The Beast Within directed by Philippe Mora
In the February 1974 TV movie A Case of Rape, Ronny Cox portrayed a man whose wife, played by Elizabeth Montgomery, is raped and beaten not once, but twice by the same man. The film was an enormous success, and indeed remains the most-watched TV film in NBC history. But few could have foreseen that almost precisely eight years later, Cox would again play the part of a husband whose wife undergoes a violent rape, but this time with far more dire results. The film in question is The Beast Within, which was initially released in February 1982. This film, far from being a hit, was something of a flop at the box office, pulling in a mere $8 million, and has gone on to be critically reviled ever since. Thus, it was with a sense of what I like to call “cinematic masochism” that I sat down to watch this film just the other night for the first time. And after all the bad word of mouth, including the esteemed Leonard Maltin Movie Guide awarding the film its lowest BOMB rating, how could any viewer expect anything but rotten results? But bad ratings have never bothered me before, who have found that many of my favorite guilty pleasures have been given that BOMB rating; the wet-blanket editors who worked for the Maltin guide were notoriously grumpy when it came to this kind of genre fare. And you know what? As it turns out, The Beast Within, while undoubtedly nobody’s idea of a quality film, sure has turned out to be a memorable experience; a completely over-the-top exercise in modern-day horror.
In the film, newlyweds Eli MacCleary (Cox, perhaps most fondly remembered for his participation in such films as Deliverance, RoboCop and Total Recall) and his bride, Caroline (Bibi Besch, who would go on to portray Dr. Carol Marcus four months later in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan), get stuck on the road, at night, just outside of (the fictitious town of) Nioba, Mississippi, in 1964. While Eli walks to the nearest gas station for a tow, Caroline is attacked and, yes, raped by a shambling whatzit that has emerged from the bayou woods. Seventeen years later, the child born of that rape, Michael (24-year-old actor Paul Clemens), begins to have medical problems; problems that a doctor claims to be pituitary related. The worried parents bring Michael back to that town of Nioba to do some very belated investigating, so as to ascertain just who the maniac father might have been.
While they pursue their leads, Michael escapes from his hospital setting and begins to turn violent, going on a killing spree and, for some reason, targeting all the members of the Curwin clan in that small town. He also develops a crush on a pretty girl, Amanda (Kitty Moffat), who helps him after he wakes up, post-spree, in her garden one morning. As it develops, Michael’s personality is being taken over by the spirit of his deceased father, who has a very legitimate grudge against all the members of the Curwin clan. And just when the viewer begins to think that things cannot possibly get any wackier, Michael begins to transform physically, eventually turning into a creature resembling something out of a 1950s drive-in movie nightmare. What ARE his poor, befuddled parents to do?
The Beast Within is both far more violently explicit and far less coherent a film than I had been expecting. It is surely not an experience for the faint of heart, and dishes out its gory set pieces with abandon and relish. Thus, we get to see Michael bite the throat out of the village newspaper editor (Logan Ramsey, perhaps best known to many as Claudius Marcus on the Star Trek episode “Bread and Circuses,” and here playing an obscenely disgusting character with a bizarre passion for, of all things, chopped meat), skewer the local mortician while he’s at work, electrocute the village drunk, and decapitate the Nioba judge (played by the great character actor Don Gordon). Other grossout sequences include a minor surgical operation on Michael’s metamorphosed back in close-up, a peek inside that mortuary, the exhuming of the Nioba graveyard, and, last but certainly not least, that transformation sequence, a marvel of special FX and makeup magic, and brilliantly brought off by Thomas R. Burman. This transformation sequence takes up a good five minutes of screen time and is simply eye boggling to behold, Michael’s head and eyes bulging to the point of explosion with each passing moment.
All these scenes are abetted by a terrific score from an old pro, Les Baxter, who had created so many terrific film scores for those AIP movies of the 1960s, and here offering to the world his final piece of work. Director Philippe Mora helms his film with tautness and precision, utilizing telling close-up shots and drawing out very fine performances from every one of his performers; surprisingly, this is a very well-acted film, despite what others would have you believe. Besides the three leads, and Gordon and Ramsey, the picture boasts some very decent contributions from L.Q. Jones as the local sheriff, Luke Askew (who many will recall as the hitchhiking hippie from Easy Rider) as that doomed mortician, and R.G. Armstrong as Michael’s doctor. Young Kitty Moffat is surprisingly touching here as Amanda, and the scene in which she is told that she is “beautiful” for the first time in her life, by a tentative Michael, is supremely well played; a shame that Moffat’s future career would be limited to TV work. And then there is the film’s script, by Tom Holland. And this, for me, was the picture’s major sticking point.
This was Holland’s very first script for a motion picture, in a career that would go on to include work on such horror fests as Psycho 2, Fright Night, Child’s Play and Thinner. His script for The Beast Within supposedly takes great liberties with the 1981 novel by Edward Levy on which it is based, and turns out to be a bit hard to follow in spots. The film supposedly had several explanatory sequences deleted for its final cut, and those missing segments would undoubtedly have made it a bit easier for the viewer to fully understand what is going on. Personally (and this is just me and my possible preconceptions speaking here), I would have preferred had Caroline been raped by a legitimate monster at the film’s beginning; something akin to the Creature From the Black Lagoon. This would have made Michael’s conversion into a monster later in the film a bit easier to swallow. Somehow, a nonhuman whatzit of that ilk raping a woman and then having the resultant child transform into a monster himself is a far more credible notion to me than the spirit of a deceased, cannibalistic, human father taking over his son’s body 17 years later and then, for reasons unknown, being able to change that kid into a rampaging monstrosity. Like others, I have long wondered just what would have happened had the Creature From the Black Lagoon gotten its lusty way with the lovely Julie Adams in the classic 1954 film, and this 1982 picture might have gone far in showing us what the possible outcome might have been. But no. I was also at a loss to quite understand the link between Billy Connors (Michael’s biological father) and all those cicada noises that would become audible whenever Michael goes into violent action. Was this ever explained in the film? If so, I must have missed it.
So yes, Holland’s script for the movie is something of a head-scratcher, just barely hanging together in noncredible fashion. Still, it manages to entertain, and even work in some sly bits of humor, such as the name of that mortician being Dexter Ward, and the name of the rapidly shrinking Nioba family being Curwin (perhaps only fans of the great H. P. Lovecraft, and his 1941, posthumous novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, will appreciate these references). The film practically busts a gut to shock and amaze the viewer, not only with its sanguinary set pieces, but with the outrageousness of its central conceit. Ultimately, the film succeeds, both because we have been stunned and shocked from beginning to end, but also because we have been left throughout with a vast uncertainty as to who will live in the film and who will die; it is the kind of film in which any character might quickly expire at any moment. The picture grows more and more manic and over the top as it proceeds, and manages to leave us with a feeling of unease as to just how neatly things have wrapped up, with Michael’s third-act rape of Amanda setting the stage for a possible renewal of the horrible cycle, in a sequel that was never to be. Thus, the bottom line is that while The Beast Within is hardly a film to wildly enthuse about, it is one that will provide a memorable and fairly intense viewing experience. I do not regret having spent 100 minutes of my life watching it. And at the very least, it is a triple textbook example of the perils of fooling around with another man’s wife….