Following hot-on-the-heels of Tony Tensor's first post-Compton production of 1967 -- the Michael Reeves directed Boris Karloff vehicle "The Sorcerers" -- this bizarre attempt to emulate the grisly, period-piece Hammer horror of the previous year's "Plague of the Zombies" and "The Reptile" also became the first ever film to actually sport the 'Tigon British' moniker. "The Blood Beast Terror" has not exactly enjoyed a distinguished reputation since then, with even its great star, Peter Cushing damning it as one of the worst films of his career! But beyond its wholly unconvincing cheap veneer of rush-job cut-price Victoriana; and despite a sometimes insipid script of (often) only barely-developed plot ideas, the film today stands proud -- a murderously rich, dimly lit testament to a faintly perverse, but deeply mischievous brand of British-made macabre on the cheap.
Veteran director Vernon Sewell doesn't exactly get proceedings off to an auspicious start! A laughably inept and unnecessary pre-credit sequence attempts to convince the viewer that a chilly day on a small English lake surrounded by a few weeds and a lot of mud is really an adequate stand-in for the wilds of Africa! However, a few inserts of exotic animals does not help make the illusion stand up, and the scene ambles on for no reason for far too long before we suddenly cut to a decidedly non-african setting as a histrionic horse & coach gallops down a murky country lane while the credits play over Paul Ferris's traditional, period horror score. The film's curiously sloppy editing and the static direction from the sixty-four year-old Sewell (who had certainly proved his mettle by this point, during a long career spanning four decades) does not make for an exciting visual spectacle; next to Terence Fisher's classy "The Devil Rides Out", which went into production at Elstree the same day as "The Blood Beast Terror" started up in the tiny Goldhawk studios, it pales horribly in comparison.
But the core idea of the screenplay (by "The Plague of the Zombies" scribe Peter Bryan) is so thoroughly off the wall that one cannot help feeling rather more lenient than usual with its numerous shortcomings. For where else will you see a sex-crazed young woman's voraciousness cause her to transform into a giant, Death's Head Moth that leaves a fetid trail of crushed and blood-drained male bodies in its wake wherever it flutters?!
While Wanda Ventham's Clare Mallinger engages in stealthy, black-cloaked nocturnal prowls that all to regularly result in the delicate flapping of scaly wings mingling in the night with the diabolical sound of smothered male amour, her unflappable father (Robert Flemyng) is apparently oblivious, obsessed as he is with arcane electrical experiments on toads conducted in his country home laboratory. This work is occasionally interrupted by lectures on Lepidoptera at the local college and taking delivery of exotic moth species brought to him by an intrepid young explorer named Britewell (William Wilde), who -- soon enough -- comes to the attention of the insatiable Clare ... with predictable results!
It turns out that Mallinger's experiments are all directed towards creating a moth-male mate for his young daughter -- herself a result of his twin obsessions -- or though, quite why anyone would wish to create a moth-woman hybrid in the first place is a question the screenplay doesn't make even the most cursory attempt at answering. As offbeat and unusual as this whole sex-crazed moth-woman idea may be, it doesn't prove too difficult to come up with a solution to end her reign of terror once her pursuer, the waspy Inspector Quennell (played by the indomitable Peter Cushing), realises what he is up against: he simply builds a bonfire and waits for his prey to flap to its inevitable doom!
The whole thing is, of course, quite ridiculous and, as stated previously, the direction is mostly pretty flat throughout. What saves it from total mediocrity are a whole slew of entertaining performances from a very strong cast -- all of whom seem to be on top form here despite the paucity of the material they have been given to work with. Top of the bunch, as usual, is Peter Cushing who turns what one would assume to be a rather thankless investigating police inspector role into a definitive career performance! Roy Hudd, who had a small comic role in the film as a morgue attendant, recalls how he met Cushing in the makeup chair on his first day on set: "Have you read the script?" inquired the great horror icon. "Not very good is it... I'm sure we can do better than that! How can we make it funnier?" The two rejigged their two scenes together and managed to inadvertently disarm any criticisms of the film's shortcomings by sending the whole thing up beautifully. Prior to taking this role, Cushing had just finished work on a downmarket exploitation feature called "Corruption" in which he had been persuaded to indulge in a seedy scene intended for the foreign export markets which involved him groping a topless dolly bird! "The Blood Beast Terror" represented a return to familiar period horror ground for the actor and he enters into the role with all his usual boundless energy and fastidious attention to detail, resulting in a decent trial-run for his then forthcoming return to the Sherlock Holmes role in the seventies BBC TV version of the detective's famous adventures.
The tender relationship between Cushing's Inspector Quennell and screen daughter Meg (played by nascent sex-pot Vanessa Howard) is also represented by a few nicely played scenes which make an interesting contrast with the strange and twisted father/daughter interactions of Dr. Mallinger and Clare. The role of Mallinger was originally intended for Basil Rathbone! The prospect of he and Cushing in the same film must have been very tempting but sadly, Rathbone died just a few weeks before production started and the role was hurriedly recast with Robert Flemyng. Genre fans will be familiar with the actor from his titular appearance in Riccardo Freda's "L'orribile segreto del Dottor Hitchcock". Perhaps he was cast with the thought in mind that Tony Tensor had started out distributing Italian films like this and Freda's "La spettro" as support features for his early sex comedies. In any case, Flemyng essentially reprises the role in "Blood Beast Terror" and does a marvellous job in portraying the obsessive but calculating madness of Malinger. The blatant incestuous necrophilia themes at the heart of "... Hitchcock" are not so obvious here -- but anyone who makes themselves a daughter and then endows her with moth-like properties and an unquenchable appetite for sex is obviously not your normal fatherly sort! Especially when she is given the pleasing form of a curvaceous Wanda Ventham, who is also excellent in the role of Clare, happily entering into the lepidopterous blood-sucking spirit of things.
The moth creature makeup is not so hot of course, and is sensibly kept in the shadows for most of the film -- only a few brief, un-shadowed flashes of it appear towards the end and even they are pushing their luck! Wilfred Woods' art direction does help furnish the film with several memorable sequences though: Cushing's investigation of a skeleton-strewn, cobwebbed basement room where Mallinger had once kept his moth-daughter is effectively eerie and unsettling while the scene where, deep in his dank cavernous hideout, Mallinger torches the pulsating cocoon of the male companion he created for his daughter, is cast in the kind of lush emerald gels more familiar from the films of the Italian masters of the period.
The film originally started out under the rather classier title "The Deathshead Vampire" before Tony Tensor's predilection for alliteration resulted in it being changed to "The Blood Beast Terror". In the US, the film went under the even more outrageous title of "The Vampire-Beast Craves Blood" and that is the name which appears in the credit sequence on the print used for this DVD edition from DD Home Entertainment. Apparently, this was the best print available -- which must mean that the others were in terrible condition, since this one is severely faded in its colours and has a rather reddish hugh to it, although things do improve marginally in the last half hour. It is presented in anamorphic widescreen though, and the mono English audio track, although featuring a fair amount of hiss and background noise, is still clear enough.
As ever DD Home Entertainment give this "Masters of Horror" Collector's Edition a fine set of extras. A twenty-five minute interview with Wanda Ventham by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn is the centrepiece, and features many reminiscences from her extensive career in cult film and TV, including her recollections of her three appearances covering the Troughton, Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy eras of "Doctor Who". A photo gallery and a British theatrical trailer round-off the discs extras but there is also a glossy, twenty-four page booklet featuring rare stills, poster art and detailed notes on the film's production by Marcus Hearn and "English Gothic" author, Jonathan Rigby.
This may not be the best British horror film ever but, nevertheless, this disc is another must buy for British horror fans.