Since we’re in the 17-year cycle of cicada “season” (and not a one has popped up around here thanks to it being too cold AND the fact that all that deep digging heavy landscaping work in the area over the past two plus years has probably mashed a few hundred million eggs but good), I figured I’d reminisce about this rather wild 1982 horror flick that’s either really good or really awful depending on your tastes. I paid to see The Beast Within on its initial release and along with a few friends, ended up sitting in a coffee shop afterward discussing how underwhelmed, amused and bored we were by this so-called shocker.
That “BEWARE” or “WARNING!” in big letters on the posters is kind of right at least in one way – this is one worth watching only if you realize that it’s not quite all it’s cracked up to be and relies on one good effect sequence dragged out a wee bit too long. Granted, the revolutionary effects work in the that transformation sequence makes for the best part of the film. But having to sit through the draggy bits and broken storytelling might put you to sleep before you get to the best stuff it has to offer…
On a hugely positive note the film does at least look sufficiently gloomy and from a technical standpoint has its moments of “well, that was cool!” and “I’ve NEVER seen THAT before!”. But between some dumb as rocks characters, an off-kilter murderer (and later, monster) who’s got what amounts to an on/off switch personality, a few too dark night shots and an ending that’s cyclical and a wee bit too telegraphed, it takes a lot of suspension of disbelief to fully enjoy this one. Anyway, the film kicks off as newlyweds Eli and Caroline MacCleary (Ronny Cox and Bibi Besch) are driving down a dark country road and yes, their cars breaks down. Eli hoofs it to a gas station to get a tow truck and while he’s gone, Caroline is unfortunately chased from the car by a strange monster who rapes her.
Seventeen years later, Eli and Caroline’s teenage “son” Michael (Paul Clemens) is having some psychological and strange medical issues that are thought to be the result of a cranky pituitary gland, but Eli and Caroline know it’s probably due to the honeymoon gone to hell incident way back when.
Of course, they hightail it back to the area Caroline’s assault took place, only to find stonewalling authorities and a few townspeople who shouldn’t be so damn obstinate and a deeper mystery that needs some solving. Meanwhile, Michael’s condition worsens, there are some murders he commits while in a superhuman rage (he’s like a shorter much paler version of the Hulk or a sweatier Michael Landon in I Was a Teenage Werewolf). He also meets a girl at one point and I guess since he’s the only teen hunk in town or whatever, they sort of fall for each other in a Romeo meets Juliet sort of way. yeah, you can see the ending coming a mile down that dark road, folks…
The film’s plot goes around and around as more of the mystery is rolled out, Michael’s condition REALLY worsens and then there’s that aforementioned transformation sequence that’s initially shocking, but near its ending, you’ll just be looking at your watch and maybe laughing your head off. As he screams in pain and his body splits apart and mutates, every freakin’ person in the cramped hospital room just stands there and watches Michael change into a mutated over-sized bug-thing and afterwards, attacks and kills or maims a few of his rubbernecked gawkers.
I’d forgotten how just how excruciatingly long the sequence was until I borrowed a copy of the film from a friend the other day, but got caught up in watching the sequence and (duh!) forgot to time it (oops!) before I gave the disc back. Anyway, given that it definitely took a long while to set up the numerous air bladders, head transformations and body-splitting effects (and who knows HOW many takes it took), you get your money’s worth and then some. Or you can take a short trip to the kitchen and put on some more popcorn if you like. After the first minute or so, you’re not missing much other than all those screams of pain and facial contortions Clemens goes through as those bladders grow and shrink.
After that, it’s a bit of running and screaming (and dying), a chase to the city jail where there’s another really funny murder (well, another funny murder, as all the onscreen kills are somewhat amusing), a hasty move to a new location and the monster finally meeting it’s fate, but not before the film decides to pull a new version of the beginning on you (making for a kind of crappy resolution). For all its story, editing and pacing issues, I’ve actually watched this film quite a few times on video or cable just because it makes me laugh a lot each time.
That said, the main problem is the film slows to a watching grass grow speed about 25 minutes in and other than the assorted kills (which are violent and as noted, funny if you rewind and watch them a few times), the film’s momentum creeps along as you’re yelling at most if its characters to get smarter or at least die off faster so the plot can zip things up quicker. Even worse, the assorted character actors playing the supporting roles are all elbowing for the meatiest lines and most overblown delivery of said lines as if they’re doing a stage drama instead of a horror film. Well, no performance here is as amazingly, awesomely scenery chomping as Rod Steiger’s super holy priest from The Amityville Horror, but I’d rate Don Gordon’s toupee-wearing slimy politician type (and his sudden fate) as tops here.
There’s also a rather interesting Lex Baxter score (his final film work) that’s good for a horror movie… just not this one. Some of the dramatic tunes work, but it feels like something that needed a few more vampires or werewolves or zombies or something. Then again, given that this was supposed to be something of a big horror film extravaganza for MGM and United Artists, why not get a worthy soundtrack for your ticket price, I guess. As for those visual effects, they were a bit shocking back in 1982, but thanks to the long sequence and some odd editing choices, Michael’s transformation comes off as more silly than serious these days.
Still, there’s a good reason The Beast Within is something of a cult classic. It’s a nice link to the era where practical effects in horror films ruled and were getting more and more complex thanks to effects artists pushing the envelope into uncharted territory. Unfortunately for this film, John Carpenter’s still impressive remake of The Thing, and earlier films such as The Howling benchmarked themselves as superior in their major transformation and creature sequences. Of course, I won’t stop you at all from checking this one out, as hell, you’ll need something to do when all those damn cicadas push you indoors for the weekend (or whenever the hell they decide to turn up)…