Another digression into a DVD review tonight, to follow The Stone Tape; again this is a Nigel Kneale masterpiece which has had me riveted to the sofa for the past week. Beasts is a series of six hour-length self-contained dramas which was originally broadcast in 1976. Kneale is a fantastic storyteller and I thoroughly recommend his work to any writer – his sense of structure and pace, character and his ability to create atmosphere are unsurpassed. The linking theme of these disparate tales is that of “civilised Man in conflict with the primal, animal side of existence” (from the accompanying booklet by Andy Murray). To me however there’s a deeper theme that really struck me on first viewing – that of the fragile relationship between men and women.
In Baby, a young couple have moved to the countryside and are renovating an old cottage, ready for the imminent arrival of their new baby. Having previously miscarried, the wife is highly anxious. When they discover the mummified remains of a strange creature inside one of the cottage walls, her anxiety escalatates and she starts to hear strange noises. Her brutish husband disregards her fears, shouting at her constantly and putting his own needs first, and leaves her to face her fear alone. Is she imagining things or has something malevolent awoken? The creepy ending leaves no doubt that this marriage is well and truly over.
Buddyboy is the weirdest tale and possibly my favourite. A pornographer wishes to buy a disused dolphinarium to turn into a seedy cinema. The owner is keen to sell, and be rid of the memory of Buddyboy, one particular dolphin whose death may have been no accident. When the porn baron finds a girl squatting in the building, who’s obsessed with Buddyboy, it seems that the dead dolphin is haunting people – a fact he may be able to turn to his advantage…. The clear parallels between the exploitation of animals and the exploitation of women are hard to miss in this unusual tale, and the girl’s final choice paints a bleak picture of how women can wrestle back control of their lives. Again, the men in this tale are depicted as cruel, unable to comprehend women, and finally outwitted by them.
The Dummy is a Hammer spoof in which the collapse of a marriage, and a man’s sanity, is twisted by the power of a mask. The actor behind the Dummy is riled by his director into acts of appalling violence – here men abdicate most clearly their control over their own actions. It’s a tragic tale indeed and you do have sympathy for the man behind the Dummy, as his inability to connect with the women most important to him has driven him out of his own mind.
Special Offer is a more traditional tale of a useless shopgirl in love with her bullying boss, whose frustration takes the form of a poltergeist that causes havoc in the supermarket aisles. It’s hard to feel sympathy for her horrible boss, but the poignancy of the last scene hints at how women, even when gaining power, delude themselves into loving unworthy men, leaving an unsettling feeling that this is just the beginning…
What Big Eyes is a bizarre story of a scientist who is attempting to discover the secret of lycanthropy, with the help of his daughter. When an RSPCA inspector intervenes in the scientist’s experiments, his folly is revealed, and his abused daughter rages at how he has controlled and destroyed her life – a realisation that has come far too late.
During Barty’s Party is a brilliant piece of horror in which a couple are beseiged by a swarm of rats in their home. As the scratching gets louder and louder, the domineering husband starts to disintegrate, while the timid wife bravely battles to save their lives. Wonderfully claustrophobic and horrific without ever showing anything – it’s all in their fear – this is The Birds on a tiny budget and a fantastic study in character in which the true foundations of a marriage are laid brutally bare, bringing us full circle back to Baby.
An extra episode which was not part of the series is included as a bonus – Murrain. This is a tale of simple country folk and their superstitious fear that an old woman is laying curses on them. The local vet tries to protect her and dispel their murderous superstitions, but is she really what she seems?
In every episode the female characters are strong and subversive, even if the realisation of their strength comes too late to save them from male aggression and stupidity. It’s certainly a conflict between the primal side of nature, which is personified as much in the women as the “beasts” (real or imagined) of the title. Each man fails spectacularly by not listening, not connecting, not empathising with women. They are consumed with their concerns and follies, which lead them to death, madness, and loneliness. The women by contrast often turn the tables on their menfolk, although sometimes it’s a Pyrrhic victory. The deranged scientist in What Big Eyes had it exactly right – in the folktale of Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf does not eat Grandma, the wolf IS Grandma. And that little bit of insight makes all the difference, to the women and men who realise it.