Let me preface this review by saying that I’m a huge fan of erotic horror. If done properly, these films have the potential to offer the viewer an engaging transgressive experience, by providing commentary on the nature of sexuality and our darker human impulses.
Sex and horror have always gone hand in hand. Take any slasher movie as an example. You have a teenage couple banging bareback by the lake, when suddenly the killer jumps out of nowhere and drives a machete through their writhing, naked bodies. This is a well-known and exhausted trope, and as much as I enjoy a good slasher movie, it isn’t often that you find one that has something insightful or interesting to say about sexuality, other than: DON’T DO IT, OR JASON WILL MURDER YOUR ASS! The truth is, it’s difficult to combine these elements into an effective whole. One of the reasons for this is that erotic horror straddles that fine line between art and exploitation. It’s a central figure in that long-running and tired argument between trash and art.
David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) is a fine example of this. The Baron of Blood’s debut feature doubles as a campy drive-in flick and an intelligent satire on the struggle between middle class propriety and the primal urges inherent in human nature. In other words, like most of these types of movies, it’s dripping with Freudian overtones.
Frank Henenlotter’s Bad Biology (2008) is another example of an erotic horror film that dances between total exploitative trash and art. Some people consider this movie nothing more than an overlong penis joke, but I think it’s genius. I won’t get into it here, but it’s definitely worth a watch if you’re a fan of horror comedies. It’s incredibly schlocky and offensive, but at its core it has a lot to say about female sexuality.
Possession (1981) by Andrezej Zulawski is an example of a pure art-house erotic horror. Superficially, it’s the story of a woman who has an affair with a cephalopod-like creature of unknown origin, but underneath, it’s a heart-wrenching and soul-sucking tale of a crumbling marriage.
Walerian Borowcyk’s The Beast falls somewhere between the vulgarity of Bad Biology and the artful intention of Possession. The reason for this is obvious when you consider the director’s resume. He is known to be both an unmitigated artistic genius and a pornographer. For instance, he wrote and directed the fifth installment of the long-running Emmanuel franchise. He is also well known for his smutty anthology Immoral Tales (1974), of which the dream sequences in The Beast were originally a part, until the director decided to include them in their own film.
The Beast opens, very effectively, with an explicit scene of horses fucking. The camera is unflinching as the snorting, restless beast thrusts its member into its mate’s pulsating vagina. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the film and introduces the theme of animal impulse that will drive the story forward.
The film is set in France and opens with the Marquis de Pierre de l’Esperance (Guy Tréjan). He is an aristocratic bore, rotting away in his estate as his fortune fails him. Then, one day, an opportunity presents itself in the form of a marriage. Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel), the daughter of a wealthy English businessman, is betrothed— according to the conditions of her father’s will—to the Marquis’s son, Mathurin (Pierre Benedetti). The only thing is, Mathurin isn’t Catholic, nor is he intelligent or particularly handsome. So, in an effort to secure the Broadhurst fortune, the Marquis shaves his son’s beard and performs a hasty Baptism. When Lucy finally arrives to meet the family of her betrothed, she becomes obsessed with the estate’s unique history of hedonism and bestiality. But, most importantly, she develops a fascination for the family’s ancestor, Romilda (Sirpa Lane), who was said to have encountered a legendary beast that roamed the estate many years ago, when people still wore perukes. Romilda and the beast later become the subjects of Lucy’s erotic dreams. The film veers back and forth between reality and dream, until the two meld together in a strange, not-entirely unexpected way by the film’s conclusion.
The biggest problem with The Beast, in my opinion, is the pacing. There’s a lot of navel gazing for the first forty-five minutes or so, and we have to wait some time before meeting the heroine, Lucy. Also, the beast itself, when revealed, is pretty disappointing. Remember Gmork, the evil wolf from The Neverending Story? Yeah, the beast looks like he could be his dopey, younger brother. The film would have benefited from not showing us the beast in all its X-rated Muppet glory. A glimpse of its claws, or sable pelt would have been enough. However, as it is, it’s unconvincing and downright hilarious. But maybe that was Borowcyk’s intention. The film is, after all, a black comedy. Well, at least partly. It pokes fun at the heavily repressed aristocratic family, and at the church’s hypocrisy. And while it is an erotic horror film, like most films within this genre, it is not sexually stimulating. The horror elements counteract the titillating ones, and what we end up with is a depiction of sexuality as something unnatural and disturbing.
At its core, The Beast is a satire on sex and repression. The thesis of the film can be summed up in the following exchange. In the first minutes of the film, the Marquis is sitting at his desk with the priest whom he summoned to oversee Mathurin’s baptism. The priest, in a tone of religious condescension, says, “We, frail humans, we are like animals, we suffer the lows of nature. Alas!” The Marquis then replies, more to convince himself perhaps than the priest, “Happily, we have this intelligence, this heavenly gift, which enables us to fight our instincts.” The rest of the film works very hard to contradict this statement by demonstrating the vulnerability of these aristocrats to their most animalistic impulses.
The Beast speaks for most erotic horror films, in that they seem to share a similar theme: the notion that darkness or repressed sexuality is forever lurking under a thin veneer of civility. The thought that we aren’t as enlightened as we like to think we are is what makes these films so essential and interesting.
Despite its flaws, The Beast still remains an effective piece of filmmaking. It’s not for everyone, obviously, owing to it’s pornographic content, but where the erotic horror subgenre is concerned it’s one of the best. So, in the end, I do recommend this film if you don’t mind watching a werewolf ejaculating on a woman’s breasts…
It’s on Netflix, so go check it out, but leave your parents and first date out of it.