Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Beast in the Cellar (1970)

By Orrin Grey

The Beast in the Cellar (1970). Directed by: James Kelley. Starring: Beryl Reed, Flora Robson.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s film was actually on a “Late Night Fright” double-bill with our previous installment Horror Express. It’s a very, very, very British flick that’s considerably less lurid than its wonderful midnight movie title would suggest: The Beast in the Cellar.

This is one of a passel of horror flicks produced by Tigon British Film Productions, including previous Vault of Secrets alum The Blood on Satan’s Claw, as well as such occasionally dubious classics as The Blood Beast Terror, Witchfinder General, Curse of the Crimson Altar, Virgin Witch, and The Creeping Flesh. Ostensibly, another in the long line of Gothic and horror stories about insane and/or deformed siblings locked up in basements and attics, the film is actually more of a character study of a pair of aging spinster sisters, played very nicely by Beryl Reed (of Dr. Phibes Rises Again, among others) and Flora Robson, broken up by the occasional brutal murder.

As such, The Beast in the Cellar is not content merely to not be as lurid as its Roger Corman-ish title and original poster (“A Chill-Filled Festival of Horror!”) would have you believe, it’s also not nearly as lurid as pretty much any of the other movies in Tigon’s horror oeuvre, in spite of an early murder sequence in which young lovers are caught in the throes of (rather tepid) passion, and blood spatters suggestively on some bare flesh. To make up the difference, though, Beast is actually a pretty good, if rather sedate, character study that does manage the occasional bit of decent tension.

While the identity of the titular “beast” is revealed pretty early on, it doesn’t actually show up on camera until near the very end, when some nice uses of shadow and creeping about do a decent-enough job of building it up. Maybe the film’s strongest moment, though, is the revelation of just why and how the “beast” was locked up in the basement in the first place, and has remained so all this time. While it’s impaired somewhat by a few pretty unconvincing flashbacks to the time of the first World War (Look for out-of-period clothing and white lines painted on what is clearly a modern parking lot at the train station), the story itself is much more creepy than the “beast” could ever manage and Beryl Reed’s delivery sells it nicely.

It’s available on DVD with a really misleading cover, or you can watch it streaming for free if you’ve got Amazon Prime, or, as a bonus, catch it and Horror Express back-to-back.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we unearth a beast that’s just a little bit bigger (and beastlier).