THE WOLF MAN (1941), DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931), the majority of David Cronenberg's films, all deal with man’s fear of losing control of ones body and mind. Reluctantly giving in to a more primal and aggressive nature has been a popular and recurring theme throughout cinematic history, especially in the horror and sci-fi genres, with each generation putting their own spin on it, incorporating the political and social issues of their day. Plus, it's an easy and exploitable way to turn a relatable character into a raving mad beast. An absolute guilty pleasure — and one of the most underappreciated monster movies of the 1980s — THE BEAST WITHIN fits into this category, and fits like a glove as part of Scream Factory’s line of retro horror Blu-ray releases.
In 1964, Newlyweds Eli (Ronny Cox, ROBOCOP) and Caroline MacCleary (Bibi Besch, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN), while en-route to their honeymoon, have the misfortune of suffering a breakdown late one night, just inside the city limits of Nioba, Mississippi. Having just past a gas station a few miles back, Eli leaves his new bride and their dog, Thor, in the disabled vehicle, while he doubles back up the night road to retrieve a tow truck. Locked in the stranded car, Thor's insistent barking begins to wear thin on Caroline, so she reluctantly unlocks and opens the passenger side door. Thor immediately darts out of the car and runs into a near by swamp, followed close behind by Caroline. Moments after Thor's repetitive barking come to a yelping halt, Caroline stumbles across his body, bloodied and mangled in the leaves. Before she has time to scream, she is accosted and raped by a creature that has been lurking in the swamp near the road. Seventeen years later, Eli and Caroline’s son, Michael (Paul Clemens, A DEATH IN CANAAN) is in the hospital with a condition that doctors are having a hard time explaining. His pituitary gland is growing in such an unexplainable and rapid rate that his doctor referrers to his condition as "an occult malignancy in his system".
With tests and medical history ruling out both Caroline and Eli of having passed down such a rare condition, they decide to do what is in their son's best interest, and return to Nioba to search for Michael's biological father. While digging through back issues of the local paper, Caroline comes across an article about the murder of a local man, Lionel Curwin, which coincides with her past assault. After a brief discussion with the town's sheriff, Bill Pool (L.Q. Jones, THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN), they learn that Lionel’s demise could have been due to an encounter with the same creature that attacked Caroline. Returning to their motel room for the night, the couple receives word that their son has also returned to the small town. Drawn to specific locations and residents of Nioba, Michael’s arrival brings trouble and misfortune to the small town, as the chemical imbalance raging inside may lead him to follow in his dear ol’ dad’s bloody footsteps.
With a screenplay by modern genre specialist Tom Holland (later the director of the original FRIGHT NIGHT), THE BEAST WITHIN has attributes typical of a Hollywood werewolf picture, but with an “insect” slant to the monster menace. Shot in 1980 but released in 1982, one year after John Landis' AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, a film which had award winning special effects which won over audiences. Although both films feature striking and memorable scenes of men transforming into creatures of animalistic impulse and destruction, THE BEAST WITHIN is often undeservedly neglected. While THE BEAST WITHIN does have its share of full moon imagery and primitive inner conflict, some of its strongest scenes revolve around the residences of the small Mississippi town. An effective and impressive cast of character actors portray the town's eccentric and peculiar individuals, many of whom are hiding secrets they would prefer remain buried. Included in the excellent supporting cast are Logan Ramsey (HEAD) as the sleazy newspaper editor, R. G. Armstrong (RACE WITH THE DEVIL) as the friendly small-town doctor, Don Gordon (SLAUGHTER) as the evil judge with a very bad toupee, Luke Askew (ROLLING THUNDER) as the blackmailing coroner, John Dennis Johnston (ANNIE HALL) as an abusive single father and future “Designing Women” star Meshach Taylor (DAMIEN: OMEN II) as the deputy. Jones is great as usual as the concerned lawman, and Cox and Besch likewise as the caring parents, but the film is carried on the shoulders of young Clemens (well into his 20s at the time of shooting, but making a convincing teen). An avid horror fan and expert on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, the young actor the opportunity to play the boy-turned-beast and he actually enjoyed the grueling make-up applications (his robust performance, with all its nuances, looks as though he’s seen just about every "creature feature" of this sort before). His sensitivity in scenes with his girlfriend (Katherine “Kitty” Moffat) and his willingness to go all the way with the gory killings make for a highly memorable B-movie performance.
Basically an old fashioned 1950s monster pic with the violence greatly intensified for 1980s audiences, THE BEAST WITHIN is an effective, entertaining and somewhat exploitative blend of sci-fi and horror elements that are most often associated with werewolf pictures. It pays homage to H.P. Lovecraft to the point of utilizing "Charles Dexter Ward" and his alter ego "Joseph Curwin" for character names and the plot devices from a number of the author’s short stories (i.e. the thing in the cellar, the town shrouded in mystery, mutant children, etc.). The film is directed with great style and sly humor by the talented, if not erratic, French-born Australian filmmaker Philippe Mora, whose other credits include the Dennis Hopper tour-de-force MAD DOG MORGAN, two HOWLING sequels and a superhero musical starring Christopher Lee (RETURN OF CAPTAIN INVINCIBLE). An eerie and haunting score by Les Baxter (best known to horror film fans for his numerous 1960s and 1970s AIP genre flicks) helps to elevate the plot’s tension, accompanied by an impressive sounds design that incorporates many of the sounds found naturally in the south, such as the screeching of cicadas (there are great similarities between this score and the one that Baxter composed for the American version of CRY OF THE BANSHEE, one of his last films at AIP). The great Tom Burman did the special effects, with Michael’s bed-bound, form-changing transformation into an unearthly creature conjuring up unforgettable gross-out imagery.
First available on DVD in 2001 as part of MGM’s Midnite Movies series, and then re-released on a double-feature disc with Jerry Jameson’s THE BAT PEOPLE (hell, we’d love to see that AIP drive-in flick on Blu-ray as well), Scream Factory now presents THE BEAST WITHIN on Blu-ray with a gorgeous HD transfer from MGM (it’s an MGM/UA theatrical release that the studio still maintains control of). Presented in 1080p High-Definition in the original 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio, the transfer is a real beauty, breathing new life into the film and making for some very pleasurable viewing. Detail is sharp and outstanding, with the textures bringing out all the crevices and sweat on the actors’ faces, fleshtones are life-like and colors are also exceptional. Even the film’s numerous darker scenes are so much clearer now, so if you thought the DVD looked great, wait until you see this. Likewise, the DTS-HD Master Audio is solid, with nice range, and the sounds of those screeching cicadas really stand out!
Scream Factory has produced two welcomed commentaries for this release, the first one with director Mora and actor Clemens. The commentary is full of enthusiasm and humor, and their recollections about making it are very specific so it never runs out of steam. Mora gives a lot of background information about the production and dealing with the studio and Clemens has lots of good stories about working with his cast mates (he also mentions that being a “monster kid” of the 1960s, the role was fun and challenging) as well as several anecdotes regarding the outcome of some of the props and attire he kept after the shoot. A second audio commentary features screenwriter Holland and is moderated by Rob Galluzzo. The first thing that Holland clears up is that producer Harvey Bernhard purchased the film’s title, so the book (by Edward Levy) that this was supposedly based on was actually written after the screenplay (so Holland is responsible for the original story). He goes on to describe how he conceived the story, along with all the Lovecraftian inspirations, and despite his reservations about the transformation effects, feels that the film holds up well today. The film’s original theatrical trailer and two radio spots round out the disc’s supplements. The cover is reversible, with the flip side displaying the artwork found on the previous MGM Midnite Movies DVD release. (George R. Reis and Jason McElreath)
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