Animal horror is a rare breed of horror movie. Unlike many subgenres, these creature features are completely rooted in reality. Few of us may see someone built like Jason or Michael Meyers in public. However, almost all of us see dogs, lions and even sharks. There’s real terror in these relatable scenarios. Anyone could find themselves in the midst of these uncontrollable beasts.

In his new release, Beast, Idris Elba finds himself forced to defend his family against a rogue, and seriously ticked off,  lion. Is this new horror thriller worth your screening dollar? Read on!

Beast follows Nate (Elba), a recently widowed New York City doctor. He brings his struggling daughters (Iyana Hadley and Leah Jeffries) to visit the village where their mother grew up. He’s willing to try anything to fix his shattered family. Unfortunately, their relaxing safari is ruined when they discover a rogue lion terrorizing the countryside. Sharlto Copley costars in the movie. Baltasar Kormákur directs Beast from a script by Ryan Engle.

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Ultimately, animal movies are animal movies. One end of the spectrum features Jaws, the pinnacle of Hollywood cinema. On the other end — let’s say there’s a wide variance in quality. Recent movies have a high mountain to climb. It’s almost impossible to make computer-generated animals look completely natural, and this is certainly a specter hanging over Beast. In truth, the movie is a better thriller when you don’t see the lion in question.

Idris Elba and Iyana Halley provide medical care to Sharlto Copley in Beast

When the lion is in focus, something seems off. Early in the narrative, the film makes savvy use of white-knuckle tension. It’s uncomfortable. Every little bump or moving blade of grass could be something in this expansive environment. There’s fear in the unseen. This is probably why animal horror movies are challenging. There’s a slim margin for error. The animal must be believable, yet there are only so many things you can do with a real animal. Jaws works well precisely because the creative team used the mechanical shark sparingly. 

At the same time, Beast proves visually frustrating. This is a safari film. The crew is shooting in a majestic location, and there’s so much footage of equally majestic wildlife. This is a perfect opportunity to showcase these locations. Think David Attenborough!

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Unfortunately, the camera work largely avoids anything sweeping or majestic. Instead, it often emphasizes tight shots and close-ups. In this choice, the film loses a sense of scale, which is equally important to this narrative. First and foremost, this is a “man versus beast” storyline, but as we repeatedly see with Nate and Martin, this is also “man versus nature.” It’s much harder to appreciate the landscape if we don’t see it. 

There’s a tremendous emphasis placed on how isolated our leads are as the narrative escalates. However, looking at how the film is shot, it’s hard to appreciate how alone they are. This method of shooting works beautifully in the villages and villas where the early action is set. There’s a tight, meandering camera giving an easy lay of the land in these intimate locations.

However, this shooting doesn’t translate effectively to the African plains. Is this a budget limitation? A technological limitation? It’s hard to say, but this stylistic choice does limit some of the scariness.

ldris Elba comforts Leah Jeffries in Beast.

Beast faces its biggest struggles in the script department. While Engle’s script aims to tell a captivating story, its potential is tempered by the time it reaches the screen. The stakes are weighed down by heavy-handed telegraphing early in act one. (No spoilers, kids). 

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More frustrating is the scaling back of the interesting narrative elements which are present but never developed. Perhaps the most notable is the presence of Nate’s deceased wife. The film includes a number of mystical shots of locals in one of the villages.

It’s evident from the filmmaking these moments aren’t rooted in reality. There are fleeting shots showing Nate’s wife sleeping next to him. Are these meditations on Nate’s grief? Is there something more mystical at play? Unfortunately, these moments exist in the narrative with no attempt to develop them, and as such, they lay flat.

At the same time, Sharlto Copley’s “Uncle Martin” feels like a character who saw a lot of scenes end up on the cutting room floor. Martin is the wildlife game warden. The audience learns he’s a local boy who grew up with Nate’s wife. However, there’s an interesting thread about “anti-poachers,” which comes up twice. “Anti-Poachers,” we learn, hunt the wildlife preserves for poachers.

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They take the most extreme steps to protect the animals, and it seems Martin might be one. However, he doesn’t want to talk about it. Norah (Jeffries) first mentions the plot point and later reemerges when a group of poachers discovers the family. Unfortunately, this is as far as it goes.

Idris Elba hides from a lion in Beast.

In each of these instances, the film takes what would be fascinating opportunities to develop these characters and throws them aside. In truth, I am more interested in seeing Sharlto Copley poaching poachers in a South African game preserve. Why didn’t we get that movie? 

With that said, it is the script that ultimately fails these actors. These are good performances. Copley and Elba in particular are two dynamite journeymen who’ve never had the opportunity to show Hollywood how good they are. At the same time, as Nate’s daughters, Halley and Jeffries take what could be throwaway (and potentially obnoxious) characters and find relatable humanity. While they both are teenagers (and everything that implies), the bond between the sisters leaps off the screen. 

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Idris Elba, in particular, hones in on an interesting sense of wounded masculinity in Nate. Ultimately, he’s a sophisticated, big-city doctor. However, this movie finds him at his lowest point. Not only is he struggling with guilt due to the circumstances surrounding his wife’s passing, but in this environment, he’s in over his head. His wife was at home here. Not him.

In truth, every moment almost reinforces this struggle. His deceased wife exists in every picture and every tree. It’s a constant reminder of what happened to her. At the same time, it’s a reminder of what he couldn’t fix. If she had stayed here, would she still be alive?

Leah Jeffries looks at a machete in Beast.

In almost every action sequence, Elba brings a relatable sense of uncertainty. He doesn’t play Nate like an action hero. This is an applaudable depiction of masculinity in that he has no idea what he’s doing and is scared to death. However, as the paternal figure, he’s the one who must step up for his daughters. He’s failed them once, and he’s not doing that again.

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Watching Beast in the moment, I did get caught up in the story’s thriller elements. When the lion attacks, it is big,  loud and sudden. Suckers for jump scares will certainly have fun with this one, and when it revels in the silly scares, it’s great. There’s a fun moment featuring Idris Elba in a tree with a snake. To put it simply, it’s delightful. It’s silly, over-the-top and it hit perfectly with an audience. Unfortunately, there’s not enough to bring this one home. 

In reading through this review, the problem with Beast becomes immediately clear. The characters shouldn’t be the most interesting part of a horror-thriller and creature feature. In the grand scheme of things, Beast is trying to do too much. To make matters worse, what this movie wants to be is not helped by where it succeeds. This is a part-creature feature, part-horror thriller and part-family drama. There are multiple different fragments of great movies here, but they never coalesce into a solid single story. Ultimately, this one is best left to streaming.

Beast opens in theaters around the country on August 19, 2022.

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