More Than Meets The Mogwai

Monday, October 26, 2009

Nigel Kneale's BEASTS: During Barty's Party (Don Leaver, 1976) UK

I can’t think of anything more pitch-perfect to put someone in the Halloween mood than British TV auteur Nigel Kneale’s 1976 limited-run anthology series, “Beasts”.

I’ve binged on all six episodes this week, all of which uphold a shrewd, shared, (if interpretive) purview that the obvious title hints at. In mixed combos, each story contrasts man’s inherent, under-the-surface bestial nature alongside a supernaturalized member of the animal kingdom that has somehow learned to attack back.

[Digression: well, all of them apart from “The Dummy” -– where an actor in a monster suit goes berserk while filming a horror movie sequel on a Bray Studios-esque soundstage; the underlying cause of his madness is his discovery that the man who ran away with his wife and child has landed a bit part. In “The Dummy”, Kneale only concerns himself with the increasing lunacy of this mad individual and, for once, the overriding emotions are not due to the constant impingement of omnipotent creature(s), whether real, imagined or of a more ghostlike nature.]

Back to “During Barty’s Party”: Roger and Angie Truscott (Anthony Bate, Elizabeth Sellars) are an older married couple who reside not-so-contently in the countryside. Returning home late from the office, Roger finds Angie frantically unnerved due to the combination of what she suspects was an afternoon nightmare and the possible threat of an idling automobile parked just outside their home. (Roger reasons the car’s just packed with teenagers-on-the-make, but a more sinister rationale is later offered.)

Instantly disagreeable with one another, they begin an unreasonable feud that mounts as the horror element is appended.

The two tune into the radio call-in show of the title -- Barty’s Party –- and listen to its self-satisfied host addressing what seems to be the start of a plague of vermin. Much to Roger’s swelling belligerence, this leads Angie to the conclusion that this may be the source of the constant scratching underneath the floorboards.

Eventually, Roger will relent and admit that he, too, hears rats and Angie will call into Barty’s program, alert the host of her increasingly deafening problem -- before being systematically cut off when the rats chew through her telephone wires. Mishearing her last name (Truscott becomes Prescott) and only getting the general whereabouts of her address, the host can do nothing but plead on-air for Angie to telephone back, before briefly entertaining the notion that it was nothing but a put-on.

This leaves the Truscotts with a long night of awfulness ahead of them -– as the seemingly multiplying “super-rats” joked about by Barty scratch and masticate their way through to the living room.

“During Barty’s Party”, like the rest of “Beasts”, relies on theatricality in both the exaggerated acting and restricted sense of staging. Performances are embellished from the get-go, eventually becoming ecstatically crazed when the rampaging terror or otherworldly presence intrudes on the hapless people populating Kneale’s tales.

Perhaps out of place for Kneale is the witty use of pop music, with Lulu and The Luvvers’ cover of “Shout” sounding out from a Pye label 45 to drown out the incessant noises of the scraping of the pests. Some other rock tracks drone out during the radio show, but none have the impact of that initial blast of Lulu’s overexcited, raspy vocal stylizations.

The rats may never be glimpsed and the 50-minute episode never strays away from the downstairs area of the homestead, but there’s still an adequate sense of fear that breeds alone from the intensification of the sound design.

Though not as revolutionary as his Quatermass quartet of television plays, “During Barty’s Party” and “Beasts” is still top-form Kneale. It’s astounding to think that it’s only recently resurfaced in the past few years after originally airing in the 70s, all thanks to a Region 2 2-disc set (that thankfully includes PDF files of the Kneale teleplays).

If you’re to discount “Night Gallery” due to many of its uneven, tired conceptual entries (Serling’s own “Midnight Never Ends”, anyone?), “Beasts” may prove to be the most consistently note-perfect and thought-provoking and well-written anthology series of the 1970s, all thanks to the solitary, diabolical pen of Kneale and the astuteness into the more perturbed and hypocritical characteristics of humanity that his teleplays bear out.

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Anonymous Brett Gerry said...

The stories in Beasts are among the most satisfying and intriguing in Kneale's career - but the fact remains that his work is in need of a drastic reappraisal:

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