Beast: A Modern Fairy Tale with Bite

Movie poster for BeastI recently caught up with the movie, Beast, which has been out for a few years and on my list for awhile. Now that I’ve watched it, I can’t stop thinking about it! This movie has a fairly straight-forward plot: girl meets boy; girl’s family is not so great and boy is refreshingly irreverent; girl and boy fall in love. However, in this case, the boy in question is also under suspicion of four rapes and murders that have taken place over the last few years. Is he being unfairly suspected due to his outsider status, or has he actually committed these heinous crimes? The journey to the answers for the girl and viewer is filled with underlying context that makes this movie a rich and satisfying viewing. (WARNING: Spoilers start here.)

The heroine, Moll (Jessie Buckley), is still living at home in a well-off family where there are some strict rules and ideas about behavior and attitude. Her birthday party is upstaged by her sister-in-law announcing a pregnancy, and so she decides to leave and ends up at a local bar where she drinks and dances most of the night away. She is somewhat naive and awkward, and the attentions of a drunken man at the bar spill over into the evening and early morning, when he somewhat predictably begins to attempt to assault her. At this point we meet Pascal (Johnny Flynn), who deftly interrupts the situation – with gun and blood-stained hands – and helps clean Moll up and get her home. We find out that Pascal is a very “country” type guy – he’s been hunting and has some rabbits in the back of his truck and he apparently doesn’t smell the best. Moll’s mother predictably takes a dislike to him immediately, which only serves to increase Moll’s fascination. As the two begin to grow closer and become lovers, another murdered girl is found and suspicion falls more squarely on Pascal. 

Moll’s past is somewhat unclear. At some point there was an incident at school and we eventually learn that she stabbed another girl who had been bullying her. Her continuing effort to deal with this event and part of herself is replayed in dreams in which a faceless intruder attempts to assault her and she has to defend herself. Moll and Pascal eventually end up living together as she attempts to break free from her family. This enhanced closeness allows for similarities and differences to emerge more clearly. In one scene, we see him teaching her to hunt. When a rabbit she shot does not die immediately, she is reluctant to pick it up by the back feet and finish it off as Pascal suggests, but then ends up doing so with the butt of the gun in a most deliberate and brutal fashion. The edge of violence about both of these characters is there throughout, and the viewer is often left questioning what the real story is for each of them. 

Image of Moll from the movie Beast

As the police begin to home in on Pascal as a suspect in earnest, the two lovers’ relationship has gotten to a place where Moll easily and quickly lies about when exactly she met Pascal on the night of her birthday. The murderer is eventually determined to be someone else, and Pascal and Moll seem set to move forward with their attempt at building a life together. But, something keeps niggling at both of them. Pascal asks Moll what she would have done if it was him that was the murderer, and Moll picks a drunken fight with him at the bar one evening that gives her a taste of the true violence that lies beneath Pascal’s exterior. Her decision made, Moll confronts Pascal and confesses that the incident from school – her stabbing a classmate with scissors – was actually done in revenge, rather than self-defense as she has continued to declare. She opens herself up and then challenges him to confess that he was the one who murdered all the girls; she tells him that they are the same. His confession seems to bring them closer, but on the ride home Moll grabs the wheel, wrecks the car, and then finishes Pascal off when the crash doesn’t quite kill him. The last we see of her is an image of an animalistic and vengeful girl, bloodstained and battered.

There are many beasts in this movie. The upper-class family that Moll comes from, along with their friends, behave in ways that we would definitely consider to be “beastly”. Pascal’s roughness alone – working with his hands, hunting, living a less than posh existence – would classify him as a “rough best” in the eyes of the upper class. His dispatching of the girls over the years – raping and murdering them, and then burying them in shallow graves – would most definitely (and most obviously) be considered the acts of a “beast”. However, I think what has encompassed my thoughts about this film the most has been the beast within Moll. She shows it in her survival instincts – whether it’s crying and saying the appropriate things to her disapproving mother in order to more quickly remove herself from the situation, or violently thrashing the golf course green with a club in defiance of being evicted from a party, or picking up a handful of crushed glass and squeezing it in her fist so that she can manage the feelings overwhelming her – there are many instances where we get hints of the beast underneath as we see her behaving in ways that flirt with the edges of socialization.

However, to me the most interesting aspect was that of her vengeful nature. We have a hint of this through the story of the scissor stabbing in school, and we see the scar left on the face of the girl in present day. The fact that Moll chose to stab her in the face is itself shocking – it’s very intimate and personal and hints at a deeper rage than may have been exhibited in just this one instance. Her final act then – crashing the car after Pascal’s confession – it’s one of rage and vengeance. She had given up everything for him, believed him and loved him, and then he betrayed her by being something horrendous. She told him that they were alike, but they actually were not – she was much, much more dangerous.

I really enjoyed Beast and I know that it’s going to stick with me for a long time. It’s beautifully shot and the casting is definitely on the mark. I intent to revisit it again and highly recommend it for those who enjoy this type of layered substance within a film. 

The Twisted Ones: A Dark Fantasy that Leaves You in Knots

Then I made faces like the faces on the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones…

This is the quote, taken originally from Arthur Machen’s “The White People” and used frequently in The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher, that has wormed its way into my brain. There is something haunting about it. Rocks don’t have faces, or at least they shouldn’t. Twisting oneself about is not a typical behavior, and just who are the “twisted ones” that are referred to here, since rocks, also, are not something typically considered to be “twisted”? T. Kingfisher tackles these questions and comes up with some answers that you may find you wish you didn’t know. The protagonist, Mouse, is highly relatable and in a situation that many of a certain age might be familiar with – she has been called home to clean out her deceased grandmother’s house. The job is going to take longer than expected, since her grandmother was a hoarder. Mouse, and her coonhound Bongo, are up for the task and only a little creeped out by the condition of the house and the contents (a whole room full of dolls in itself is a horror story), including a journal from her step-grandfather that includes long passages of quotes from a strange green book he used to possess. This is where she first encounters the information on “the twisted ones” and as she reads further through the journal she begins to question the sanity of the former occupants of the house. (WARNING: Many spoilers ahead.)

Mouse and Bongo spend their first days making friends with the “hippies” across the road, hanging out a lot at the coffee shop in town, and taking some rambling walks in the woods – which is where things start to get strange. On one walk, they encounter an “effigy” hanging from a tree – something that has been constructed partially of deer bones and skin, and partially of other things like sticks and stones. The construct has clearly been hung in the trees by someone (or something). The effigy was terrifying enough as a depraved ornament in the woods, but later that night Mouse is horrified to hear it, somehow enlivened, on the porch and attempting to get into the house. This attack by something so unreal is terrifying, but it doesn’t end there – it proceeds to continue on a nightly basis.

When walking on the other side of the property, Mouse and Bongo come across a path through bushes and branches that form a tunnel, which leads them to the top of a hill – only there shouldn’t be any hills anywhere nearby. The top of this hill is where we really get started learning more about the stones and the twisted ones. The hilltop is filled with a variety of carved white stones, similar to one that Mouse had previously seen near the house, and the atmosphere of the place seems to have a strange effect on her. The further she walks away from the entrance, the less realistic things become, and she finds herself thinking more and more about the strange entries in the journal. She begins to feel like maybe she should make the faces on the rocks, and twist herself like the twisted ones…until Bongo helps snap her out of it and escape back down the hill into safety.

Things just continue to go “downhill” from there. Bongo disappears and Mouse must engage the help of her new neighbors to track him down before she can leave grandmother’s house firmly in the rearview. The journey that is required in order to do this, though, includes returning to that strange hilltop – and beyond – and is one of the most original explorations of dark fantasy that I have read in a very long time.

In addition to the creepiness of the quotes from the green book, I found the idea of the effigies in this novel to be terrifying. The hodgepodging together of dead animal and found materials into something that could locomote and menace was terrifying. It brought to mind the Estonian film November, where a similar concept of “krafts”, constructs made of tools and other materials and then infused with a spirit, was used. In this film, as in Kingfisher’s book, the constructs also function as servants, but they are something sought out by humans and mostly subservient to them. For this reason, the overall effect is not nearly as terrifying as what T. Kingfisher has done with the effigies in her book, which are most definitely not something that humans have requested.

Kingfisher’s use of Machen’s work as a basis for her story works well. I went back and read “The White People” and while it is a disturbing piece of fiction, the expansion that Kingfisher provides for the concepts that Machen is discussing lends them more weight and reality. She effectively constructs history and rationale and detail that incorporates his ideas in what I found to be a more approachable fashion, which also serves to increase the dread and horror. There is a definite reason why this book has been celebrated and anyone with a love of dark fantasy will likely find something here to love.

More from T. Kingfisher

If you’re a fan of this type of literature, you may also want to check out The Hollow PlacesIn this book, Kingfisher uses a similar technique of inspiration from Ambrose Bierce’s classic “The Willows” to create another dark fantasy adventure. While I found this book to be a little less effective than The Twisted Ones, it’s still a fun read, and you will find a similarly voiced protagonist – and their pet – to love in this book.