The Beast Within
U.S.A. / 1982
Directed by Philippe Mora
Starring
Ronny Cox
Bibi Besch
Paul Clemens
Color / 98 Minutes / R
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
MGM Home Entertainment
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2007 Midnite Movies Edition
Review by
Brian Lindsey
 
5
    5   10 = Highest Rating  
The early 1980s saw a deluge of horror flicks featuring transformation scenes involving elaborate makeup effects. Despite a tenuous grip on logic, The Beast Within a modern day "Southern Gothic" mixing monsters and gore with small town secrets remains one of the best of these. Joe Bob Briggs screened it a number of times (cut to ribbons, of course) on his late-night TNT cable show Monstervision; the film now comes to DVD courtesy of MGM's budget-priced line of "Midnite Movies" discs.
    In 1964 rural Mississippi, the honeymoon of newlyweds Eli and Caroline MacCleary (Cox and Besch) is interrupted when their car bogs down off a wooded country road. While Eli jogs to the nearest town his bride is attacked and raped by an unseen, bestial assailant. She gets pregnant; 17 years later her son Michael (Clemens) is dying from a strange, unknown disease. The doctors are stumped. Caroline convinces Eli, a loving parent who's raised the boy as if he were his own offspring, that they must return to the scene of the crime and try to learn the identity of her attacker. It's their only hope perhaps the genetic makeup of the rapist holds the key to Michael's illness.
    The couple begins their investigation in Nioba, the sleepy Mississippi hamlet near where the attack occurred. Caroline picks up a possible clue in the records of the local newspaper; Eli is immediately suspicious of Judge Curwin, the town's mayor and chief magistrate, who is evasive when asked about events surrounding the crime. Meanwhile Michael
who's been having strange visions of a run-down, abandoned house in the country sneaks away from the Jackson hospital and heads for Nioba on his own, compulsively drawn there by some kind of supernatural summons. When he reaches the town he finds the very same house he'd previously seen only in feverish nightmares. And not long after his arrival, a lot of bodies start turning up...
    As if a Fulci film, it's at this point that logic is tossed completely out the window. The explanations behind Michael's illness and the genesis of the cannibalistic monster just don't make a damn lick of sense. Yet The Beast Within is an enjoyable B-movie horror that stands a notch above the pack, due chiefly to some quality acting. Cox, Besch and Clemens are quite good in the lead roles, going above and beyond the call of the material. Supporting them is a cast of fine character actors: R.G. Armstrong (as Doc, Nioba's kindly physician), craggy cowboy actor L.Q. Jones (Sheriff Pool), Logan Ramsey
(creepy newspaper editor Edwin Curwin), Luke Askew (as undertaker Dexter Ward a nod to H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps?), Ron Soble (Tom, the town drunk), and Don Gordon (wig-wearing Judge Curwin, who knows where the bodies are buried.) A youthful Meshach Taylor (Mannequin, TV's Designing Women) is on hand as Deputy Herbert, apparently Nioba's lone African-American. These performers all lend credibility to the nonsensical proceedings despite some southern accents that don't quite ring true. Actual rural Mississippi locations give the film a measure of authenticity; veteran horror composer Les Baxter's overly melodramatic score even slips in snippets of original country music (heard over the radio), with vocals sung by star Ronny Cox.
    The special effects are sufficiently gruesome and should delight gorehounds. Wisely director Mora keeps the monster, in its final form, mostly in the shadows. However, the transformation scene in the Nioba clinic the supposed highpoint of the film is a prime example of too much of one ingredient nearly spoiling the recipe. The sequence goes on for nearly three minutes, with the attendant crowd of witnesses simply standing there and gawking the whole time at the horror unfolding before them. Not one of them flees the room or starts seriously freaking out. (Demons and The Howling have similarly problematic scenes.) In "reality" not everyone would just stand around and watch while a person horribly and painfully mutates into a hideous, bloodthirsty creature. But in horror/sci-fi films this happens all the time. (Explanation: It's easier to edit a transformation scene when one can cut back and forth between different stages of effects makeup and endless reaction shots of the horrified/disgusted witnesses. Easier, yes but also lazy filmmaking.) NOTE: Some folks might have a problem with two scenes in which women are raped by the monster. Though not sexually explicit, it's plainly obvious what the randy creature is up to.

Like most of MGM's Midnite Movie discs, the company's edition of The Beast Within is a bare bones affair. (Fall of the House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum, which contain audio commentaries, being notable exceptions.) The only extra is the original theatrical trailer. But compared to the muddy, heavily-edited pan and scan version seen on cable television, the blemish-free widescreen transfer presented here (anamorphically enhanced for 16x9 TVs) is like watching an entirely different film. A new Dolby Surround audio mix significantly enhances the mayhem. 8/23/01
UPDATE This disc went OOP a couple of years after this review was written. In September 2007 the exact same transfer was reissued on a flipper disc pairing it with The Bat People (1974).
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