Unless otherwise noted in the post title, these are not
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Thursday, December 25, 2014

[Musophobia] Beasts: During Barty's Party (1976)

Beasts - DVD Cover Image
DVD Cover Image
BEASTS was a six-episode British miniseries of sorts that aired on ITV in 1976. None of the episodes were related except in theme, each of them a horror story revolving around a different beast (mostly animal, but in one case man). All six episodes were written by Nigel Kneale, who was probably best known for the various Quartermass television series: THE QUARTERMASS EXPERIMENT (1953), QUARTERMASS II (1955), and QUARTERMASS AND THE PIT (1958-1959). The year prior to BEASTS, he had also written the highly regarded TV movie THE STONE TAPE.

DURING BARTY'S PARTY was the second episode of the series, and originally aired on October 23, 1976.

Businessman Roger Truscott (Anthony Bate) arrives home after a hard day of work to find that the stresses of the day are just beginning. His wife Angie (Elizabeth Sellars) has bolted all the doors, cranked up the rock 'n' roll, and is in an absolute tizzy about something—even she isn't sure why.

After patiently dealing with Angie's irrational behavior (and surely not for the first time), Roger is informed that there is a rat in the house. She hasn't seen it, but she damn sure heard it, and she put on the music to drown it out. This is, surely, a simple problem with a simple solution, but things grow increasingly complicated at an alarming rate.

Radio news reports indicate that massive rat migrations have been sighted across the countryside, and they
Beasts: During Barty's Party - Title Screen
Title Screen
warn citizens to stay out of their way. Immediately Angie wants to flee, but Roger insists on sticking it out and fighting the good fight, like a real bloke. They are, after all, only rats. But you can't fight what you can't see, and these rodents are locked in beneath the floorboards—though from the scurrying and the gnawing, it would seem that they are desperate to break through.

As Angie and Roger huddle around the radio (apparently they are too uppercrust for a TV set), new details keep coming in. Apparently, these are not your average everyday rats. They are being dubbed "Super-Rats" by the media, and they are immune to traditional poisons. Angie calls into the radio station like a late night conspiracy nut with a theory all her own: these rats are also highly intelligent, well organized, and have a propensity for violence.

When the terror becomes too much for them to take, and Roger finally agrees to run, it is too late. Their screams act as the closing soundtrack to this episode.

From the title of this episode, I was expecting there to be a rat attack at a child's birthday party, anticipating a greasy rodent leaping out of a cake while little Barty blows out the candles, sending youngsters and their parents into mass hysterics. The reality turned out to be the exact opposite of that, as Angie and Roger are an older couple and the only two people ever seen on camera—this is, essentially, a two-man play that aired on television. Barty's Party is actually the name of the radio program that they are listening to, and all of the events unfold during that show.

Beasts: During Barty's Party - Listening To Barty's Party
Listening To Barty's Party
The fact that all of the events happening in the outside world were relayed via the radio conjured up parallels to the Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio program. I can't say for sure if this was by design or not, but it was an effective way to demonstrate the macrocosm of the situation while still remaining focused on the microcosm of the Truscott household.

War of the Worlds famously caused panic among some listeners upon first being broadcast, who believed that the alien invasion being reported upon was real. Here, there is a brief moment where it appears possible that the entire thing is a hoax, as well—that Angie is overreacting to a simple rat problem and Roger has been blindly drawn into her panic. When the Truscotts hear their neighbors pull up on the street outside, and they exit their vehicle laughing and jovial, all of the rat sounds suddenly cease, as if they were never there at all. There is a very short period of time where relief seeps in—there's no rat invasion, it's just one of Barty's infamous jokes!—before we realize that the rats have only temporarily abandoned their pursuit of the Truscotts and have turned their sights on the more easily-accessible neighbors. The invasion is very real, and when the rats return to the house, they do so with a vengeance.

Almost right off the bat, I knew that this was going to be an understated affair. Things may have started with some rousing rock music, but it quickly hit the brakes and coasted for a bit. It looked and felt like a soap opera, with just the two leads engaging in some dramatic patter without a lot of dynamic camerawork or action of any sort. From their dialog, though, we pick up on subtle clues that Angie is not quite emotionally sound, and she has a tendency to obsess and panic at the drop of a hat—she may even be recovering from a mental breakdown. Roger deals with her issues as patiently as he can, but it obviously causes a great deal of stress on the marriage. There is no shortage of tension bubbling just beneath the surface.

In the Truscott marriage, Roger is the rock. He has to be, as Angie flaps wildly in the breeze and desperately needs an anchor. Having dealt with her paranoid whims and fancies so often, it's not surprising that he at first believes her to be overreacting. Wanting to be a supporting husband, maybe it's not even so surprising when he finally does start to believe her. What is surprising, though, is that when the rat shit hits the proverbial fan, he is the one that breaks down into an immobile lump of jelly while she finds the strength to lead and persevere. Her experiences with mental illness must have prepared her for this one moment in time when the real world goes mad.

Just like any good slow burner, things pick up in a steady manner, and the underlying tension of their
Beasts: During Barty's Party - Looking For Help
Looking For Help
relationship solidifies into a palpable tension suitable to the situation. This is due not only to the solid performances from our leads, but also the genius sound design that is at play here—what starts off as the barely perceptible sounds of a rodent in the house is slowly ratcheted up in volume and intensity to the point where, by the episode's end, it is virtually overwhelming. You can barely hear what the actors are saying, much less hear yourself think. This aural expansion has happened so gradually and expertly that you don't even realize what has happened until it suddenly stops, and your nerves are left utterly raw and exposed in the unexpected silence. What is truly amazing is that this boundless fear and apprehension is brought about solely through audio means—looking back after the episode, you come to the shocking realization that the filmmakers never actually showed you a rat.

Not even once.

It's a rare beast that can pull that off.


1 comment:

  1. This a fantastic episode. A unique, gripping take on the rat-horror trope.