The Beast Within (1982) is a pretty terrible, at times unsavory, but slickly-made horror film with an especially good cast of character actors. You might not recognize Ronny Cox, Bibi Besch, Don Gordon, R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Logan Ramsey, John Dennis Johnston, and Luke Askew by name but if you watched TV or went to the movies during the 1970s these were faces practically impossible to avoid. Suggested by Edward Levy's horror novel but mainly an original work by screenwriter Tom Holland (Psycho II, Fright Night), The Beast Within is a confusing mess of a movie, mixing a predominantly serial-killer-on-the-loose plot with spiritual possession, cannibalism, bestiality (sort of) and a gruesome monster rampage near the end that feels shoehorned and makes even less sense than what came before. Apparently several explanatory scenes were cut by distributor United Artists, but it's hard to imagine how any narrative sense could be gleamed from such a disjointed genre hybrid.
Scream Factory's Blu-ray is, however, exceptional, featuring as it does an impressively clean 1080p transfer of this Panavision-Dolby Stereo release, the remixed DTS-HD Master Audio coming off particularly well.
In 1964 rural Mississippi, after dark, newly married Eli MacCleary (Ronny Cox, who also provided the film's country songs) accidentally drives his car into a ditch. He leaves new bride Caroline (Bibi Besch) and their dog alone in the car while he wanders off to go get help. A strange, hairy creature viciously kills the dog and brutally rapes Caroline, though she survives.
Seventeen years later, their son Michael (Paul Clemens, real-life son of actress Eleanor Parker), born of that rape, inexplicably lies gravely ill, doctors unable to treat his mysterious illness. Strangely, both parents abandon their son to travel back to Nioba, Mississippi, the small town nearest to where Caroline had been raped years before, hoping to locate Michael's biological father to get his medical history. Equally strangely, to achieve this they pretend to be writers researching a book on small-town crime.
Several townsfolk are suspicious of the couple's motives, as well they might. Newspaper publisher Edwin Curwin (Logan Ramsey), local Judge Curwin (Don Gordon), a relative of Edwin's, and undertaker Dexter Ward (Luke Askew) all are pretty evasive to the couple's probing, though Sheriff Poole (L.Q. Jones) and Doc Schoonmaker (R.G. Armstrong) prove helpful.
Michael meanwhile, clearly possessed by his mother's monster rapist, sneaks out of the hospital, (apparently) steals a car, and instinctively drives all the way to Nioba where, pretending to be a local delivery boy, gains access into Edwin Curwin's house, where he murders and mutilates him. A short time later, Michael collapses outside the home of Amanda Platt (Katherine Moffat), who lives with her abusive father, Horace (John Dennis Johnston).
Some of the time the boy appears almost normal but when possessed he becomes pasty-faced, his teeth go bad, and the lad develops an insatiable appetite for human flesh. All this somehow relates to Billy's biological father, a once ordinary man named Billy Connors, who turned to shaman magic to resurrect himself through Michael. The Curwins, apparently, years before locked Billy in a cellar after an alleged infidelity with one of their wives, starved him, and then made him turn cannibal after tossing his lover's dead body into the cellar with him. She became his only source of nourishment, though that doesn't explain his insatiable lust for blood since then.
(Spoilers) The possession aspect of the story doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of sense, and things really get loopy once Billy is reborn, bursting through Michael's tortured body like The Manster (1962). While the special make-up is effectively gruesome, the inhuman monster Michael/Billy becomes is also almost cartoonishly silly. Some of the time, its appearance reminded me of the sea-swallowing sibling of the classic children's book The Five Chinese Brothers:
As monsters go, the beast within isn't very scary. Also oddly, after Michael dies and everyone is either chasing after the creature or running away from it, Eli and Caroline, Michael's parents, barely react to their son's horrific demise. In the forest they come across what looks like the upper-part of a torso caught in some tree branches, which turns out to be what's left of the dead Michael's remains: the reborn Billy shed like a snake. Regarding this, Eli and Caroline express mild interest. Alternately, the movie is unpleasant at times, particularly in the way it attempts to simultaneously horrify and titillate its audience in its violent sexual assaults against women.
On the plus side, Les Baxter's old-fashioned musical score, his last, is a pleasant surprise, and despite the unappetizing material the game cast deserves an "E" for effort. Ramsey spends half of his part playing a corpse with his eyes and mouth stitched shut, while Don Gordon wears a creepily awful toupee for most of the film, only to be revealed as a Lex Luthor-like baldy near the end. (Gordon shaved his head for real.)
Video & Audio
The movie may be lousy but MGM's 1080p transfer provided to Scream Factory of this Panavision production is excellent, basically a flawless, optimized representation. The elements are in great shape, and both color and contrast are good. Originally released in Dolby Stereo, the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix is also quite good, with clever directional use of (electronic-sounding) cicadas being particularly noteworthy. The disc is Region A encoded.
Supplements include two audio commentary tracks, one with director Philippe Mora and actor Clemens, the other with screenwriter Tom Holland. There are also radio spots and a trailer, not in great shape, but which does a good job selling the picture.
The story is disjointed and frequently ludicrous but The Beast Within is a lot more polished than most modest-to-low-budget horror films of this era. Not good, but just interesting enough that horror fans will want to have a look, especially via this particularly fine presentation. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.