The Dummy is the last in Nigel Kneale’s classic 1970s Beasts anthology miniseries. CHRIS NEWTON takes a look…
“This is it. This is the part I can hardly watch. Oh my god, I never wanted to see this! I never wanted to be in this room when you become the Dummy!”
The final instalment of Nigel Kneale’s bestial-horror anthology, Beasts, features Doctor Who regular Bernard Horsfall as a Clyde Boyd, a washed-up B movie monster actor.
There is a sense of lurking threat throughout Beasts. Fear of the unknown, fear of the wild, with a heavy emphasis on the raw, earthy threat of nature.
This last episode takes that theme to its logical conclusion as we see Clyde grapple with the raw, innate savagery within himself. For, is that not the true fear at the heart of Beasts?
From the affluent couple barricaded in their country house as the rats scratch at the floorboards, to the young expectant mother afraid of ‘cursed’ land which caused infertility in cattle – the fear that we are nothing but ‘beasts’ ourselves?
This could be seen as a sister episode to the previous episode, ‘What Big Eyes’, but whilst that lycanthropic tale alluded to a physical metamorphosis, the transformation here is psychological.
Either way, it plays with that same idea: the fine line between man and beast.
An eager young studio employee (‘a mere publicity boy’, as he calls himself) is hoping to impress a journalist, Joan Eastgate (Lillias Walker), by giving her a front row seat to the filming of ‘Revenge of the Dummy’, a flagging horror franchise which, two years since its last entry, has been dusted off for another instalment on the grounds that it’s ‘big in Japan’.
“It’s the violence!” he enthuses to an unimpressed Eastgate, who is there researching an article on the state of the British film industry. He nevertheless promises her an interview with Clyde, the Dummy himself, despite the Director, Sidney Steward’s assertations that the actor is not up to it.
Clyde is zipped and painted into his Dummy costume – the monster which adorns the 2006 DVD release, a sort of lumbering, bear-sized, rat with a porcine snout. (Perhaps a precursor to South Park’s ManBearPig?!) and begins stalking through an Ed Wood-esque graveyard set as Sidney yells ‘Action!’, but then freezes at the sight of a love rival on set in the form of Peter Wager (Simon Oates). Modern viewers could be forgiven for instantly thinking of Toast of London’s ‘Ray F**king Purchase’!
Shortly after we are introduced to Vic, who designed the Dummy’s costume – ‘a mixture of animal, vegetable, mineral. Immortal. Bulletproof. The customers don’t really care’ – who boasts of the Dummy’s claws and their fully articulated steel joints. ‘Real crushers! He’s gotta be careful!’ What was it Chekov said? ‘One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.’ Already, things aren’t looking promising for Peter Wager. Or Clyde, for that matter.
After Wager audibly laughs at Clyde’s monster and ruins the take, the Dummy actor storms off set, and Sidney demands his assistant ‘send for Bunny’. The director finds Clyde drowning his sorrows in his dressing room, and confides that ‘the bastard’s run off with my wife. She’s been living with him for three months.’
Sleazy studio executive Bunny Nettleton (Clive Swift) arrives, assuring Clyde without an ounce of sincerity that he had no idea. We learn that Clyde’s life has been sliding off the rails since he got on the wrong side of the Inland Revenue, and it’s clear that he’s in the middle of a breakdown.
The man-who-plays-a-monster-becomes-one premise is slightly clunky, and this episode lacks the raw intensity of the series’ stand out moments, but it’s saved by a terrific performance by Horsfall, who really sells this character who has hit rock bottom. In the midst of his marital breakdown and financial troubles, he reached out for work, but found that nobody knew ‘the man inside the rubber suit’.
There’s a tragic element to Boyd, reminiscent of the later career of Bela Lugosi (and seeming to foreshadow the likes of Robert Englund and Doug Bradley, fated to don the same costume for decades), and in this respect it’s as much of a reflection on the horror industry as it is on its bestial theme (although the line ‘it’s the violence!’ does seem to unite the two – hinting at our primal fixation with gore), with brilliantly realised stereotypes such as the long-suffering director, the eager intern and the ruthless executive.
And in true B Movie style, there’s the reluctant guest star in the form of Sir Ramsey as the Monseigneur – ‘I’m off to the Bahamas tomorrow and they can’t do a thing! If they don’t shoot my scene today, they can take my name off their nasty posters!’
The horror fan in me loves the detail Kneale has gone to in fleshing out the backstory for this franchise and its universe. For anyone who wants to know – the previous six instalments in the Dummy series are: The Dummy, Horror of the Dummy, Death of the Dummy, Return of the Dummy, Dummy and the Devil and Dread of the Dummy.
The successive decline in quality is almost perceptible from the titles alone, and one can well imagine Kneale took no small amount of delight in this. In fact, this more than any previous Beasts episode has a playful sense of fun about it, and whilst the Dummy looks very silly, this is presumably deliberate in poking fun at the genre and the industry.
In some ways, it’s a shame. Having a scarier costume for the monster could easily have elevated the horror of the episode’s theme, but then this isn’t a horror, it’s a psychological thriller. As Joan theorises on primitive ceremonial masks: ‘They know the man’s inside, but it doesn’t matter. They believe the mask itself is alive’.