I thought long and hard about which 80s cinematic offering we’d kick things off with. Do I go with something tried and true, or go off the path less travelled? Then it dawned on me. Since this is much a personal reminiscence as it is a history lesson, I thought I’d go with one that left its mark on me at a young and impressionable age.
And so, I present… The Beast Within.
Now, if Optimus Prime is telling you that this sh*t is intense, you’d better listen up, right?
Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. There were many certified classics back in the day, some that still stand the test of time. The Beast Within is not one of them but man, it’s NOT for lack of trying, though.
Directed by Phillipe Mora, written by genre vet Tom Holland (this was his first feature film screenplay, guys!) and based (very loosely) on a novel by Edward Levy, BEAST tells the story of young Michael MacCleary, conceived when his mother was raped by a creature in the Mississippi woods.17 years after that fateful night, Michael has been growing ill, afflicted by a sickness that the doctors have been unable to diagnose. Add in horrifying nightmares of an old abandoned house that plague the poor kid, and you know that something’s not right. Mom and Dad (Bibi Besch and the always reliable Ronnie Cox) decide to go back to the scene of the crime to get some answers.
The family arrives in Nioba, Mississipi, in hopes of finding the truth about the man responsible for the assault all those years ago. As small town people in these kind of films are want to do, they’re less than helpful in providing said information. Especially members of the town’s influential Curwin family, whose reactions range from evasive to downright hostile. Not the least bit suspicious. From there, things take a turn for the weird for young Michael after he finds the house from his nightmares. Of course, he goes inside and awakens something. He awakens (say it with me) …THE BEAST WITHIN.
Michael starts going through changes, and I don’t mean the “hair in new places” kind. Michael goes through mood swings, the kind that put him on a murderous rampage with The Curwins as top of the hit-list. A series of gruesome set-pieces follow, with Michael guided by…THE BEAST WITHIN… to exact revenge for a horrible crime those 17 years ago.
Which brings us to those last thirty minutes. Elaborate (and occasionally way too long) transformations from man to monster were en vogue that year. The Howling and An American Werewolf In London are the top of the pops in that field and came out the same year as this. But BEAST’s money-shot, an absolute orgy of bladder,latex and slime, is in aleague of its own. For those of you who have seen it, you know I speak the truth. For those of you who haven’t? Well, it would be very easy to just post the clip here – it’s not hard to find, believe me – but I’m not here to spoon-feed you. Google it. Better yet, just watch the movie. Because context is everything.
So, is THE BEAST WITHIN worth your time? I’m going to endorse it with a hesitant “yes”. The pace grinds to a halt for huge chinks of exposition, and all too frequently. Aside from Ronny Cox and the proto-Sam Elliot, L.Q. Jones, the acting is sub-par and hammy. Hardcore (and more literary-minded) horror fans wil find hints of an allusion to H.P. Lovecraft’s THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD. Aside from the use of the “Curwen”name from that story, the town coroner is straight-up, flat-out named Dexter Ward! There’s not much else concrete to this connection, though, so make of it what you will. It was maligned by critics as trash on release, then quietly forgotten over the years. There’s a tendency in film to divide films into classics and garbage. BEAST is neither. It’s an old-fashoned B-monster movie, with a touch of deep-fried Southern Gothic dread. When things aren’t stuck in the bogs of exposition, it’s a nice little slice of 80s horror nostalgia, with one of the most over-the-top final trasnformations ever – and I mean EVER put on celluloid. In short, it’s fun. And fun is always an easy recommendation.
THE BEAST WITHIN was just re-released on Blu-Ray by Scream!Factory some time ago, so it’s never been easier to track it down (and it’s a gorgeous hi-def transfer, to boot).
As a sidenote, screenwriter Tom Holland went on to make a name for himself elsewhere in the 80s. As well as writing the screenplay for the criminally-underrated PSYCHO II, Holland went on to write and direct FRIGHT NIGHT and CHILD’S PLAY. His next rumoured project: a remake of … ready for it?…
THE BEAST WITHIN! (Man, that never gets tired…)
Next week: I’ll take a look at a film that simply oozes with 80s-ness, and had a bigger influence on current genre fare than people give it credit for. See ya next time.