I’ve tried hard over the years to better understand THE BEAST WITHIN (1982). Heck, I even coerced myself recently to read the same-titled novel it’s loosely based on thinking that might help me fathom it further. (It’s by Edward Levy and I secretly loved it.) Both the book and the movie involve a man who is chained in a cellar and subjected to a tortuous existence, feeding on rats and human flesh. His ordeal is such that he physically converts into a subhuman beast who eventually escapes, rapes a woman and passes his acquired depravity onto the resulting offspring. The child is seemingly fine for a while but eventually the inherited malevolence breaks through. In the book, the transformation involves traditional werewolf or demonic possession motifs and in the movie, the poor guy turns into a cicada. Don’t laugh! I think that’s well, original and the cicada’s 17-year stagnation period fits in nicely with parents and teenagers’ anxiety about the changes that come with adulthood, you know, the natural morphing of sweet obedient children into those terrible creatures with their own ideas! Plus, cicadas are gross, shed skeletal husks and chirp that terrible tune! They certainly do deserve an invite to the horror table.
Only it doesn’t really work. It’s a big jump going from a man turning into a feral brute and a man transforming into an ugly loudmouth grasshopper and THE BEAST WITHIN doesn’t quite have the springboard legs to achieve the leap. I’d blame the script but how can I when it’s from the pen of TOM HOLLAND of PYSCHO II, FRIGHT NIGHT and CHILD’S PLAY fame? I have to assume something larger went haywire during production although I guess talent has been known to hibernate on occasion too. One rumor I came across stated that about a half hour of filming was lost and that they had to move ahead regardless which would explain much but not everything. Besides the movie mumbling and muttering its way past the dubious cicada issue (if you listen closely black magic band-aids are placed over the hole), there’s still the frustrating problem of having barrels of exposition and little of it useful. And then there’s the beast itself who, when caught at the wrong angle, looks less like an insect and more like drunk E.T.
Don’t get me wrong I fucking adore the special effects in this movie. They are over-the-top outlandish, freakiskly fantastic and deliciously squishing, especially in the traffic-stopping transformation scene. It’s just that the monster in its fully evolved form is a bug-eyed goon in a wobbly rubber suit…not that he doesn’t give good decapitations. So why do I keep returning to this flick when I’m fully aware of its limitations and why would a rational person expect it to be anything other than its crazy self knowing that it’s directed by the same dude (PHILIPPE MORA) who dosed the world with THE HOWLING 2 & 3 and my personal favorite brain-exploder COMMUNION?
No matter its disjointed nature, THE BEAST WITHIN has a weird, off-putting apprehensive vibe. Maybe that’s just residue from my own trepidation after succumbing to its effective “WE DARE YOU TO WATCH THIS!” advertising campaign thirty years ago or maybe it’s due to the swampy, sleazy, southern-fried insanity setting- I don’t know. It’s also got a great cast. RONNY COX and BIBI BESCH make nice, sympathetic parents and the rouges gallery of creepy local residents is gonzo strong with DON GORDON, LOGAN RAMSEY and JOHN DENNIS JOHNSTON. (If you don’t recognize their names, you’ll recognize their faces) An I WAS A TEENAGE CICADA movie would be bound to the ground without a decent actor playing the teenage cicada and PAUL CLEMENS does an admirable job and is remarkably adapt at melding himself with some seriously heavy make-up. Really, the way he contorts his face into unnerving expressions makes some of the lesser effect reliant scenes the strongest and I’d bet LON CHANEY would give him a thumbs up (after he threw-up).
I’ll always be a tad disappointed in this movie’s inability to state its case in a less jumbled manor but if you invite the right people to the right place, can’t you still have fun even if cohesiveness is a no show? I think we all know I can. THE BEAST WITHIN is a monster movie and monster movies can get away with dancing around with a lampshade on their head especially if that head is committed to expanding to ten times its size in the finale. That’s a party in my book and if I have to crawl around in the dark to get there so be it.