One of the clumsiest horror films of the 1980s, notable only for its ludicrously bad special effects, is re-examined.
There’s a tendancy nowadays, with people of a certain age, to hail any horror film of the 1980s as an unquestioned classic. I mean everything – if someone saw it as a teenager, they seem unable to get past that juvenile excitement and look at it anew. The awkward truth is that the 1980s were far from a golden age for horror unless you really like dodgy prosthetics and teen horror, and many of the ‘classics’ of the era are not the masterpieces that many like to claim. They might be fun and maybe that’s enough – but let’s not pretend that everything was brilliant in that decade. Like the music and fashion of the time, 1980s horror has not aged as well as art from other eras.
When I first saw The Beast Within, on its original UK VHS release, I was very disappointed. This was a movie that I’d read about sometime earlier in Fangoria (at that time, it wasn’t that unusual for even heavily-promoted films to take a few years to reach the UK) and had been very much looking forward to. Even the fact that it had taken so long to finally get a release – and then straight to an unheralded video rental release at that – didn’t put me off, because I knew the film had bombed at the US box office and have never equated that sort of failure with a lack of quality. The film seemed to have a pedigree – the director of Mad Dog Morgan, the producer of The Omen and the writer of Psycho 2 – alongside the striking visuals I’d admired. But watching it was a depressing experience. It seemed slow, tedious and clumsy.
Over the years, whenever the film entered my consciousness – and that wasn’t often, I have to admit – I remained aware that my initial disappointment in the film may have coloured my judgement somewhat. When you have high expectations, any film that fails to meet those expectations will inevitably seem worse than it perhaps is. A letdown from high expectations always feels worse than simply seeing some piece of shit that you’d never previously heard of. So when the film re-emerged on Blu-ray, it seemed an ideal chance to view the film afresh, this time without any high hopes. For whatever reason, I still had a feeling that there would be something I’d missed the first time around, some element of the film that had passed me by. Unfortunately, the only thing I found is that, if anything, I had overestimated the film the first time around. This is a terrible movie that has nothing to save it.
The plot of the film is close to being incoherent but boils down to this: a woman is raped and impregnated by a barely-seen monster in the woods. Seventeen years later, the resulting child Michael (Paul Clemens) is going off the rails and suffering from an ‘occult infection’ (“just what kind of doctor are you?” asks an understandably concerned parent after receiving this diagnosis to what seems to be typical teenage pouting) that might kill him. Saving him requires tracking down the real father, so Mom Caroline (Bibi Besch) and ‘Dad’ Eli (Ronny Cox) head back to the scene of the crime, a secretive small town where the locals know more than they are letting on. Meanwhile, Michael is having the hormonal teen changes from hell, seeming to become possessed by his real father and forced to take revenge on those who wronged him (how they did this isn’t explained until the end of the film and turns out to be a cannibal retread of The Beast in the Cellar).
So far, the film is a plodding tale of possession, though whether it is demonic or psychological is perhaps open to question. You might not care about asking that question very much though, as the movie does little to engage your interest. The ‘small town with a dark secret’ theme is one that can still work if it has a new twist, but here, it’s little more than a bunch of shifty stereotypes whose motivations we don’t understand (and which, when finally explained, make little sense). Everyone seems to be going through the motions, and the central character of Michael – presumably supposed to be a sympathetic, tragic figure – is so utterly obnoxious even when ‘normal’ that his mere presence on screen is annoying. Paul Clemens is a singularly unappealing and wooden actor, and the relationship that he forms with local girl Amanda (Kitty Moffat) is entirely unconvincing unless you accept the idea that she is so sheltered that being hit on by this personality-free weirdo appeals to her.
So as a possibly psychological, possibly occult horror with a somewhat rapey subtext (there are two monster rape scenes that involve somewhat gratuitous nudity in the film), The Beast Within is already struggling. But the final act completely jumps the shark, with said internal beast manifesting itself – for no good reason other than because prosthetic monster transformations were big at the time – and then going on a rampage. None of this makes much sense, given that Michael has already been killing under the possessive influence of his demonic daddy without such a physical change overcoming him, but never mind. Perhaps, you might be thinking, the lacklustre film can be salvaged by such a boffo finale. Many a terrible film has been made bearable by ludicrously extravagant special effects set-pieces. Sadly, that is not the case here. In fact, this late twist is the final nail in the coffin, as the transformation features what might be the worst prosthetic effects of the decade (I’ve thought about it for a long time and can’t recall anything quite so bad, though suggestions are welcome). Tom Holland, in the Blu-ray featurette, says that the technology wasn’t up to capturing what he wrote in the screenplay, but if that is the case – and this was the era of An American Werewolf in London, The Thing and so on, so that argument doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny – then why is the scene so ridiculously long and brightly lit? Fast cuts and creatively used shadows could’ve easily made this a bit more effective; as it is, the scene is laughably bad, very visible and goes on forever.
With a ludicrously overwrought score by Les Baxter that sounds like something he might’ve done two decades earlier*, a ludicrous and incomprehensible plot (not helped by heavy edits to the original screenplay) that eventually sets the monster up, laughably, as a were-cicada through some heavy-handed metaphor, utterly disinterested direction by Philippe Mora (who knew how to make trash campy fun, as fans of Howling 2 can attest, but makes no effort whatsoever here) and some terrible acting across the board, The Beast Within is the sort of film that only the most desperate of Eighties horror fanboys could try to retool as a forgotten classic.
- I’m actually a big fan of Baxter’s work, but no one is ever going to call his film scores subtle or tempered.
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