This review contains spoilers.
This post-Howling, bladder effects-laden big studio transformation pic oddity, from “The Omen” producer Harvey Bernhard, catches perfectly the fun spirit and flavour of the mainstream horror scene as it existed at the turn of the 1980s. At that time a host of young up-and-coming make-up artists like Rick Baker and Rob Bottin, inspired by and building on the ground-breaking work already achieved by Dick Smith for “The Exorcist”, reinvigorated the genre when they began to develop the use of internal bladder-inflated latex prosthetics in combination with their puppetry and some early animatronic work, to create some memorable centrepiece monster transformation scenes for a run of studio-backed and independent horror pictures, for which the provision of outrageous special effects became a main selling point around the 1981 period. Makeup effects doyens such as Baker and Savini et al were soon to prove a bigger box office draw in some cases than the director or cast members of the films they were employed to work on, back in days when some of their creations were deemed worthy enough of interest from the Academy to merit recognition during awards season, even though they were, in the main, merely providing a new face to the latest incarnation of a popular genre that was still regarded with inveterate industry and critical hostility. Even serious-minded independents like David Cronenberg and Ken Russell would come to see the benefit of calling upon the skills of the new gods of makeup special effects, though: Dick Smith’s innovations with air-bladder controlled prosthetics turned out to be essential for providing a fitting, vein-expanding and eyeball-popping finale to the Canadian director’s psychokinetic body horror espionage extravaganza “Scanners”, and were to feature as the main focus of the subsequent attention-grabbing press campaign to boot, which sold the movie successfully by highlighting the impressive level of nastiness achieved by Smith’s work. Before that a similar finale of shape-shifting excess had been worked by Smith upon Russell’s “Altered States” with similar promotional ballyhoo interest.
Although this particular example of effects-driven horror (an entry into the market by a troubled, by this stage near-bankrupt, United Artists) didn’t come to theatres until after “The Howling”, “An American Werewolf in London” and “Scanners” had all been released, and failed to replicate their successes at the box office until it became a cult item on VHS a few years later (despite being heavily censored in the UK), “The Beast Within” shows Bernhard had cottoned on early to the new lease of life that had been injected into traditional monster movies thanks to these latest audience-pleasing innovations in makeup effects. But it’s nonetheless still an unerringly weird manifestation of the transformation sub-genre: a debut Hollywood screenwriting gig for “Psycho II”, “Fright Night” and “Child’s Play” writer Tom Holland that somehow got put through the narrative mangle after suffering several anonymous hack rewrites before maverick French-born Australian director Philippe Mora applied his inimitable sensibility to what had by then become rather garbled material, managing to extract from it something that’s nevertheless as bizarrely schizoid as it is head-scratchingly incoherent. Yet “The Beast Within” is a Southern Gothic flavoured piece of genre fluff that remains rather indicative in general of the approach of a director who would go on to helm several oddball sequels to “The Howling” plus the offbeat, ‘true-life’ Whitley Strieber UFO abduction bio “Communion”. And it’s a film that ends up being far more entertaining in retrospect than one has any right to expect from a look at its unpromising pedigree, largely because it finds itself occupying a fascinating no man’s land that strands it somewhere between the good-natured creature feature fare that had always made up the traditional mainstream Hollywood approaches to horror in the recent past, and the exploitation-infused cutting edge which had begun gradually displacing it by the mid-70s. Certainly, Mora seems perfectly happy to play up the exploitation angle here, while also throwing in sly esoteric references to Kafka, Lovecraft and the paintings of American landscape artist Andrew Wyeth, whose most famous image from his painting ‘Christina’s World’ is at least partially referenced in one of the movie’s eeriest hallucinogenic dream sequences.
Somehow, this confused juxtaposition works for rather than against material designed to imitate as many of the larval stages of the contemporary ‘monstrous transformation’ genre as it was possible to metamorphose and sustain across a single narrative, regardless of the lack of sense or good taste left behind in the process. Holland’s screenplay takes virtually nothing but its title and a piece of backstory exposition from its novel source -- which was merely a proposal by author Edward Levy when originally acquired by Bernhard as a property for potential development -- the actual (unrelated) text only being written well after Holland had already come up with the first draft of his surreal, cicada-based sexual allegory storyline. But in Mora’s hands things start off feeling comfortingly old-school thanks to a rousing Les Baxter orchestral score, so traditionalist in its timbre that it might easily have graced one of Baxter’s AIP redubs of Mario Bava’s films from the 60s or 70s … not to mention the favoured veteran cast of elder Peckinpah stalwarts and old hands assembled by Mora for the project, enthusiastically taking to the b-movie treadmill here, in the autumnal twilight of their careers, like ducks to water.
The film starts innocuously enough with smiley, still-active former “Deliverance” star Ronny Cox and Emmy nominated supporting actress Bibi Besch playing the just married Eli and Caroline MacCleary, who’re pictured happily setting off on their honeymoon when their car plunges off the rural highway in the middle of the night, just on the outskirts of the small Mississippi town of Nioba, leaving the couple and their dog Thor stranded in a remote woodland copse and, it turns out, stalked by a hulking, heavy-breathing creature of unknown origin that has recently broken free of its confinement in the basement cellar of a brooding semi-abandoned farmhouse situated nearby. This seemingly prosaically unadventurous set-up soon jolts the complacent viewer awake when Thor gets thrown at a tree trunk by the creature and splattered all over the woodland floor. But that is followed, even more jaw droppingly since everything about the look, feel and approach of the picture up till then has screamed MPAA approved R-rating, by Caroline being knocked to the ground, having all of her clothes clawed off by the rampant woodland marauder, and being indecently molested and impregnated during the ensuing violently bestial rape scene -- played out in the mud and the cold by an exceedingly game nude stunt body double! The film then fast forwards seventeen years into the future where we find the now middle-aged Eli and Caroline returning to the same Mississippi town near where Caroline’s violation took place, in order to look for answers there after it is discovered that their son Michael (Paul Clemens), whose birth was a direct result of the bestial attack, is now critically ill as a result of ‘an occult malignancy’ (that’s doctor speak for ‘we don’t know what’s wrong with him but it’s serious’), forcing his parents to confront the secret of their son’s unpleasant origins.
During the course of the peculiar mixture of past life regression-themed possession narrative, psycho-sexual Southern Gothic-fried return of the repressed allegory, and creature-runs-amok hysterics that follow, the two parents, although helped by the grizzled Sheriff Pool (L. Q. Jones), run into inveterate small town obstruction and recalcitrance that seems to centre upon the Curwin family, and in particular on the death seventeen years earlier of one Lionel Curwin and the disappearance of his best friend Billy Connors. Resistance to the couple’s questions seems to be orchestrated by the town’s newspaper editor (Logan Ramsey) and the sinister bow-tie wearing judge (Don Gordon), who also happens to be the Mayor -- both of whom are Curwins, and who exert some kind of a hold over the local Lovecraftian-named undertaker Dexter Ward (Luke Askew), the inheritor of the deceased Lionel’s business. Meanwhile, Michael’s condition seems to be slipping between catatonic confusion -- where he is haunted by dreams of a forgotten past life -- and unsettling possessed maleficence: escaping his hospital bed in Jackson, Mississippi, the boy follows his parents to Nioba while under the atavistic influence of his genetic father, who seems to be both possessing Michael’s mind and genetically altering his body to use it to enact a bloody revenge on the Curwin family.
Michael’s hard-to-define condition becomes a sort of amalgam of tropes related both to spiritual possession and physical transformation genres, allowing the filmmakers to include scenes in which Michael appears to harbour a werewolf-like hunger for the flesh of his victims and gnaws animalistically on their throats, but also others in which he appears demonically possessed Linda Blair-style as a sunken-eyed, rotten-toothed receptacle for the evil spirit of Billy Connors, come to avenge his gruesome fate from seventeen years previously. To that end Clemens gets to display all manner of animal or possession-like symptoms during his encounters with sundry Curwins, and, after brief lapses into normality, either starts speaking in the booming voice of Connors or displaying immense adult strength when his own faculties are overpowered; for example, when kindly medic Doc Schoonmaker (R. G. Armstrong) tries to examine a lesion on his upper-back which turns out to be the first physical sign of a more radical transformation to come. Michael’s attraction to Katherine ‘Kitty’ Moffat’s Amanda Platt, daughter of the unhinged and angrily possessive Horace Platt (John Dennis Johnston), a loyal cousin to the Curwin family, forms an adolescent coming of age subplot and emphasises the divide between Michael’s two selves as the revenge-seeking half of him from beyond the grave wants to kill her as well as her father (who is played by Johnston with a creepy undertow of incestuous desire directed at his unfortunate daughter). His human half, though, repeatedly tries to warn her away, which results in Michael sending some extremely mixed messages during his and Amanda’s brief romance; messages which the innocent young girl would have done well to have paid a bit more attention to, given what ends up happening.
The boy teenager’s malady is set up to reach its awful climax during the final half-hour of the movie, when the special makeup effects of Thomas Burman and his team take centre-stage for a truly outrageous transformation sequence that is narratively justified on the basis of a rather confused hotchpotch of ideas rooted in a macabre backstory about Billy Connors being caught years ago having an affair with Lionel Curwin’s wife, and, as punishment, being kept prisoner by the cuckolded husband in a basement for seventeen years … fed firstly on the body of his lover and then a series of grave-robbed corpses from the local cemetery. For reasons never quite made clear, this resulted in Connors bodily mutating, on the same principle that governs the life-cycle of cicadas, into a half-human, half – what exactly? … It’s never really properly explained … In Holland’s script the creature was actually meant to have been a giant cicada, but physical makeup transformation effects hadn’t yet developed to a point that made it possible to realise such an image, so instead we get an bizarro transformation that starts first with Exorcist-like tongue contortions and bulging eyes and then proceeds into “Altered States” territory with Michael’s head becoming almost comically misshapen, expanding and pulsating grotesquely before the scene culminates in some over-the-top skin-shedding and pumpkin-headed surrealist excess that’s lingered on for seemingly ages while the assembled cast merely stand there gawping – a common enough feature of these sorts of scenes from the early period in the development of appliance makeup and puppetry horror, that is here almost being deliberately exaggerated as a result of the director’s semi ironical attitude to the work.
Interestingly though, by sheer chance, the movie also ends up becoming a sort of philosophical anticipation of David Cronenberg’s remake of “The Fly”. In that case, old age and our experience of bodily disease rather than the confusions of adolescence provided the subjects for Cronenberg’s insect transformation-based metaphor; but there was also, just as in this work, an underlying ‘monsterous birth’ subtext centred on the abortion debate, which is looked at from a mother’s perspective. Just as was the case in the Cronenberg film, where Seth Brundle is transformed into something that was genetically somewhere between fly and human but physically looked like nothing on earth in its final stages, so here Connors’ love of nature and his affinity with its seasonal cycles (he loved the woods,’ we’re told at one point; ‘he talked to the animals – even the bugs would come to him.’) is preserved in the genetic programme of his offspring, with Michael recapitulating both his father’s forbidden love for a Curwin, his vengeful personality and, finally, his hideously monstrous physical end form -- which entailed Clemens (who insisted on playing the fully transformed monster as well as Michael’s intermediate possessed stages) stumbling around some darkened location woodland settings at night in a full rubber body suit.
The emphasis on the cyclical roots of the transformation, and a willingness to let them play out to their (il)logical conclusion leads the film into even darker territory as, in his final transformed state (after Michael’s original personality has begged from his hospital bed for his parents to kill him in order to curtail what is otherwise imminently going to happen … a tacit admission that he should have been aborted at birth, which comes seventeen years too late), Michael repeats the bestial woodland rape assault that impregnated his own mother (not too many genre movies can say they both begin and end with graphic rape scenes), this time perpetrating the atrocity on the hapless Amanda (Kitty Moffat’s sweet natured character gets put through the mill, being not only the implied victim of incest and child beating at the hands of her father but also the focus of a graphic rape assault that leaves her naked and bloodied) … which only leaves Michael’s abused mother to close the circle by dealing with her own unaddressed trauma, bringing her nightmare to a close by destroying -- in exactly the same location the story started in -- the son who has now, perversely, fully become the physical embodiment of her monstrous attacker from seventeen-years previously.
“The Beast Within” is a film where the details of narrative make no sense when examined even slightly, but where the overall broad-stroke Deep South ‘Heart of Dixie’ atmosphere of Lovecraftian occult backwoods miscegenation is heady enough to more than compensate for the plot confusions, almost becoming a character in itself thanks to Mora’s sensitivity to landscape, which gives him the ability to furnish the film with a setting that always feels macabrely real, and is palpably conjured through such images as the pre-dawn mist rolling through the deserted Mississippi town as the MacClearys drive into Nioba; or in the beautifully composed Panavision shots set on the leafy edges of the location’s autumnal swampland, where the film’s bodies are quite literally being buried to protect the past and only resurface when that past threatens to repeat itself. The creased and weathered faces of industry veterans such as R.G. Armstrong, Don Gordon and in particular Logan Ramsey and Luke Askew (who bring a note of offbeat humour to their marvellously gruesome death scenes) is the final ingredient which elevates this creature feature well above its genre origins to become a macabre delight that belongs alongside other outsider explorations of America’s backwoods Gothic tradition, such as some of the early eighties films of Lucio Fulci such as “The Beyond” or “The House by the Cemetery”.
Receiving the full Arrow Video dual format treatment, which entails Blu-ray and DVD copies of the stunning HD transfer provided by MGM as part of its Hollywood Classics range, and a booklet containing an enthusiastic appreciation by Lee Gambin and a contemporary set report feature from 1981 by Robert Martin, “The Beast Within” as it is presented here could never have looked any better, even during its original theatrical screenings. Extras wise we get a director’s commentary with Philippe Mora, ably moderated by Calum Waddell whose enthusiasm for this film and the director’s other work draws out a host of amusing anecdotes about both, including Mora’s experience of working with a grouchy Christopher Lee on a Howling sequel in which the director was forced to adapt the script, with Lee’s help, to explain why the werewolves were all wearing costumes on loan from a Planet of the Apes movie! An extensive forty-five minute Making Of documentary “I Was A Teenage Cicada” features contributions from writer Tom Holland, actors Paul Clemens, John Dennis Johnston and Katherine Moffat, and special effects specialist Garry Elmendorf. Holland talks about how his original idea was eventually interpreted on the screen in a fashion that had little to do with his original intentions, while Clemens (whose enthusiasm for the genre led him to work later in his career alongside effects man Tom Burman as a makeup artist in his own right) explains the difficulties of trying to act out monster rape in a boggy swamp while dressed in layers of rubber costuming with restrictive sight. “Storyboarding the Beast” showcases director Philippe Mora’s original storyboard artwork for an early draft of the script with voice-over narration by the director himself, which allows the viewer to see how some parts of the story were to have played out quite differently to the way they were eventually seen on screen. A theatrical trailer – complete with audience warning about the terrifying nature of the material – is included, as is a comprehensive gallery of images which includes previously unseen production stills taken from actor Paul Clemens’ private collection, plus behind-the-scenes images of various effects props.
The reversible sleeve features a choice of the contemporary 1980s poster art or a new piece by Marc Schoenbach that makes the film look even more like a teenage werewolf flick than did the original artwork. Presented with its original 2.0 soundtrack (uncompressed PCM on Blu-ray) and featuring full subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing, this is a supremely entertaining piece of exploitation nonsense from the early-eighties golden age of creature transformation flicks -- one that feels as fresh as the day it was first unleashed from its backwoods cellar imprisonment.