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 BoysThe 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 BeastW-posand 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.