All at once, Beast is a thrilling whodunit, a delightful romantic comedy, a woman’s journey into self-discovery, and a dark exploration of humanity’s true nature. It’s hilarious, deeply terrifying, and unexpected. It’s for all you lovers of true crime who have asked yourselves why such awful things fascinate you, demanding that you drum up some stupid, logical, safe reasons to share at a cocktail party to stifle your peers’ confused expressions.  This film throws shame out the window and insists that sometimes, just maybe, bad things are simply and truly amazing—and that’s okay. It’s for everyone who has wanted to give a big middle finger to convention, banality, and routine.  It’s mesmerizing, haunting, and ultimately, deeply satisfying. And it’s just become one of my favorite horror films of all time.

Written and directed by Michael Pearce, Beast is set against the rich, earthy farmlands, foggy hills, and jagged, stark cliffs of the island of Jersey—the largest of the islands between England and France, and a self-governing dependency of the United Kingdom. The film is also loosely set against Pearce’s memories growing up on the island in the 1960s, when a serial rapist terrorized the little community for over a decade. The Beast of Jersey would enter people’s homes at night dressed in a rubber mask, pull the victims out by a rope around their neck, and sexually assault them.  He wasn’t caught until 1971.

But Beast kicks off with an unexpectedly innocent approach as we meet young Moll, singing in a choir and then getting ready for her 27th birthday.  She’s primping in front of a mirror, straining to fit in, look pretty, and impress. Her fake smile pains us, and she heads down to welcome the guests.  From these simple opening scenes we learn how hard she tries, how awful her family is, and how terribly trapped she is.  She flees (yes, her own birthday party) and heads to a club, dancing the night away with a stranger.  When he gets a bit too fresh the next morning, she’s saved by a swarthy knight in shining armor, and thus begins their relationship. But girls on the island start to go missing, and are then found dead, and as Moll’s family, friends, and neighbors question her relationship with this curious stranger, Moll finds herself loving and hating what he brings out in her all at once.

The acting in this film is first-rate. Jessie Buckley’s Moll is impeccable.  She’s endearing, conflicted, and charming all at once, and Buckley manages to woo us all with simple, silent expressions of struggle as the world swirls around her.  Pearce’s writing coupled with Buckley’s performance together have us soon cheering for our flawed protagonist no matter what the outcome, bringing us to the brink of what we think we can accept, then reeling us back again, making us question the cliff we almost threw ourselves over. Simply brilliant. Meanwhile, Geraldine James (Moll’s mom) makes for an altogether hateful villain, and Johnny Flynn’s approach to Pascal—the leading man slash lead suspect—beautifully blends humor, candor, and sex appeal.

But the performances would only have half their effect if it weren’t for Pearce’s masterful use of the raw, natural beauty of the island as a stunning metaphor for Moll’s struggle to accept her own beast within. Her attraction to this enigma of a man is just one of many personal choices Moll finds herself reexamining. She throws herself against her suburban cage, time and time again, trying to decide whether to clip her wings so she can squeeze neatly into the country club crowd, or to trust her gut, stare down the bitchy glances, and let herself soar. While Pearce urges us to examine our own morality through Moll’s internal struggle, he uses external, tangible symbols to push the boundaries of our comfort—caked dirt under fingernails, unexpected body hair, and even that famous, musty smell that gave the real Beast of Jersey his moniker.

And at the end of such a horrifyingly hypnotizing fairy tale, Pearce wraps it all up with a bang of a conclusion as unexpected, bold, and gratifying as the rest of the film. I wish I could say more, but you simply have to see it for yourself.

SpecialK Verdict: Thanks to Beast, my thoughts on horror will never be the same. Clear your calendars on May 11, and make time for this gem of a film. 

Beast was screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, but opens widely on Friday, May 11.

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