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Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #413

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Number of Views: Two
Release Date: February 12, 1982
Sub-Genre: Monster Movie
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $7,700,000
Running Time: 90 minutes
Director: Philippe Mora
Producers: Harvey Bernhard, Gabriel Katzka
Screenplay: Tom Holland, Danilo Bach (uncredited)
Based on The Beast Within by Edward Levy
Special Effects: Thomas R. Burman, Garry Elmendorf
Cinematography: Jack L. Richards
Score: Les Baxter
Editing: Robert Brown, Bert Lovitt
Studio: Katzka
Distributors: MGM/UA Entertainment Co., Warner Home Video, Shout! Factory
Stars: Ronny Cox, Bibi Besch, Paul Clemens, Don Gordon, R.G. Armstrong, Katherine Moffat, L.Q. Jones, Logan Ramsey, John Dennis Johnston, Ron Soble, Luke Askew, Meshach Taylor, Boyce Holleman, Natalie Nolan Howard, Malcolm McMillin, Fred D. Meyer

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Suggested Audio Candy:

Les Baxter The Beast Within

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1982 was a bumper year for horror. Amongst the top-tier genre flicks all vying for attention were The Thing, Creepshow, Poltergeist, Cat People, Basket Case, and the grossly underrated Halloween III: Season of The Witch. Even more relevant here were two movies which surfaced the year previous. An American Werewolf in London and The Howling both led the way in 1981 with regards to superb transformation sequences and featured make-up effects way ahead of their time. They moved the goalposts for film-makers and Phillipe Mora’s The Beast Within was one lesser known example of the inspiration they had on the industry at the time.

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The brief was simple. Rookie screenwriter Tom Holland, who went on to write the superior Psycho II and direct Fright Night and Child’s Play amongst others, was already an established actor with almost twenty years of experience under his belt and he was offered the chance to adapt The Beast Within from Edward Levy’s 1981 novel of the same name but given precious little to go on other than that the studio wished to include a transformation sequence similar to the ones which provided John Landis and Joe Dante’s films cult status. The resulting film performed reasonably well at the box office before disappearing largely without trace although its simple, striking box art ensured it a brief run on VHS and a fair degree of cult status en route to the bargain bin.

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Parisian Mora has something of a checkered résumé which includes Christopher Walken’s 1989 vehicle Communion as well as the much maligned Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch and insipid The Marsupials: The Howling III. This was, in no way, culpable of the crimes that his two werewolf misfires committed on our senses and actually holds up remarkably well to this day. There were no lycanthropes here and, instead, something pretty unique in that offered us our very first and only were-cicada. The cicada is a fairly insignificant insect with bug eyes, colloquially known as the locust. Ordinarily these nonentities are hazardous only to crops and are considered something of a delicacy in Asia and Latin America. However, throw a dash of puberty into the mix and they suddenly become your very worst enemy.

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Hapless teen Michael MacCleary (Paul Clemens) never stood a chance from the moment he was conceived. When his newlywed parents Eli (Ronny Cox) and Caroline (Bibi Besch) suffered car trouble while passing through Mississippi en route for their honeymoon and Eli wandered off to get help, his wife was attacked and viciously raped by an unknown creature and, seventeen years later (the lifespan of a cicada), the product of this molestation began to exhibit disparaging signs that he may well be daddy’s boy after all. His parents decided to return to the scene of the hideous crime in an attempt to learn more about the other side of his heritage and promptly wished they hadn’t.

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While clearly the goal was to cash in on the current trend for werewolf movies and the like, The Beast Within bared more in common with the fifties monster movies which Holland likely grew up watching. Despite a premise which grew increasingly more ludicrous as the film wore on, the ensemble cast played it straight and the final half hour showcased the talent of FX maestro Thomas R. Burman whose credits included Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Manitou, Prophecy, My Bloody Valentine, plus the aforementioned Halloween III and Cat People. His work here was excellent given the budgetary constraints and the infamous transformation scene, whilst hilarious in the extreme and no match for the momentous work of Rick Baker or Rob Bottin, was still a sight to behold.

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Moreover, Mora managed to build a fair amount of tension, considering the creature of the title should really only have been a direct threat to farmers’ crop cycles. The performance from Clemens was spirited in the extreme and he really went all in, while his character remained likeable enough to empathize with as he battled his inner demons throughout to ultimately no avail. There was also a distinct Lovecraftian flavor to proceedings, never more so than with the naming of certain key characters, and the village was chock full of mystery and native American intrigue. Les Baxter’s score fitted snugly, while the cinematography by Jack L. Richards made the very best of the elements at his disposal. Dense fog enveloped our screen and Mora’s lens cut through the haze quite brilliantly on occasion.

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Clearly it was preposterous and never destined to amass the cult following of its contemporaries. When you consider this appeared around the time that John Carpenter’s The Thing was circulating, its chances of standing out were dramatically lessened. However, as a film evocative of its era, The Beast Within is deserving of far more plaudits than have ever been lavished upon it. It’s a creature feature, plain and simple, a good old-fashioned rollick through the misty bayous of Mississippi with a lot of heart and some genuinely effective chills. Films such as this and William Sachs’ equally overlooked The Incredible Melting Man formulated my filmic upbringing and, while interspecies rape was a theme which has continued to bear fruit since, no other film had the audacity to feature a woman defiled by what was essentially a randy cricket. Now if that’s not innovation, then I don’t know what is.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Thankfully, Michael’s cannibalistic tendencies belied the culinary habits of the crop-munching cicada and he had a ball at the expense of any fringe players, ripping out throats, guzzling grue, and plucking off heads like pustulous pimples. As for the moment where he finally embraced his bloodline, it was a wonderfully protracted scene rendered all the more delightful by the fact that any concerned onlookers stood around gormlessly for the full five minutes it took for him to shed his skin and transform into what resembled a malignant pumpkin. Burman’s FX in this instance may not have held up to the greats, but they were still something to marvel at.

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Read The Howling Appraisal

Read An American Werewolf in  London Appraisal

Read The Thing (1982) Appraisal

Read Fright Night (1985) Appraisal

 

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Copyright: Crimson Quill: Savage Vault Enterprises 2015

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