Beyond the fear of the stranger lurking in the dark, the danger of the unknown, if there is one theme which has recurred in horror literature and film more than any other, through Robert Louis Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde to the many iterations of werewolves to The Quatermass Experiment, from William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist to Graham Masterton’s The Manitou and Clive Barker‘s Cabal, all later filmed, it is the loss of self to something monstrous, something uncontrollable within; even the work of Poe, Lovecraft and Jackson, though less focused on physical transformation, are plagued by the fear of loss of identity to madness.
Before his later success with the screenplays which became Psycho II, Fright Night and Child’s Play, former actor Tom Holland had written several speculative scripts which had brought him to the attention of producer Harvey Bernhard who asked him to create an adaptation of Edward Levy’s then unpublished The Beast Within. Holland made liberal changes to the novel, moving the focus from the long history of the families to the physical transformation of the title character, creating a showcase for what it was hoped would be groundbreaking effects within the horror genre.
Another change was the shift of period from the 1920s to a contemporary setting, more relatable to an audience and less expensive to produce, though the opening scenes take place in the relatively recent past, Nioba, Mississippi in 1964, as newlywed Eli and Caroline MacCleary (Ronny Cox and Bibi Besch with her plastic hair) set out on their honeymoon only to run aground in a ditch when they miss the turnoff to their destination.
As Eli walks back to town to fetch a tow truck, the sinister pulsating soundtrack growing in strength as the moon rises, something prowls through the trees, closing in on the car stuck in the mud and the unsuspecting Caroline, attacking her and dragging her into the woods. Eli arrives back to find Caroline, naked and unconscious in the forest; carrying her to relative safety of the truck, they drive away at speed, the tail lights vanishing into the darkness…
Jackson, Mississippi, seventeen years later, Carol’s teenage son Michael has fallen seriously ill with “a chemical imbalance, an occult malignancy in his system,” the doctors unable to diagnose the cause, hoping to control his condition but unable to reverse it. “I don’t want my son sustained, I want him cured!” Eli barks, but Caroline is direct and pragmatic, knowing that the identity of the attacker may offer clues to Michael’s sudden affliction if the condition is inherited. “Seventeen years ago I was attacked, and nothing is going to change that fact.”
Returning to Nioba with a cover story that they are researching a book on violent crime in the area, they try to obtain information on the night Caroline was attacked but find little help from newspaper editor Edwin Curwin or the local judge, also a member of the Curwin family, though they discover that a mutual relative of the two men, the despised town undertaker, was savagely killed that same night. Fortunately the police are more forthcoming, Sheriff Brand informing them that “Lionel Sherwin was ripped to pieces and his house set on fire. It’s been quiet as a graveyard ever since.”
Plagued by dreams, Michael makes his own way to Nioba where he is drawn first to the ruins of Lionel Curwin’s house then to the home of Edwin Curwin where he is compelled to bloody violence before stumbling into the night, collapsing outside the house of Amanda Platt, a distant cousin of the Curwin family. Taken to the hospital he is advised to rest, but the next day while spending time with Amanda, her dog finds a severed arm in the woods, and suddenly the long years of quiet in Nioba are over.
Never widely distributed in Britain upon original release but recently released on Blu-ray by Arrow Films, the principal weakness is the focus on the transformation of Michael, a bias which carries over into the supporting features where it is the main topic of discussion. That may have been how the film was initially sold first to the studio and then to audiences but three decades later the sequence doesn’t hold up against the more celebrated contemporary works The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, released the previous year, or John Carpenter‘s The Thing, released in June 1982 only four months after The Beast Within.
That unbalances an otherwise competent but mediocre film which is lifted tremendously by the strength of the cast assembled by director Philippe Mora, the best known of whom are the lead characters Eli and Caroline MacCleary, Ronny Cox and Bibi Besch. Cox, a veteran of Deliverance who now concentrates more on his music than acting, is well remembered for his two collaborations with Paul Verhoeven as ruthless OCP Senior President Dick Jones in RoboCop and corrupt governor Vilos Cohaagen of the Mars Colony in Total Recall as well as a year long residency at St. Elsewhere, while Besch’s thirty year career encompassed a key role in Tremors and many major shows of the era including The Rockford Files, Charlie’s Angels, The Six Million Dollar Man, Hart to Hart, Scarecrow and Mrs King and Remington Steele.
Remembered with great warmth, affection and sadness by her co-stars in the accompanying documentary, the lovely Ms Besch died in 1996 aged only fifty six.
The residents of Nioba are all experienced character actors largely drawn from classic television, particularly the western and science fiction genres; L Q Jones (Sheriff Bill Pool) and R G Armstrong (Doctor Schoonmaker) both had many appearances on Laramie, Rawhide and Gunsmoke, with Armstrong also known for Race With the Devil and a recurring role on Millennium. Don Gordon (Judge Curwin) was seen in The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Invaders, John Dennis Johnston (Amanda’s frightened and abusive father Horace Platt) had roles in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Nightmare at 20,000 Feet segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie and St. Elsewhere while Luke Askew (mortician Dexter Ward, a nod to Lovecraft’s Strange Case of…) is known for Easy Rider.
Of the two youngsters finding love among the corpses, already a five year television veteran, Katherine Moffat’s Amanda is earnest and fully present, but Paul Clemens’ Michael isn’t a natural, his tendency to go RAAAAWR! rather than act undermining his already unfortunate makeup. Already a fan of horror, Clemens describes his casting in the film as “a dream come true” and insisted that it was he who performed in costume as the monster, though at the time he didn’t know what he was letting himself in for, wryly recalling “that was an adventure.”
Describing the location shoot near Jackson, Moffat says the isolation of the small town made it “really easy to climb into character” and that “there was a lot of camaraderie between the crew and the cast… we had a lot of fun,“ laughing at the memory of how convincing her carefully rehearsed Southern accent was to the inhabitants who were impressed by a “local girl like you in a big Hollywood movie.”
Both John Dennis Johnston and Moffat and praise Mora’s direction, Johnston saying “he’s fast, he’s creative, he’s brave,” with Moffat adding “Philippe was one of us.” Though occasionally the film is overwrought, the cicadas on the soundtracks a sound effect in lieu of exposition which writer Holland explains never made it to the film, many scenes are atmospheric, undoubtedly enhanced by the soundtrack from jazz and easy listening composer Les Baxter who established a fine sideline in horror including House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum, the US release of Black Sunday and The Dunwich Horror.
Gently underplayed, the discovery of the bones by the river is a sinister scene; though they have no concept of forensic science, with the remains lining up the police are admirably proactive in getting townspeople to help, even a stranger like Eli, but their feeble hope that it is a civil war grave or an Indian burial ground washed out by rain is dissolved when Doctor Schoonmaker recognises a replacement hip which he himself installed.
The straight approach to the discovery of the bodies is undermined by the hysteria of the transformation, Moffat pointing out “we were at the cutting edge of what effects were doing at the time,” while Holland admits “the state of the art was primitive,” though much superior to the appliances Clemens suffered are the prosthetics of body parts and shed skin hanging in the trees, as is the stunt work, an area horror films generally don’t specialise in.
With a trailer which boasted “the film-makers strongly suggest that those who may be shocked by this unique, horrifying movie use caution when seeing the film,” an additional feature is the inclusion of storyboards which Mora created so the studio could fully envision and approve his intentions, including the opening in which Caroline is raped.
Despite Mora‘s stated intention that the scene should be “sensitive,” Caroline is treated like a piece of meat, the only possible defence being that it may perhaps have been considered less brutal having her unconscious rather than awake, screaming and struggling, though overall both Besch and Moffat’s characters are more emancipated than the standard female model of the genre at the time, low budget horror being notoriously exploitive of women.
Though by no means a classic of the horror genre, The Beast Within is of particular interest to fans of Star Trek, with a plethora of supporting actors from the many guises of that show present: Bibi Besch is fondly remembered as Doctor Carol Marcus in The Wrath of Khan, a role recreated for Star Trek Into Darkness, Ronny Cox was the frosty Captain Edward Jellico who replaced Captain Picard in the Star Trek The Next Generation story Chain of Command, Logan Ramsay (Edwin Curwin) was Procounsel Claudius Marcus in Bread and Circuses, Ron Soble (Billy Corwin’s friend Tom Laws) was Wyatt Earp in Spectre of the Gun and Katherine Moffat not only almost captured the USS Enterprise when she tricked the crew of Star Trek The Next Generation into playing The Game but later tried to have Quark killed when the crew of Deep Space Nine learned about Necessary Evil.