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STUDIO Shout! Factory
RUNNING TIME 98 Minutes
• Audio Commentary with Director Phillipe Mora and Actor Paul Clemens
• Audio Commentary With Writer Tom Holland
• Theaterical Trailer
Sexual education movies were different in the ‘80s.
Paul Clemens, Ronny Cox, Bibi Besch, R.G. Armstrong, Don Gordon, L.Q. Jones
18-year-old Michael MacCleary – the progeny of an unholy union between his mother and a swamp beast – is on the verge of becoming a man. And as the inherited evil in his blood gnaws at his soul, Michael must return to the swamp to uncover the terrifying identity of his father – before his nasty natural tendencies force him to feed on the locals!
In the year 1965, newlywed couple Eli (Ronny Cox) and Caroline (Bibi Besch) get their car stuck off the side of the road outside the small town of Nioba, Mississippi. Eli walks to a nearby gas station for a tow, leaving Caroline in the car where she is knocked unconscious and raped by a humanoid creature.
Seventeen years later Caroline’s son Michael is bedridden and dying of a pituitary imbalance and nothing on his parents’ medical histories to give the doctors any ideas on how to fix it. Eli and Caroline decide to return to Nioba in hopes of identifying the rapist and hopefully finding the information they need to save Michael’s life.
At the same time that his parents are chasing wild geese in the bayou, Michael feels a calling to go to the same town and finds his way to an old house where he begins speaking to an unheard voice, asking for assurance that if he opens a cellar door it will let him sleep. But soon Michael begins losing control of himself and becoming a murderous madman for brief spells.
Now, for the no-spoilers crowd, this is your hopping off point. There’s very little about this movie I can discuss without getting into major plot spoilers. I will say that there are no big twists and the movie telegraphs where it’s going pretty early on, but if you prefer going into these things blind then just meet me below the last picture in this review. Otherwise, continue at your own risk.
So it turns out that Michael was actually a ghost of Keyser Soze’s sled the whole time and that he dressed as his long dead mother to kill Trinity in the shower before discovering that the planet of the apes is actually just a post apocalyptic Earth.
As the movie progresses it’s learned that Michael’s father was a man named Billy Conners. Billy was having an affair with the wife of a man named Lionel Curwin, who discovered their tryst and got revenge by killing the woman and locking Billy in a cellar. He then fed Billy nothing but human corpses he smuggled from the local morgue because… he’s a really creative at revenge, I guess. After years of living in this terrible state, Billy snapped and used a spell he learned from the father of a childhood friend to turn him into a monster which escaped and killed Lionel Curwin. Lionel’s family managed to mortally wound him and left him for dead but Billy managed to get up, rape a baby into Caroline, and wander back into his cellar dungeon to die. The big reveal is that by impregnating Caroline, Billy created the means of his own resurrection. He’s slowly been growing inside Michael and is now working his way out a little at a time, which is killing Michael. The spells of murderous rage are Billy using Micahel’s body to kill those people who assisted Lionel in any way as well as his entire extended family.
The plot is extremely convoluted and ridiculous and Tom Holland usually gets blamed for that in reviews. True enough this isn’t one of Holland’s better scripts and it lacks a lot of the fun elements of his later movies, but it’s my opinion that Tom Holland is the only reason this movie is any good at all.
The rights to Edward Levy’s novel of the same name were bought primarily for the title and due to some personal issues, Levy didn’t finish the book in time to submit it for the screenwriter; Tom Holland took what bits Levy had and filled in the blanks. Now, at the time of this review I have not tracked down a copy of the novel but I have found several detailed synopses of the plot. The big difference between the movie and the book is that there is no supernatural element. The “Billy” character in the book is a traveling bible salesman (it’s a period piece set in the 1920s) who gets caught sleeping with a woman and is locked in a cellar and fed corpses just like his movie counterpart. Rather than using black magic to escape, the salesman simply escapes of his own strength and runs off into the woods more animal than man and rapes Caroline MacCleary. The rest of the book deals with Michael MacCleary growing up and eventually becoming a monster like his father, because apparently when you’re driven crazy by circumstance it becomes hereditary.
Now, as I said, I have not read this book and a good writer can write any bullshit they want and make it believable, but the plot sounds stupid as hell. Maybe Levy can sell what sounds like the plot of a particularly awful Penny Dreadful in a way that’s a thought provoking commentary on the nature of evil, but even if that were the case I doubt such cerebral themes could have been translated to film by the director of Howling 3: The Marsupials. Regardless of how well-written Edward Levy’s novel may or may not be, it’s the moments where Holland’s script is faithful to the source material that are the most hokey. The southern gothic flavor that Holland’s script injects creates the most endearing parts of the story and goofy elements that bother me when a story is trying to be cerebral are a lot easier to dismiss when their explanation is “voodoo bullshit.”
The Beast Within is kind of hard to critique; it’s really not a very good movie, but on the other hand it’s amazing and I love it. Phillip Mora is hardly an auteur and the one fair critique of he novel vs. the movie is that Levy’s super-serious novel and Holland’s pulpy screenplay don’t exactly mix like chocolate and peanut butter.
The cast of this movie is populated entirely with character actors. Ronny Cox and Bibi Besch are the heart of this movie and their performances sell the more tragic aspects of the plot. The cast is filled to the brim with scene chewers but they all give sober and straight performances; that’s good because this movie couldn’t be campy without feeling mean, but a cast of sober-faced characters would just be boring. There is one performance in The Beast Within that ties the whole movie together, a man to whom this whole thing wouldn’t be half as beloved as it is without: that man is Paul Clemens.
Paul Clemens owns this movie; a huge fan of 60s monster movies and only in his early twenties when this was filmed, he brought his obsession to life in a role that seemed to step out of a Hammer film. This “classic” style of horror acting works well for the screen version of The Beast Within as it’s really just a combination of movies like It’s Alive and The Manitou. It’s the arch tone of Clemens’ performance in contrast to the flat tone of everyone else that sets the mood of the piece and makes it so much fun to watch. Clemens hasn’t done a whole lot in the intervening 32 years and I’m sure his style didn’t lend well to much else, but right there and then he never shined brighter.
My one major gripe is with the monster. I’m not talking about the one on all the promotional shots; Michael with the beautifully understated make-up effects and the iconic leather jacket is a great looking monster and hearkens back to movies like I Was a Teenage Werewolf. The monster I take issue with is the actual “Beast Within” which emerges from within Michael in the last act of the movie.
At several points throughout the story, Michael’s change is compared to that of a cicada. Billy even references this in his threats to another character and in the chittering noise he makes when he takes over the boy’s body. A giant bug would have been a disappointing monster, but it probably still would have looked better than what we got. The make-up effects are top notch; while the transformation sequence has its issues, the monster itself does indeed look like a flesh and blood creature, it’s just a very dumb design. The beast is a sort of slime-covered bipedal lizard dog and it ranks up there with Silver Bullet’s wolf-ape as one of the goofiest examples of competent make-up work I’ve ever seen.
The Beast Within is just a bit too experimental to ever have any sort of mass appeal, but if you can get in it’s head space you won’t be disappointed. If you like Hammer horror, the more arch movies of the 70s, or you just wish that Slime City had a better cast, you’re in for a treat.
There’s a pretty sparse package here: a trailer and two commentaries. The two commentaries, however, are worth their weight in gold and better special features than any of the ones contained on any of the handful of Shout! Factory discs I’ve seen since I started writing reviews for this site.
Commentary one is with director Phillip Mora and Paul Clemens. Both men have some interesting anecdotes to share but Clemens is the reason to listen, he still has a palpable boyish love for the genre and this movie in particular and to hear him talk about it with such passion is to experience it with whole new eyes.
Tom Holland’s commentary is a bit more clinical. He talks about how he wrote the script and tried to add a Lovecraftian flavor to the story and how he mostly feels the movie still works. It’s a great commentary.
Video is 1080p High-Def Widescreen (2.35:1) and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo. There are no subtitles.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars