It's surprising that I haven't seen this one before, being both a horror movie fan who really started watching them in the early to mid eighties and a fan of the source novel. It was released in England by Hamlyn and Hamlyn Horror was where you went for the best in pulp horror at the time. Many of their titles were so called 'nasty novels', presumably the literary equivalent to the video nasties that the BBFC were so gleefully banning at the time, and they had many of the best pulp names: Guy N Smith, Gary Brandner, Mark Ronson, John Halkin, Richard Lewis, Nick Sharman, even Shaun Hutson's debut. They also published Edward Levy's The Beast Within in 1981.
A year later, Philippe Mora, a French/Australian director best known for Communion and a couple of sequels to The Howling (a series also published by Hamlyn, incidentally), turned it into a film. It also has a reputation of being something of a nasty, and it certainly begins that way. In 1964 in Nioba, Mississippi (the 'Heart of Dixie'), a woman is raped in the woods by some sort of beast man. She lives through the attack and her husband rescues her, only to find seventeen years later that the offspring of the attack, their 'son' Michael, is dying and the only hope is to find out something about the medical history of the real father.
They're in Jackson by this time, the big city, so they head on out to Nioba to poke around. Needless to say Nioba is a small town with a secret that they've kept well hidden for a long time and they're not planning on letting anyone know about it any time soon. Unknown to them, at least initially, Michael leaves his hospital bed and follows them, driven by some sort of race memory, reincarnation, telepathy or some such. He seems to know somehow who is who, where they are and what they are too. And if he knows that, he knows what he's becoming.
Director Philippe Mora isn't just a director. He made well regarded documentaries (such as Swastika and Brother, Can You Spare a Dime); he founded the magazine Cinema Papers, the Australian one that ran for decades; and he's an exhibited painter. All this can't help but make me wonder how he ended up making films as decried as Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills and Art Deco Detective. I have a weak spot for Howling III: The Marsupials, though I'm not sure why. It's a terrible film, just like the others.
This one is better than them, but that doesn't mean it's a great film, even with some experienced actors lending their considerable talents. The leads, playing Michael's parents are Ronny Cox (from Deliverance, Beverly Hills Cop and Total Recall) and Bibi Besch (from Tremors and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Michael himself is played by Paul Clemens, the son of Eleanor Parker. She got to be nominated for three Oscars and appear in films like The Sound of Music, but her son only got to play in things like this and a 2008 comedy horror short with the intriguing title of The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon.
Backing them up are reliable names like L Q Jones, John Dennis Johnston and R G Armstrong, all names you probably won't recognise behind faces that you probably will. In fact these are the people who really end up being the best reason for watching the film. Clemens tries, that's for certain, but he's just not really horrific, sympathetic or scary in the slightest. Cox and Besch are good, I guess, but they have almost nothing to do. Katherine Moffat fits into the same category, playing the closest thing there is to a love interest, and so does most of the rest of the cast.
Much of the fault has to lie with Mora but not all of it. There's a long transformation scene in which everyone just stands there and watches, even the guy with a shotgun who just broke in specifically to kill Michael. This scene is nothing but an elongated commercial for the special effects guy and it isn't even great work, considering that this was a year after An American Werewolf in London. There are lots of scenes that prompt the same sort of reaction: disbelief.
There are many parts of this movie that make no sense at all, not least the ending which would appear to be a cool cyclic thing but actually has no point whatsoever. I'm guessing the writer should bear a good deal of the blame, but that writer isn't Edward Levy. It's been a long while since I've read the book but I remember it being a lot better than this and somewhat different.
Huh? An A-Z of Why Classic American Bad Movies Were Made
(front cover by Eric Schock of Evil Robo Productions)
Velvet Glove Cast in Iron: The Films of Tura Satana
with a foreword by Peaches Christ and an afterword by Cody Jarrett
(front cover by Keith Decesare of KAD Creations)