Tuesday 15 March 2022

The Beetle: The Film

Richard Marsh’s 1897 novel The Beetle is a rip-roaring thriller narrated from four different points of view. In the first, Robert Holt, down on his luck, enters an abandoned house and meets the mysterious Beetle. It takes control of his mind through mesmerism, sending him to the home of Paul Lessingham to steal some letters. After an altercation, Holt escapes and delivers the letters to the Beetle, who discovers them to be love letters from Marjorie Lindon. The Beetle intends to use her to harm Lessingham . . .

The narrative then switches to the point of view of Atherton, Paul Lessingham’s rival for Marjorie’s affections. And so the novel continues, hectic and convoluted with the Beetle causing all kinds of mayhem, through to the final narrative which is told from the perspective of Detective Augustus Champnell. Lessingham tells the detective the background to his troubles with the Beetle: twenty years previously he had travelled to Cairo, where he was lured by a young woman and captured by the cult of Isis. In her temple, Lessingham had been hypnotised and forced to obey the orders of the high priestess, in which state he had witnessed many sacrifices of women. When the control over him weakened, he took the opportunity to attack the high priestess, strangling her until she turned into a scarab.

And so the story rattles on to the final chapters which would have continued to thrill its Victorian readers. I will not provide a “spoiler” for the book, although I will say that the final scene involves a railway pursuit that ends ‘somewhere in the neighbourhood of Luton’.

Maudie Dunham and Hebden Forster

The Beetle was reprinted many times, and in 1919 it was made into a silent movie. A “B.M.P.” production, in “five reels”, it was directed by Alexander Butler, and starred:

Hebden Foster as Paul Lessingham
Fred Reade as Sidney Atherton
Rolfe Leslie as Richard Holt
Leal Douglas as The Priestess of Isis
Fred Morgan as Necos the High Priest
Maudie Dunham as Dora Greyling
and Nancy Benyon as Marjorie Lindon

A still from The Beetle, 1919

As with many movies inspired by popular books, the film makers took some liberties. The central premise is very similar, but the conclusion is more cinematic. Here is a description of the action from a promotional brochure: After the High Priest, in the form of the Beetle, kidnaps Marjorie,

". . . he flies with her to Egypt.
Lessingham, reeling under the strain of ill-health, is stunned at this new blow for he realises that Marjorie will be sacrificed to the Goddess whose life he took.
He confides in Sidney Atherton and they catch the first mail boat to Northern Africa.

A still from The Beetle, 1919

"The irrepressible Dora has, however, discovered the details of Marjorie’s whereabouts and chartering an aeroplane arrives in Cairo before the men. She equips an expedition to the hidden Temple and on the arrival of Lessingham and Atherton they set out. They are only just in time. In a tumult of wild fighting and destruction the worshippers of Isis are overcome, Marjorie is rescued and the Temple destroyed. But the Beetle remains. Dora and Sydney among the ruins of the Temple suddenly see the Beetle—the transmigrated soul-mate of Lessingham’s past—arise from the debris; it is the work of a moment for Dora to blast the Beetle and the Curse with her revolver and remove the cloud for ever from the lives of her friends."

A still from The Beetle, 1919

The above is a blatant “spoiler” for the film version, but as the film is lost and can not be seen, I hope I will be forgiven. A brochure for the film is in the Robert Aickman archive in the Britsih Library, and may be the only existing copy. Online databases such as IMDB have very little information about the film.

The above is an expansion of material from Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography by R.B. Russell.


With thanks to Heather Smith, and Artellus, Ltd.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, are copyright Estate of Robert Aickman/British Library/R.B. Russell, and are not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement.

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