[11 December 2013]
One major reason to watch the 1982 creature feature The Beast Within is the fact that it was written by Tom Holland. Those unfamiliar with Tom Holland might recognize him as the director of Fatal Beauty, the writer and director of Fright Night, Thinner and Child’s Play and the writer of Psycho II and Cloak & Dagger. At the time of the production of The Beast Within, Holland was a mid-level actor with aspirations toward directing. This would be his first big-screen writing credit (although he had done a small amount of writing for television by this time).
Unfortunately, Holland, who would become quite an accomplished director, was not yet given the folding chair for this film. Instead, that job went to Philippe Mora, who would go on to direct Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf and Howling III: The Marsupials. To be fair, Mora does a pretty decent job here and this film, revolving around the strange changes and shape-shifts a young man experiences at night, and this film may have better prepared Mora to direct his later werewolf films.
That said, The Beast Within is not a werewolf film. The Beast Within is something more akin to a “Were-Cicada” film. Yes, The Beast Within is about a shape-shifting insect kid who runs around attacking people while looking like something out of a William S. Burroughs novel, while still wearing his letterman’s jacket. And you thought you had a rough time in high school.
The film’s opening resembles any given backwoods horror movie. A Southern couple is driving down a dark country road away from a creepy gas station when car trouble sends Eli (Ronnie Cox) to get help while Caroline (Bibi Besch) alone in the car with the couple’s dog. Disturbingly, she is soon sexually assaulted by a barely visible swamp creature of some kind. While shades of Humanoids from the Deep abound, The Beast Within soon flash-forwards seventeen years to when the couple’s seventeen year old son Michael (convincingly played by Paul Clemens) becomes bedridden from a new and undiagnosed illness.
After this interesting setup, sadly, Holland’s first sold screenplay stops making a whole lot of sense, either due to his writing or Mora’s direction. As the couple investigates Caroline’s assault from long before (in case Michael is not Eli’s offspring) Michael goes from bedridden in pajamas to well-dressed and out on the town and back again at the whims of the story. Is Michael out searching for answers, romancing a new girlfriend or back in his hospital bed sweating and unable to move? That depends, greatly on what particular plot point needs to be driven forward at what particular point in the film.
The film redeems itself in a few key areas, however. For one, the supporting cast is excellent. In addition to Cox and Besch, The Best Within also features veteran actor Don Gordon, Western tough-guy actor and director L. Q. Jones, character actor R.G. Armstrong and the versatile Meshach Taylor. For another, the makeup effects are relatively convincing for a 1982 creature feature. A far cry from the CGI effects of today or the Academy Award-winning makeup of the day, The Beast Within does sport some gruesome gore effects and appropriately revolting monster makeup. While we never quite see a man-sized locust running around taking its revenge (at least not very well or in good lighting), what we do see is disturbing and monstrous.
Paul Clemens’ Michael takes revenge on those who wronged his predecessor!
Holland fans will find a lot to like in this monster mash, especially when the later revised themes of soul transference, rituals of revenge and monster family ties come into play. Further, it’s easy to get into this unashamed b-movie when every cast member takes the proceedings seriously and give their all to the script. Sadly, however, when the final act rolls around, it’s not very clear exactly what happened and a re-watch just might be in order. This is a shame because that final act is the most riveting of the entire film, but as soon as the biggest reveal is expected, the credits roll. The answers are in there, but they are hard to find in the murky bogs of The Best Within.
Luckily the 2013 Scream Factory release has two excellent feature-length commentaries one by director Mora and actor Clemens and one by writer Holland. This is in addition to the trailer and promotional materials. For a film with this many special effects and unique surprises, one might expect a still gallery or documentary among the bonus features, but neither are to be found. The commentaries do a great job of documenting the making of the film, a bit more behind-the-scenes exposure would surely have been welcome.
As it stands, The Beast Within is an above-average monster movie with good actors and a sometimes comprehensible plot. All of the answers are there on the screen, even if they are buried. However, horror fan or not, if you’re watching this three or four times to get every snippet of information from the plot, you’ll probably wonder what better uses of your time you might have employed.