As a life-long fan of televised horror anthology series — from landmark classics like THE TWILIGHT ZONE and NIGHT GALLERY to more recent compilations like MASTERS OF HORROR — I’ve managed to uncover a wealth of obscure gems along the way, many of which have long since been consigned to the recycle bin of “disposable” entertainment by their own creators, or lost in legal limbo with little to no interest in restoring them for today’s audiences.
I’ve decided it’s high time to raise awareness of these forgotten TV horrors, and add my two cents to the vast and respected work of journalists and authors like Amanda Reyes, whose dedication to vintage televised horror has made her something of a genre icon lately [her upcoming book ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE? is on my must-have list for this summer], and Blumhouse.com’s own Alyse Wax, whose new book CURIOUS GOODS is the definitive companion to FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE SERIES.
In addition to those scholarly contributions to this field of study, something else inspired me to find my own personal path into the less-charted domain of obscure horror and dark fantasy TV anthologies: my purely accidental discovery of an incredibly creepy micro-budget British series from the late 1970s, bearing the ominously loaded title BEASTS.
This six-episode series came to my attention while I was browsing through a local bookstore, where I found an essay about the works of acclaimed writer Nigel Kneale. Chances are, nearly all horror fans are at least marginally familiar with Kneale’s work: in the UK, he’s best known for the creation of the character Professor Bernard Quatermass, a scientific genius with questionable ethics whose work has been chronicled in British-made television shows, movies and books since the 1950s.
While the larger-budget theatrical version of Kneale’s QUATERMASS AND THE PIT scored well with US audiences (under the title FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH), most of the writer’s work has evaded American genre fandom… but his presence still looms large over modern horror cinema, thanks to his early and profound influence on an up-and-coming filmmaker named John Carpenter.
In interviews, Carpenter has cited Nigel Kneale’s expertise in blending horror and science fiction and pitch-black humor as a key influence on his own storytelling; he not only adopted the screenwriting pseudonym “Martin Quatermass” as an homage to his idol for the 1987 film PRINCE OF DARKNESS (which has a similar doomy vibe to QUATERMASS AND THE PIT), but actually acquired the talents of Kneale himself (with a little encouragement from Joe Dante) to pen the screenplay for 1982’s HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH.
Kneale ultimately asked that his name be removed from that film — allegedly in protest of the demand for more graphic onscreen violence from producer Dino De Laurentiis — but his creative hand is still clearly visible, and rumor has it Kneale was the first to propose the idea that the HALLOWEEN franchise could tell a new horror story with each sequel, disregarding the Michael Myers canon entirely. Only in recent years have fans come to reevaluate and (mostly) appreciate this inventive and creepy experiment.
Kneale’s work in British television is not as well-known in the States, however, which is a crime; his writing constantly transcends the limits of budget and genre tropes while keeping the focus on character interactions. His TV material often takes on the look of a recorded stage play (partly due to the stage-bound limitations of UK television production in those days), but it’s amazing how easily a viewer can overlook the stagey, shot-on-video trappings of a teleplay like 1972’s THE STONE TAPE, which has gained quite a cult following thanks to its incredible slow-burn creepiness.
Not long after THE STONE TAPE, Kneale served as showrunner on BEASTS, an anthology of six unconnected episodes which premiered on Britain’s ITV Network in October 1976. For reasons unknown, the show virtually dropped off the radar for decades, only briefly resurfacing in 2006 as a Region 2 PAL DVD.
Perhaps the limited appeal of BEASTS is due to its bare-bones production values (nearly every episode takes place entirely on just one or two sets), and its sometimes sketchy special effects. But if you’re willing to overlook those elements and focus on the story and performances, you might begin to feel a distinct chill in your bones… especially if you watch certain episodes late at night in a dark, quiet room.
While the series title might suggest a “monster-of-the-week” show like THE OUTER LIMITS or MONSTERS, there’s more to BEASTS than meets the eye. The “beasts” Kneale writes about here are more of the metaphorical variety — the primal fears, urges and impulses which churn inside all of us, occasionally bursting to the surface in monstrous ways. Only in the case of BEASTS, those inner monsters often take on nightmarish paranormal shapes… whether they appear on camera or not.
Each one-hour episode focused on one or two protagonists, and though they begin as depictions of grim but more-or-less “ordinary” modern life — moving to a new home, slogging through a humdrum job, dealing with illness, pregnancy, divorce and family tensions — these familiar conflicts begin to manifest themselves into something entirely other. Something that can’t always be explained away by emotional trauma.
A great example (and a good entry point for would-be viewers) is the episode “Special Offer,” which focuses on the plight of a socially-inept teenage employee (Pauline Quirke) at a small market, whose clumsiness and disheveled appearance make her the butt of jokes and often get her in trouble with the sleazy, womanizing store manager on whom she has a massive crush. As the insults and degradations begin to pile up, other employees begin to notice strange incidents in the market: bags of rice and sugar burst open, cans of beans fly off the shelves and cereal boxes cascade like dominoes.
While the girl denies having anything to do with these “accidents,” she claims an unseen creature (which the staff nicknames “Briteway Billy,” after the store’s creepy rodent mascot) is rampaging through the store. Oddly enough, Billy’s poltergeist-like activities seem to occur every time the girl has an emotional outburst…
Similarly, at the core of nearly each episode lies a similar emotional trigger: in the werewolf-themed “What Big Eyes,” an elderly mad scientist (Patrick McGee of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) cruelly belittles his middle-aged daughter until she becomes his meek, Igor-like slave; “The Dummy” depicts a veteran monster-suit performer suffering a complete nervous breakdown when he realizes the actor who ran off with his wife is co-starring in the same horror film with him; and “Buddyboy” involves the shady sale of a long-closed dolphin aquarium after the title performer dies — allegedly due to abuse from the former owner, whose guilt may have driven him insane.
While all three of the aforementioned chapters can explain away the “supernatural” elements as projections of the central characters’ broken minds, the same can’t be said of the series’ two scariest and most memorable installments: “Baby” and “During Barty’s Party” — both of which are superb examples of how Kneale can conjure an overwhelming sense of dread through nothing more than suggestion, dialog and some well-placed sound effects (aside from “Buddyboy,” none of the episodes feature a musical score).
For me, “During Barty’s Party” is one of the best slow-burn horror tales ever written for television; it reveals absolutely nothing up front about the apocalyptic scenario in which a middle-aged, unhappily married couple (Elizabeth Sellars & Anthony Bate) are about to find themselves… and it expects the viewer to figure it out in real time, using the same clues presented to the characters. I won’t spoil it by revealing what that situation is… but after the first-act break, you’ll figure it out soon enough. Suffice to say it doesn’t end well for them… or their neighbors… or a young couple unlucky enough to park their car off a nearby road.
The conclusion of “Baby” isn’t nearly as clear-cut as “Barty”… but that’s probably why it’s even scarier. The heavy sense of doom begins early, when yet another unhappy couple — this time expecting a baby — moves into a quaint old country cottage. During its restoration, hired workers reveal a hollowed-out wall in which an ancient urn has been sealed; the urn contains a gruesome, mummified creature — which the husband (Simon MacCorkindale), despite being a veterinary doctor, cannot identify. One of the superstitious workers claims the thing was placed there by a witch, who placed a curse upon the entire village… a curse which, to the horror of the expectant mother (Jane Wymark), terminates all pregnancies in the area.
Due to some questionable special effects, the finale of “Baby” might elicit as many giggles as gasps… but from what I’ve read, people who watched this episode as children were permanently traumatized by those final minutes.
Unlike most explicitly supernatural series, BEASTS leaves a lot of the conclusions up to the viewer… partially because the producers couldn’t afford to show much without spoiling the scares, but mainly because Kneale has proven time and again that our imaginations can conjure far more terrifying menaces than even the biggest budget could depict onscreen. His work stands alongside genre authors like Arthur Machen (WHISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU), Shirley Jackson (THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE) and M.R. James (CASTING THE RUNES) in his mastery of suggestion over shock.
Nigel Kneale’s BEASTS may not always reveal themselves through the camera lens, but they’re definitely alive and lurking… and staring right back at you.
As of this writing, you can stream the entire series on YouTube, and there are still PAL editions of the DVD set available at a fair price; the disc also includes Kneale’s creepy 1975 teleplay “Murrain,” from the ITV series AGAINST THE CROWD — a kind of semi-prequel to “Baby.”