I remember when this film was released back in the early 1980’s with an ad campaign daring viewers to watch the final 30 minutes of the film without leaving the theater. It was supposedly extremely violent and disgusting and it was marketed as such. The TV ads as well as the poster didn’t even attempt to explain the plot of the film–was it an alien, a monster, a serial killer?–it was marketed solely as a gore vehicle. I remember liking the movie enough when it first came out that I made a VHS dupe and kept it for years until it just gave out. It had probably been 20 years since I’d seen the movie, so when I ran across it for just $3, I had to pick it up to see if my initial evaluation of the film was as accurate as I remembered. Would I still like it as a 40-something adult with a great deal of film-viewing and film evaluation behind me as I did when I was 15 or 16?
In order to evaluate this film fairly, one has to remember what horror movies were like in the early 1980’s. Three things were going on in film that deeply affected the production of The Beast Within. First, America was in the midst of a special effects boom, and nothing was more popular than transformation scenes. Both The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, released in 1981, were universally lauded for their infamous transformation scenes, and many films were being released solely on the strength of having a transformation scene. The Beast Within was no different.
Secondly, graphic violence in film was becoming more normal and was beginning to cause a backlash both in the media and in politics. Perhaps starting with Dawn of the Dead, which was released uncut and unrated with a warning describing the lack of pornographic sex but the abundance of explicit violence, there were a rash of films that used the same kind of campaign. Lucio Fulci’s Zombie made it to America shortly after Romero’s groundbreaking effort, using the same pronouncement on its poster, as did Fulci’s Gates of Hell. David Cronenberg’s Scanners was released in 1981 to great popularity, and plenty of others followed suit. Films like Basket Case and The Evil Dead were very popular at the same time that The Beast Within was playing theaters, spurred on by a relatively new magazine that seemed to celebrate these types of violent films, called Fangoria (first published in 1979). Even big studios got involved in the fray, with Brian De Palma’s Scarface being released in 1983 to huge controversies about not only the language contained in the film (226 F-bombs in 2 hours and 50 minutes), but the level of violence, particularly in the infamous "chainsaw shower scene".
And this leads up to the third happening in American cinema during the early 1980’s, which was the seemingly arbitrary way that the MPAA rated films during this time. While independent filmmakers have always complained about being treated unfairly–and I generally agree with that argument–in the case of The Beast Within, the independent filmmakers may have just won a small battle with this film. While De Palma and Universal famously fought the MPAA (which gave three different versions of Scarface an X-rating) and won, securing an R-rating for the original, intended version of the film, independent films of the same era were not able to appeal as successfully. Films like Friday the 13th and Friday the 13th Part II were famously edited down in order to secure an R-rating while films such as The Beast Within escaped the MPAA relatively unscathed. It remains a mystery to me how some indie films seem to breeze by the MPAA while others are shredded to ribbons. Nevertheless, while not being as bloody as it is billed, The Beast Within does have a surprise or two in store for viewers.
First off, The Beast Within is clearly an independent cheapie as a large number of horror films were at the time. It has the look of an early ’80’s low-budget horror film, and MGM didn’t even try to clean it up before releasing it on their Midnight Movies label in 2001. The result is a pretty ugly film. Along with the typical graininess of a low-budget film at the time and the very murky night scenes, the film takes place in the Mississippi winter, so all the colors are muted with generous amounts of brown and yellow. The film just isn’t very pretty to look at, with the night scenes being so dark as to obscure most of the action that takes place.
The story is a bit confusing as well. The film opens with Ronny Cox and Bibi Besch as newlyweds whose car gets stuck on the side of the road. Eli MacCleary (Cox) leaves his new bride in the car to seek help, but Caroline MacCleary is attacked and raped by a monstrous beast. Cut to 17 years later and the MacCleary child, Michael (Paul Clemens), is in the hospital and dying of a mysterious disease. While the doctor can’t explain it, there seems to be some weird things going on inside Michael’s body–his blood seems different and he has extra structures in his body. The search for a cure leads everyone to a small Mississippi town where many secrets are being kept. It seems that one of the town crazies caught another man sleeping with his wife. He killed his wife, but kept the man locked in his cellar for years, feeding him on human flesh he obtained from the local mortuary. He was never imprisoned because the small-town judge was his cousin and was also in on the entire crime. At some point, the now crazed, flesh-eating ghoul briefly escaped from the cellar where he assaulted Caroline MacCleary before being hunted down and locked back up in the cellar where he eventually died.
Now Michael is hospitalized in this small town and is being possessed by the enraged spirit of the murdered cannibal man. Michael is being forced to kill all the conspirators of the original crime. But there’s more than that. For some reason that is never clearly explained in the film, Michael has some cicada DNA and the cicadas are in their 17-year cycle, so Michael is also beginning to transform into some strange, flesh-eating insect monster. The film makes a clear connection to both Michael and the imprisoned cannibal as well as to Michael and the cicadas, but there is no real connection between insect and cannibal. There is a brief scene at the beginning that shows Caroline’s stalker, which clearly has misshapen, insect-like legs, but other than this implication we are never really clear on how the cannibal and the insects were originally fused together. I have heard rumors that an entire reel of film was accidentally destroyed at the photo lab and that the production didn’t have the money or the time to redo those sequences, hence the gaping plot hole, but that is only a rumor and I haven’t been able to locate anything to substantiate that claim. Regardless of what actually happened, the plot holes are glaringly huge so the viewer must be pretty forgiving and willing to make some big leaps of faith in order to enjoy the film. I simply assumed that the cannibal was so hungry that he ate whatever was in that nasty cellar, including enough cicadas that it affected his blood. Stupid, but a better explanation than what the film actually delivers…
Aside from the grungy look of the film and the weak plot, the musical score by Les Baxter is horrendous. It is much too loud, obtrusive, and totally inappropriate to the film. Ironically, Baxter was rather proud of this score and fancied it one of his better works.
However, there is also much to like about The Beast Within. First, Ronny Cox is one of my favorite character actors. Probably most famous for his turns in Robocop and the Beverly Hills Cop series, over the years he has proven to be a very solid and capable actor in a variety of genres. He is very good here as well. Also, another fine character actor that everyone recognizes but no one knows is Meshach Taylor. Typically relegated to supporting roles in films (as he is here), he has been a staple on TV series and movies-of-the-week, but is probably best known as the African-American foil for seven years in the TV series Designing Women. It was great to see him in an early supporting role here as well.
Secondly, while I wouldn’t call The Beast Within an absolute gorefest, it certainly is bloodier than the typical early 80’s fare, including some flesh-eating and blood-spurting as well as a very gruesome decapitation. It is this last scene that caused me some surprise as it clearly should have been cut by the MPAA for an R-rating. I was both surprised and pleased to see that this particular scene made it through uncut as the camera lingers lovingly on the neck stump shooting blood into the air, cuts to a reaction, then–wonder of wonders–goes back to the neck stump once again. As I said before, it remains a mystery how the MPAA makes its totally arbitrary decisions…
But the real reason this film was made was for its creature transformation sequence. I’m sure that was the initial pitch that got the film funded in the first place and it certainly was played up in the marketing campaign as well. Special effects guru Tom Burman created the transformation sequence. Burman was very busy during this time creating effects for some of the biggest horror hits of the early ’80’s including My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me, Cat People, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, and Body Double, but now spends most of his time working steadily on TV series such as Nip/Tuck, Private Practice, and Grey’s Anatomy. Aside from Cat People, which was a big-budget studio-backed remake, the rest of his ’80’s films mentioned were all famously censored by the MPAA in order to secure an R-rating, especially My Bloody Valentine which has recently been released in uncut form for the first time.
The transformation scene is typical of that time: plenty of bladder effects with an animatronic puppet head eventually replacing the actual actor. It’s bloody and slimy and effective, and I’m sure it’s one of the reasons this film made plenty of money for its producers upon release. It reminded me of Cronenberg’s fly transformation in his 1986 remake of The Fly, but of course, this one came first. There is plenty of goo and sinewy slime that is stretched as the large insect creature expands out of the relatively small human body with which it is contained. Of course, the transformation only occurs once, at the tail-end of the film, most likely because there was only enough money to film it once. And, as is the case in most ’80’s horror films, the monster escapes and rapes another innocent girl, setting up a possible (but unfilmed) sequel.
The Beast Within certainly is an uneven film, but I found myself enjoying it anyway. Maybe I was in a forgiving mood (I picked this up for just $3) or maybe I was just caught up in the memories of my teenage years, but I had fun with this low budget affair. For all its faults, it still managed to entertain me and while it might not have been as grueling as the marketing campaign implied, it was bloody good fun.