Updated: Mar 8, 2019
★★★½☆ - Satisfying
The debut feature from longtime local filmmakers (and brothers) Ryan and Cody LeBoeuf was one of the highlights of the 2016 Las Vegas Film Festival, so it was disappointing that the festival initially seemed like the last anyone would hear from the movie that at the time was titled “Rabbit Days.” Now two years later, the movie is finally available to the general public, under a new, more generic title (“The Beast”) but with the same delightfully surreal and twisted content. It’s one of the best feature films ever created by locals, and it deserves much wider recognition than it’s had thus far.
The LeBoeufs have been making impressively weird and fascinating short films since their days as UNLV students, and “The Beast” is a more expansive version of the kind of work they’ve previously done on a smaller scale. It opens with what could be a self-contained short film (and was, in a slightly different form, before the feature was completed), as an old man (Michael Elliot) investigates something mysterious outside his front door, but can’t make out what’s lurking in the shadows. It’s a wordless, eerie sequence whose connection to the rest of the movie isn’t entirely clear, but establishes the unsettling tone of the events that follow.
In another remote location (possibly in the same wilderness, although like much of what unfolds in the movie, that’s never explained), eccentric theater director and ousted university professor Auguste Porter (Clarence Gilyard) has gathered together three loosely connected associates, all under false pretenses. To architect Jim Perkins (Kynan Dias), he’s teased a business deal and the chance to meet a potential benefactor; to fellow professor William Moore (Lundon Boyd), he’s offered a chance to win money playing darts; and to actor Andrew Booth (James Winter), he’s promised an after party for the bizarre one-man play that Auguste wrote and directed and Andrew starred in.
Exactly why all three men have been summoned is left unsaid, but Auguste seems to have grudges against all of them, expressed in one gloriously nonsensical line (“Which one of you sons of bitches took my jet ski?”) that turns out to be surprisingly literal later on. Auguste holds them all captive in his isolated, empty lodge, where he offers them alcohol and carrots (with full leafy tops, like something Bugs Bunny would munch on) and warns them about “the beast,” some sort of monster that he claims to have captured and imprisoned—at least until it suddenly escaped, now roaming the surrounding wilderness.
What is the beast? Is it even real? What are Auguste’s motives? Whose house is this? What is Auguste’s relationship to the old couple in the attic? Who, in fact, took his jet ski? Anybody looking for answers to these questions will end up disappointed, but the LeBoeufs are far more interested in creating striking moments than in answering basic plot questions. In that way, “The Beast” is a total success, with an atmosphere of mounting dread and a playful sense of humor, both embodied in Gilyard’s fantastic, mesmerizing lead performance.
A longtime UNLV theater professor (Nevada Conservatory Theatre and UNLV FILM) and a veteran character actor, Gilyard spent multiple seasons on wholesome TV series “Matlock” and “Walker: Texas Ranger,” so his performance here is a delightful surprise. Auguste is devious and volatile, but always entertaining to watch. In flashbacks that establish how he lured each of his three guests to the lodge, he’s dressed in what looks like a flannel shirt, a tweed blazer and a pair of khaki shorts, and Gilyard pulls off that outfit with the same confidence as if he were wearing a perfectly tailored suit.
Local film staple Boyd is also very good as the most outspoken of Auguste’s guests, and the LeBoeufs make effective use of their entire cast, playing to each performer’s strengths (fellow filmmaker and UNLV professor David Schmoeller never speaks, but still has a pivotal role and a disconcerting presence). The production values are sparse but never unsophisticated, with simple elements like a pair of antlers or an old-fashioned rotary phone conveying just the right amount of creepiness and mystery. The movie has a dreamlike, David Lynchian quality that grows in intensity over the course of its brief running time. By the end, the viewer may be as baffled as the old man in the opening sequence—and just as haunted by what they’ve seen (or think they’ve seen).
“The Beast” is available for digital rental or purchase via Amazon Video.