watch the psychological crack up.

However, my three favorite stories in the series are During Barty’s Party, What Big Eyes and Buddyboy. The first is probably the most familiar story but it features a central trick which is quite brilliant. Essentially, the world is taken over by killer rats … in one night! Great. This could have been an absolutely terrific and trashy horror tale, but instead Kneale tells the whole thing through techniques that make the story far more terrifying. First, the entire story is told within one household and with only two characters, as a husband and wife gradually realize the nature and scale of the horror. Secondly, we see nothing and the entire evidence for the horror remains purely aural. In other words, the couple start to suspect something is wrong when they hear odd noises under the floor, noises that become progressively louder and more frequent. Also, their link to the outside world is a radio playing in the background, the show being Barty’s Party, the kind of banal, cheerful nonsense that was typical of BBC radio at the time. The horror is therefore even more shocking for slowly chipping away at not only the couple’s nerves but the radio show’s facade of gaiety.

What Big Eyes is really difficult to describe and also largely revolves around a small number of characters as Michael Kitchen confronts an old man who experimenting with wolves (the wonderful Patrick Magee). Magee’s character believes a weird theory of evolution, which involves lycanthropy, and he is trying to turn himself into a wolf. He also has a devoted daughter who accepts her father’s faith in his own genius, even if he is shunned by others as a madman. Essentially, then, what we have is a fantastic retelling of the old mad scientist story, but with a terrifying psychological realism in which the arrogant over-reacher dominates and demeans his daughter, who willingly takes the humiliation because she believes in his superiority. I must say, having been raised in a Stalinist household, I found this a really moving story but I won’t spoil the end for you, which you will either find absolutely heart-rending or a massive let-down. I found it the former – the let-down is the tragedy … for everyone!

Finally, there is Buddyboy, and this one is going to prove even trickier to describe. Okay so let me get this out of the way right at the start: this episode is about the revengeful ghost of a dolphin. There, I have said it. It is out in the open. So we can push on. Despite what seem like one of the most unlikely, ridiculous, and inescapably campy premises in human history, this is one of the most chilling, moving, weird and wonderful horror plays ever. There, I have said that too, and while anyone who knows me also knows that I am prone to wildly exaggerated claims, I think that few people who watch this will actually disagree with me.

It concerns a sleezy sex-industry entrepreneur (Martin Shaw) who is looking for new properties and decides to take over an old disused aquarium. A vicious parasite who gains a sadistic pleasure from exploiting others, Shaw’s character quickly recognizes that the owner of the old aquarium is terrified of something and he can hardly stop himself from using this knowledge to get one over on the man.

The whole episode is drenched in atmosphere and the slow revelations of people’s viciousness and cruelty are tense and horrific. If the end almost comes as a disappointment, it is due to the extraordinary build-up. For me, this is the standout episode due to its really creepy, eerie tale of suffering and pain.

As you have probably guessed, then, the series is distinguished by two key features. First, the stories all revolve around ‘creatures’ (the unseen force in Special Offer; the strange mummified monster in the wall in Baby; the horror monster that is The Dummy; the rats in During Barty’s Party; the wolves of What Big Eyes; and the dead Dolphin of Buddyboy. However, in all these stories, these ‘creatures’ operate in relation to human beings, and it is these human characters who may be the real ‘Beasts’ that Kneale is concerned with.

Second, the series is also distinguished by a rather odd relationship to horror as a genre. On one level, the stories aim for a resonance that associates it with ‘serious’ drama and yet, at the same time, the series does not exhibit a contempt for, or embarrassment with, horror as a genre. Instead, it seems to embraces generic materials but gives them weird and unexpected treatments, treatments that make no distinction between popular generic entertainment and serious drama. Kneale was clearly trying to break out of certain confines but it is refreshing to find that it is not genre itself that he saw as limiting. In other words, Kneale seems to have been trying to genuinely experiment with the genre, to create something that was both fresh and familiar, serious and entertaining.

But I supposed that I had better get back to Journey into the Unknown.

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