John digs into a cult classic horror film that should really be seen by more people.
Who made it?: Philippe Mora (Director), Tom Holland (Writer), Harvey Bernhard, Gabriel Katzka (Producers), MGM.
Who’s in it?: Ronny Cox, Bibi Besch, Paul Clemens, Don Gordon, R.G. Armstrong, Katherine Moffat, L.Q. Jones.
Tagline: “We dare you to watch the last 30 minutes of this film without screaming, covering your eyes, or running from your seat.”
IMDb rating: 5.4/10.
As a fan of 80s horror and the self-proclaimed “Doctor Schlock,” I love nothing more than a good old-fashioned gore fest. In my thirty-four years, I’ve exposed myself to a wide range of horror movies, a lot of which I’ve discovered thanks to DVD and Blu-ray. But there have been a few titles that have slipped through the cracks. One of those is the classic creature feature The Beast Within. I recently saw it for the first time remastered in glorious high definition. And boy, was I impressed! My only regret is that I failed to discover this gem sooner.
One night, on the rural roads of Mississppi, Eli and Caroline McCreary’s car breaks down. While Eli (Ronny Cox) goes off to fetch help, his wife and dog are left alone in the dark. While he is gone, a mysterious creature in the woods kills their pooch and rapes Caroline (Bibi Besch), leaving her impregnated. Seventeen years later, their son Michael (Paul Clemens) is suffering from an unknown illness which could be life threatening. The doctor explains that it could be a genetic defect passed down from his parents. Knowing that Eli isn’t Michael’s biological father, the couple reluctantly return to the scene of the crime to find answers that could save their son’s life.
The Beast Within was directed by Australian filmmaker Philippe Mora, who had cult success in his homeland with Mad Dog Morgan (1976) and would go on to helm two sequels to Joe Dante’s classic werewolf movie, The Howling (1981). The screenplay was written by Tom Holland, best known for his work on 80s horror favourites Fright Night (1985) and Child’s Play (1988). This was Holland’s first feature film script, and he was hired by Harvey Bernhard (The Omen) after the producer had bought the rights to the novel by Edward Levy. Bernhard took a major gamble as the novel had not been written yet, but the title alone intrigued the producer. This left Holland with the difficult task of creating an original screen story based solely on the title of the book. I’ve been a big fan of Holland’s work for many years, both as a writer and as a director. He is obviously passionate about the genre and has a knack for crafting stories that can send a shiver up your spine.
The film’s cast is top-notch and one of the many highlights of the film. It’s quite rare to find interesting characters in a horror picture that help to drive the plot forward and prevent it from being a mindless B-Movie. Clemens is excellent in the lead role as the tortured teenager, giving an intensely believable performance. The support is equally satisfying, with a host of seasoned veterans lending a strong hand to the picture, including Cox (RoboCop), Besch (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), Don Gordon (Bullitt), R.G. Armstrong (El Dorado), and L.Q. Jones (The Wild Bunch).
Like any good creature feature, the makeup effects tend to take centre stage, and this is certainly the case in The Beast Within. The effects are truly innovative and groundbreaking for the time and rival the incredible work achieved in both An American Werewolf in London and The Howling. The transformation scene in the film’s finale is one you won’t forget in a hurry, and is enough to make you grab a sick bag.
The music by the late Les Baxter is one of the best I’ve heard in the genre. Dramatic orchestral sounds build tension and suspense throughout the film, very reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann (Psycho). The composer himself considered his score for The Beast Within to be one of his finest.
The movie was released in February 1982, grossing $1,250,000 on its opening weekend and reaching #10 in the box office chart. It would accumulate a mere $7,742,572 in total, making it a sizable flop at the time. But, like so many other horror films of that decade, the picture would eventually gain a wider audience on home video, becoming a cult classic among genre fans. Critics, as they usually are with this milieu, were mainly negative towards the film. Patrick Naugle wrote at DVD Verdict that “The Beast Within won’t be to every horror buff’s taste. If you’re looking for just mindless violence and grizzle and gore, this movie is going to feel like its a big disappointment. I can’t give it a really strong recommendation, but I also can’t dismiss it outright. It’s got moments that shine and moments that drag. Genre fans may get a kick out of it, for no other reason than seeing a man’s head expand to the size of a watermelon.”
Once you strip away all of the grotesque layers, you’re essentially left with a love story between two innocent teenagers. This is horror that has heart. The main plot may confuse some people as to why the lead character is slowly turning into a monster, but that doesn’t prevent you from enjoying the film as a well-crafted piece of entertainment. Mora has stated that the studio cut several scenes from the film, which explained some of the story’s plot in more detail. Holland also explained that certain key moments in his original script didn’t make it into the final film either. Overall, Beast is a unique twist on monster movies with the introduction of the very first Were-Cicada.
The Beast Within is one of those films that has become buried beneath a host of other classics in its genre, preventing it from being one of the more talked-about horror movies of the 80s. But it certainly deserves respect as a terror outing that broke new ground in both storytelling and effects. So, if you still haven’t seen it… what are you waiting for?
A truly horrific transformation sequence which audiences will find both shocking and repulsive.
- This film became a staple on Joe Bob Briggs’ Monstervision series, though the network would heavily edit the film.
- Ronny Cox also wrote and performed the country music featured in the film.
One shoot, at an abandoned hospital, fell on Friday the 13th. The crew became convinced the location was haunted as throughout the evening the lights and the elevator turned on and off by themselves.
The movie was filmed in 1980. The attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley occurred during the filming of the big transformation sequence, which was shot over the course of four days.