Horror was good to producer Harvey Bernhard during the ‘70s and ‘80s: most notably, he made three Omen films between 1976 and 1981 and would score a notable pop-horror hit in 1987 with The Lost Boys. The Beast Within was another horror film he produced in the middle of that run. This tale of curses, revenge and a monster in the deep South wasn’t a hit during its original run but has attained a cult following amongst ‘80s horror fans — and it just might be the most unique and unusual horror film in the Bernhard horror filmography.
The Beast Within sports a uniquely involved and complex plot for an early ‘80s horror flick. A prologue depicts young newlywed Caroline McCleary (Bibi Besch) being attacked and raped in the woods by something not quite human. Seventeen years later, Caroline and her husband Eli (Ronny Cox) have moved on to a normal family life — until their son, Michael (Paul Clemens), begins experiencing a strange, unexplainable illness. The parents are convinced it has something to do with the assault Caroline suffered years earlier so they return to the scene of the crime, a small town in Mississippi.
And that’s where the creepy thrills get going. The McClearys learn that this little town is full of secrets revolving around the murder of one Lionel Curwin, who committed a terrible, revenge-driven crime several years ago that the townspeople helped him cover up. Meanwhile, Michael is experiencing strange physical changes and finds himself driven to kill the various people who participated in the long-ago coverup. As the town’s nasty secrets rise to the surface, Michael finds himself on a supernatural path to destiny that will result in a strange transformation and many deaths.
The Beast Within developed its cult reputation for a few key reasons. The first is its makeup effects. Although it was released in early 1982, The Beast Within was actually shot in 1980 — and is thus an interesting precursor to all the makeup FX-driven “transformation” films that were so popular during the first half of that decade. Indeed, the film’s entire ad campaign was built around an outrageous transformation sequence masterminded by Tom Burman, who would perform similar services on the 1982 remake of Cat People. This sequence is a show-stopper, veering into camp territory as it pushes the makeup techniques of the era to outrageous extremes. This moment alone makes the film worth seeing for ‘80s horror buffs.
However, The Beast Within is no one trick pony when it comes to camp horror delights. Indeed, there is a wonderfully twisted screenplay by Tom Holland, racking up his first produced script here, that cleverly exploits the seedy side of the South as a backdrop for its tale of revenge and the supernatural. There’s a certain outrageousness to the monster — note the film’s use of a cicada as a metaphor to describe it — but it’s all in good lurid fun, and Holland throws in elements of incest, necrophilia and cannibalism to push it over the top.
The Beast Within further benefits from stylish, often tongue-in-cheek direction from Phillippe Mora. This director has a chequered filmography (Howling II and III, Communion) but this is easily his best film. He uses Cinemascope lensing and real Mississippi locations to great effect, creating a Southern Gothic flavor that fits the script perfectly. He also throws in a lot of horror film references and moments of pitch-black humor (one victim gets cannibalized while he’s mashing up raw hamburger for a meal). The gothic tone is firmly supported by slick camerawork from Jack Richards and a grand, thunderous score from Les Baxter, who performed similar services on all those great Corman-helmed Poe films.
It also helps that The Beast Within has the best cast of character actors assembled for any ‘80s horror film, hands down. Cult movie types will find it hard to dislike a movie whose supporting cast features three Sam Peckinpah veterans — L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong and Luke Askew — plus the talents of Don Gordon and Logan Ramsey, who is hilarious as the town’s sleazy newspaper editor. One also can’t forget Cox and Besch, who bring an unexpected level of heart and believability to the film’s outré storyline as the devoted parents. Everyone gets a moment to shine, whether its Jones’ great, deadpan monologue about Lionel Curwin or Askew’s creepy behavior in the morgue as he embalms a corpse. The sheer amount of professionalism this talented crew provides automatically raises the film a few levels higher than it might have been.
That said, the best performance in The Beast Within comes from the then-newcomer in its ranks, Paul Clemens. A lot of actors played men transforming into monsters during this era but none of them threw themselves into the task with the fervor or sheer love of monster-acting that Clemens displays in this film. Whether he’s greedily slurping spilled blood from a plate or channeling the spirit of his mad redneck father, he is operatic in his intensity. Like the other people involved in this film, he knew the only way to sell such a bizarre story to the audience was to go all out — and that’s exactly what he does. Watching his antics is eye-popping fun, especially during that wild transformation scene.
In short, The Beast Within is not for all tastes — and some studio-imposed “editing for pace” tends to make its tricky backstory hard to follow in places — but its mix of seedy atmosphere, eccentric plotting and go-for-the-throat horrors make this a winner for anyone who wants to walk on the wild side of early ‘80s Hollywood horror.