John Dennis Johnston
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The Beast Within (1981)
22nd Mar 04
Its 1968. Two newlyweds (Catherine and Eli) journey through a rainy night just outside Nioba – Heart of Dixie. When they get stuck in mud, Eli goes off to find help, leaving his lady wife in the car with their trusty dog. The dog runs out into the night, and Catherine follows. The dog is killed and Catherine is then raped by the heinous dog-murdering beast. 17 years later, Eli and Catherine return to the small town of Nioba to find out just what happened that night. Their 17 year old son, Michael, is critically ill in hospital with an “occult malignancy” and a “chemical imbalance” in his brain, and they suspect that this may not be Eli’s son, but the son of whoever (or whatever) raped Catherine 17 years ago. Eli is obviously highly suspicious and deep down, he knows this to be the case. They begin to investigate town records and asking questions but locals are none to pleased with their meddling ways and they’re obviously all hiding some dark secret. Horrible murders then occur in the town, and Michael begins to change into something you really wouldn’t want to go for a drink with…
The Beast Within is quite difficult to define. It’s not quite a slasher film, and not quite a werewolf film, but its ALL monster hickflick. Yes folks, it slots firmly into that sub genre of horror moves we all love so much, set in the deep south, with unreasonable, corrupt, inbred, and downright unpleasant cast of characters. Interestingly, Eli McLeary is played by Ronnie Cox who featured in the best-ever of backwoods-set films: Deliverance. More on casting later. The film revolves around Caroline and Eli’s pursuit of the truth about what secret the town of Nioba is hiding, and Michael’s unsuspected killing spree and subsequent evolution into the Beast.
There was obvious financing behind The Beast Within. It’s got a cast of familiar faces. Ronny Cox as Eli. RG Armstrong (veteran actor from Sam Peckinpah films – oh, and Children of the Corn as the old gas station owner) gives a good performance as the town Doctor. LQ Jones, who you might also remember from Peckinpah films, plays the town Sheriff. You will also recognise John Dennis Johnson as the father of the girl Michael has a crush on from such moves as Annie Hall, 48 Hours, Streets of Fire, Pale Rider, and the like. He plays the most hateful character in the film – Horace Platt - who you want to kill but there’s something so ridiculous about his character’s rage that we can not take him seriously. Paul Clemens plays Michael, and suffice to say he’s not very pleasant to look at. He has incredibly bad hair too, hair so bad you could make a horror film about the hair alone, (The Hair Within?) but we could always blame that on the period – 1981. Clemens is slightly nauseating at times, but his half-beast grimace is convincing enough.
Which brings me onto the main point of this film – its finale. The beginning of the end of The Beast Within starts with Michael’s metamorphosis. This scene really is somewhat spectacular to look at and will satisfy most gorehounds the world over. The effects in the film were done by Thomas R. Burman (Halloween 3:The Season of the Witch, Cat People-1982, Teen Wolf). The ‘change’ involves very gory latex bladder effects to show Michael’s head and back expanding to release … wait for it…The Beast Within! He develops what looks like a penis-tongue which is not very nice to look at. His head expands in all directions and becomes bigger than a football; we really can’t work out what it is he’s changing into! This occurs whilst on a hospital bed, and of course, everyone just stands around watching with their mouths wide open, until he breaks the straps and is shot twice. This makes him incredibly angry (“real mad” – hickspeak) and he kills Horace Platt – without a doubt the one character you wish a most horrible death upon! The beast is on the loose…and justice is done. Kind of…
This film is worth seeing for horror fans but by no means a classic. It’s a major studio attempt at a genre-blending of horror traditions, and it does an ok job and looks reasonably expensive. But basically it’s a monster hickflick with some dodgy acting. It does keep you guessing though, and you’ll want to see it through until the end to find out ‘the truth’.