Sunday 12 October 2008

The Beast Within (1982)

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.


Anonymous said...

It doesn't really phase me that you're less than crazy about my work in 'The Beast Within', and don't have much love for the film itself. Fair enough. That's what makes horse races -- AND political campaigns! (Though, to be fair, the film and the performances certainly do have their ardent fans, as well.)

Basically, the only thing I read here that really irks me is your statement that I've only gotten to be in things like 'Beast Within'...

But if you did more research (on IMDB, etc.) you'd see that I also played the leading role in the much-acclaimed CBS tele-film 'A Death In Canaan' (with Brian Dennehy) which was nominated for numerous Emmys, and also guest-starred in an award-winning episode of the series 'Quincy' in which I played a young man with Tourette Syndrome -- an episode which was so popular and acclaimed that I was brought back the following year as the same character.

I also co-starred in a powerful and sensitive (albeit very sad) film about cancer called 'Promises In The Dark' with Marsha Mason and Ned Beatty, as well as numerous other films and TV movies/series working with actors such as Ed Asner, Malcolm McDowell, Anthony Quinn, Patricia Neal, Martin Short, Christopher Walken, and many others.

And, out of all the stuff I've done over the years (from the late 70's 'til now), only ONE has been like 'The Beast Within' (i.e., a horror film) -- and that was 'The Beast Within'! ;-)

'Beast' Wishes! (Sorry -- I couldn't resist!)

Philippe Mora said...

Thanks for your review of the BEAST WITHIN. I have nostalgia for horror kitsch--the kind of thing that freaked me when I was eight years old--even Abbott & Costello Meets Frankenstein. I am trying to grow up.
I have a soft spot for even the truncated version UA released of the BEAST WITHIN. But there was really a fantastic version which we previewed on the Fox lot. The audience was screaming and hollering non stop-it was an amazing screening. Then unbelievably the morons running the studio cut out all the stuff that was driving the audience bonkers, and effectively castrated the film. But then, don't forget the studio "mentality" hired a one eyed film director to direct the first 3D movie. Go figure!

Hal C. F. Astell said...

When I reviewed The Beast Within late one Saturday night, I was hardly expecting to wake up to comments from both the star and the director, but hey, that's the joy of blogging. And it's also a cautionary tale: anyone writing a review of anything, even when writing for themselves, should think about who's going to read it before hitting the Publish Post button (especially when the director of the film is a noted critic). Thank you both for your words and beast wishes in return!

I stand happily corrected about the scope of Paul's career, though when I wrote that Paul 'only got to play in things like this', I wasn't referring to horror movies (which I do not look down upon as a genre: heck, my favourite film of all time is Bad Taste), but to material that is rarely seen and rarely commented on. In fact of all Paul's work, only one film has more votes at IMDb than The Beast Within and that's another Philippe Mora movie, Communion. As I write, The Beast Within has 650 votes, whereas The Sound of Music to which I compared it, has 41,411. None of this has anything to do with quality, it has to do with visibility.

Of course now I'm just scared at how few votes Eleanor Parker's other movies have: Between Two Worlds has 510, The King and Four Queens a mere 263 and Chain Lightning only 259, numbers that betray the presence of John Garfield, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. A quick check shows me that Transformers has 143,971. Now I understand what's wrong with the world today.

Yeah, I'm less than crazy about the film but there are far worse out there. It didn't even rate low enough to make my list of the worst films of all time: Number Ones and Twos: The Bad and the Worst, unlike fellow 1982 films The Impossible Kid and Madman. Paul's performance is one of the better things about the film (as I mentioned in my review: he certainly tried) but the character didn't help him. Instead the most focus it had was the transformation scene, which was as terrible as it was unnecessarily long, and in which we decidedly see special effects not Paul's acting.

I'd love to see the version that Philippe describes and thinking about the film again with his words in mind, there's clear possibility for many of my problems with the film to vanish or at least be lessened given more material. I'm guessing that there was much more material in the cellar and more for the leads to do. Hopefully there was background material on all the questions I had. Why a cicada? Why repeat a cycle after its resolution? Why the mental connection between Michael and Billy? Why pour most of the effects into one scene?

And is that version still extant? I've heard enough stories of studio incompetence and deliberate vandalism to suggest it probably and sadly isn't.

Anonymous said...

Hey there, Hal!

First, I appreciate your sentiments re. some of my Mom's films. Yet it's no suprise that her best-known film, 'The Sound Of Music' -- an all-time beloved classic -- should get way more IMDB votes than 'The Beast Within'. Good heavens, I'd be quite alarmed if it HADN'T! Which, of course, makes all those votes for 'Transformers' even MORE troubling! (Yikes! What have we COME to?!)

Secondly, I'd like to answer some of the 'Beast'-related questions/observations posed in your latest blog entry:

As to why a cicada... Well, cicadas have a unique life-cycle in which they hibernate in the ground for 17 years and then re-emerge, shedding their skins and being "reborn", as it were, as new creations. And, of course, my character, Michael, is 17 years old when this genetically driven, Native American curse first manifests itself , with me eventually shedding my skin to become...'The Beast Within'!

Unfortunately, in the interests of streamlining the film, some of the exposition got muddled and/or lost, though more of it is still there than you might think at first viewing. You just have to listen carefully for it.

The earlier version of the film which Philippe alluded to is probably non-existant at this point (unless Philippe has some of that cut footage tucked away somewhere???). But I can tell you from my own memories that, in addition to some extra violence, there were definitely scenes of more emotional depth and character developement that got jettisoned in order to speed things along, including an earlier hospital scene where my character has a wrenching emotional breakdown.

Still, I like the fact that the film has little themes and references that are there if you look for them. For example, the nifty Andrew Wyeth ('Christina's World') visual tribute, as well as a ton of fun H.P. Lovecraft references/homages. And the touches of black humour throughout, as well as the colorful use of Sam Peckinpah's entire stock-company of supporting actors, I think, make the film stand out from other horror fare of the time.

I also think the film benefits from the atmospheric score by the late great Les Baxter of AIP Poe-film fame, as well as the rich use of actual Mississippi locations.

In addition, I think there's more going on with and about my character (other than the eventual transformation scene) than a single viewing might make apparent. See it again at a better time of day and I think you'll find more there to appreciate.

From my perspective as an actor, I particularly enjoyed the first scene with Tom Laws where I'm possessed by the spirit of my biological father, Billy Connors, as well as the later scene where I go to Amanda's house to persuade her to leave.

And, as an unusual acting challenge, I appreciated the two hospital scenes PRIOR to the actual transformation where I first warn of what's coming, plead with them to kill me, and then go into a violent seizure.

A medical doctor was actually there on set at the time, observing the filmimg, and told me afterward that it was a spot-on accurate simulation of real seizures he had witnessed first-hand. And I couldn't ask for a better compliment than that. (I recall using my memories of Nicholson's electro-shock scene in 'Cuckoo's Nest' as additional inspiration at the time.)

As a point of interest, in addition to some nifty celeb reactions I've personally gotten over the years re. 'Beast' -- Queen Latifah memorably comes to mind -- Rue Morgue Magazine which is highly respected in the horror field for its atypical intellectual breadth, chose 'Beast' and 'Communion' (which I'm also in) as two of their '100 Essential Alternative Horror Films' in a cover article a couple years back (though I don't consider 'Communion' to be horror, per se).

And, lastly, 'Beast' gets an in-depth (and very positive) analysis in Welch Everman's entertaining book 'Cult Horror Films', and John Stanley in his classic Leonard-Maltin-style 'Creature Features Movie Guide' said "One of the film's virtues is the bravura acting by Paul Clemens, who conveys the teenager's demonic pain without make-up in early scenes." And there was an even better review in Hollywood Reporter which I don't have on hand at the moment.

Still, while I don't consider 'Beast Within' to be my finest work as an actor, I'm very fond of it nonetheless, and feel I did solid, honest work, despite being periodically smothered in blood, goo, and various prosthetics! (lol)

Anonymous said...

Hope they will make six sequels of 'beast within' soon, and do the same special makeup air-bladders effects. They could even add fifty or sixty more air-bladders fx on each of the films.

Edward said...

If theres any new good professional directors, producers, actors, and good professional special makeup effects co-producers they really should make thousands of horror monster beast movies similar to the 80's horror films 'the beast within,' 'american werewolf in london,' 'the thing,' and especially 'the howling.' I really LOVE the real special makeup effects from the 80's and early 90's, and I love the Monster Transformations scenes. I would love to see billions of other guys transform into different horrible monsters.

Edward said...

BEAST WITHIN is another monster mutation film and I give this one a grade 'A' plus for this special makeup effects. Love how the way the boy's face skins swells and expanding out while he was transforming into beast.

My final opinion is the other new HOLLYWOOD directors, and producers should continue doing the real special makeup effects on the new upcoming horror movies. When I first saw 'BEAST WITHIN' my heart was beeping little faster just waiting for a boy to change.

The 1980 film 'THE HOWLING' did the best Transformation scene. Rick Baker's makeup fx was a remarkable work, and the BEAST WITHIN was the second best work and I'm looking forward to the 'Beast Within' sequels soon. They also should have them way the four teenage boys transform into twice as horrible monsters and do hundreds of more makeup air-bladders fx. Can't wait for thousands of more upcoming horror creature mutation movies.

Anonymous said...

I loved 'The Beast Within' and really want to get it on BluRay. It would be great too if it was a "special edition" maybe features the out-takes and a doccumentry of the making of the movie. And if Paul and Philippe are still reading hese boards, can they please sign my DVD???

Anonymous said...

The boy's painful transformation was so horrifying and cool!!! They have got to do many 'beast within' sequels and soon. And they really got to do the same special makeup effects only add almost a hundred more air-bladders effects to make the transformations even more horrifying, I don't mind if they use different actors to play these roles but I do think they should make the sequels just as good as the (1982) 'The Beast Within.'

Tim Rockwell said...

What a treat to read the comments here from Mora and Clemens. This film is something of a guilty pleasure for me being a fan of the genre and body-horror in particular. The transformation scene is clearly the centerpiece of the film but a solid narrative was built around it supported by performances that really attempt to sell the outlandish material. And the whole thing just feels icky. They certainly don't make them like this anymore.

I would love to see the original cut. I always felt like there were sections of the film that went too long without any real shocks and that the exact nature of Michael's affliction and what led up to it was never fully explored. Nonetheless, in it's historical context I consider it a classic of the genre.

Thank you for sharing your memories of the film.

Anonymous said...

You are an excellent actor. Thank you for your work and dedication in this film.