The Film (5/5):
The Beast Within is what I call a “hardcore memory movie” from my youth, one that starts off in no uncertain terms with that near perfect trailer. What am I saying, it’s a damn perfect trailer for a horror movie. If you’ve never seen it, I urge you to go right now to YouTube, watch it then come back here and read the rest of this review. Most of the horror, science fiction, and fantasy movies I deem “memory movies” from the early 80s I never saw at the theater. I saw them when they hit cable and lucky for me the early 80s is when our family first got HBO and Spotlight. Eventually Spotlight was replaced with Showtime and the rest is cable history, but back then I saw the trailer for The Beast Within on good ole’ TV. During the school year, Sunday to Thursday my bedtime was 10pm, Friday’s and Saturday’s I was allowed to stay up as late as I wanted to.
As usual I was in the living room, it was the only TV that had HBO/Spotlight attached to it, all the lights were out and I was laying on the couch covered in an afghan watching some movie on regular TV I simply cannot recall. Suddenly this trailer, the actual full-length trailer, for The Beast Within comes on and it actually freaked me out. Couldn’t tell what it was about. Dark secrets and maybe some kind of horrendous demon, but that was all I could glean from it.
At some point during 7th or 8th grade the entire class was taken to a baseball game in Boston. I didn’t go. Not a baseball fan. I also naturally thought others would opt out, but I was the only one who didn’t go. Wish I had now just for the trip alone. I had a friend back then by the name of Rob Ames who was a die-hard Fangoria reader. When they got home the next day, he told me he and a couple friends snuck into a movie theater and saw part of The Beast Within. He told me about the scene where the corrupt judge was in that jail cell and the monster comes crashing through the wall and tears his head off. He even mimicked the whole scene for me with sound effects even.
I can’t recall exactly when I finally saw the movie, but it was most definitely on cable late one night. Back then my brother and me were into insects and spiders and science fiction movies about them getting giant and killing people were right up our alley as well. I’m sure you can see where this is going. The moment I started to hold the movie in much high esteem was right after Clemen’s transforms, kills that chick’s father and takes off into the night. The exact moment this movie became a favorite of mine is when they find his shed-human skin in the trees and R.G. Armstrong utters, “He shed his skin just like a cicada.”
I seem to think my mother was watching this with me too, because I have a memory of saying out loud, “Oh, cool, it’s an insect horror movie!” to her.
In 1964 newlyweds, Eli MacCleary (Ronny Cox) and Caroline (Bibi Besch) are on their honeymoon in Nioba, Mississippi one night when their car breaks down. Leaving Caroline in the car as he heads back down the road to the gas station, she’s attacked and raped by a creature. A creature Eli and the tow truck driver never find, only the nude, bloody and unconscious body of Caroline. Seventeen years later, their son, Michael MacCleary (Paul Clemens), is starting to have health problems. He’s hospitalized, near death and suffering from dreams where he’s in this strange house and something is trying to break free from this cellar.
While his parents decide to go back down to the town where the rape happened, hoping to find some information on the person that raped her that might help their dying son, Michael leaves the hospital “possessed” by something that wants to kill. But not randomly. Oh, no, these victims are special.
What we have here is a movie about reincarnation, possession, and physical metamorphosis. A monster movie on one level and a tribute to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward on another. You see something horrible was done to Billy Conners, and he has now come back from the dead, so to speak, to get revenge upon those that tortured and killed him. It took him seventeen years to carry out is plan, reincarnating into this Michael MacCleary then possessing him and driving him to seek out Horace Platt (John Dennis Johnston), Judge Curwin (Don Gordon), Edwin Curwin (Logan Ramsey) and Dexter Ward (Luke Askew). Helping out the MacCleary’s is Sheriff Bill Pool (L.Q. Jones) and the local doctor played by R.G. Armstrong. Incidentally, Armstrong and Cox were both in The Car (1977).
The whole movie ends with exactly what is stated in the trailer. It has a vague The Exorcist vibe about it with a kid tied to a bed going through some kind of insane transformation as others helplessly watch. I saw this movie after being traumatized by Friedkin’s movie years earlier, which is what probably made that final transformation so freaky and yet still quite awesome.
The creature doesn’t look anything like an insect, just it’s “life cycle” and “skin shedding” are insectile, but nonetheless it’s a freaky looking thing. One of my favorite movie monsters from the 80s.
Shout Factory releases The Beast Within on blu-ray only through their Scream Factory sub-label. The 1080p high definition 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is heads and shoulders above the print MGM released through their Midnite Movies line back in 2001. Audio is 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio; didn’t have any complaints with it, and there are no subtitles. The cover art is reversible to the Midnite Movies one.
Aside from some radio spots and that infamous trailer you get two commentaries. The first one is with Director Philippe Mora and Actor Paul Clemens. This is a fun and enlightening talk where you can tell both had a great time making the movie and they still think it holds up. I never knew they actually shot part of this in a working insane asylum, which they were told was disused, but learned otherwise when they first showed up. It even had a fully occupied “cannibal ward.”
The second commentary is with screenwriter, Tom Holland (moderated by Rob Galluzo) and is just as informative. I knew this already since Dread Central did an interview with Holland recently, but he reiterates the fact that despite the credit appearing in the beginning that it was based on a novel written by Edward Levy, his screenplay came first. Marriage problems prevented Levy from writing the novel at that time so all Holland had to go on was the title. The novel, however, did appear years later, and I managed to read some of it. It appears it’s more about a psychological transformation rather than a physical one. I stopped reading it when I started to get the vibe Levy opted out of making it about an actual monster.
Another revelatory tidbit from Holland—he doesn’t like the FX. Even though he feels the movie and characters around it still hold up, he finds all the monster scenes “laughable.” In his screenplay the boy’s final form looked more insectile than what made it to the screen.
This is certainly a one of a kind monster flick from the 80s that has a memorable transformation scene I would put up there with the best. Those of you who were impacted by this movie as a kid, I don’t need to convince you otherwise. And before I go let me leave you with one more thing. In that aforementioned interview Dread Central did with Holland he also states he has recently completed a screenplay for a remake, but isn’t at the moment trying to get it into production. That is all. My work here is done.