Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Beast Within (1982)

Nioba, Mississippi, 1964: a dark night, a stranded couple, and a barely-glimpsed, dog-eating, raping thing. So begins The Beast Within, directed by Philippe Mora (who later directed several Howling sequels). Seventeen years later, the product of the rape, Michael (Paul Clemens), is suffering from strange dreams and what his doctor thinks is a mysterious pituitary disorder. His parents (Ronny Cox and Bibi Besch) rather optimistically go in search of his real father to try to find some answers. Before long, Michael too is compelled to go in search of his roots, drawn to creepy small-town Nioba. Soon a murder and the discovery of mass graves in the woods stir things up, and then the body count starts to rise. Who was Michael’s real father, and what dark secrets lurk in Nioba’s old rotting houses and eerie swamps?

Mora makes good use of small town and rural southern imagery, and of the creepiness of small town dwellers. Almost every scene is well planned for maximum horror (the camera lingers lovingly on raw meat mixed with ketchup as Michael rips a man’s throat out).

The acting is enjoyable as well. As the tormented Michael, Paul Clemens shines.  His twitchy, shifty mannerisms effectively convey his character’s struggle with the “beast within”, and these combined with subtle makeup effects make him truly scary. In fact, when the beast finally does take over (and the transformation effects are well done, with one of the early uses of air bladders to convey the look of things bursting out from under the skin) the final product isn’t as frightening as the glaring, crazed Michael himself. Also good are Kitty Moffat as the innocent Amanda Platt, the object of Michael’s twisted affection, and John Dennis Johnston as her abusive father. The undertaker, Dexter Ward (Luke Askew), ramps up the creepiness factor. The town drunk (Ron Soble), the doctor (R.G. Armstrong), the judge (Don Gordon), and the cold-eyed sheriff (L.Q. Jones, in one of his many sheriff roles), are all enjoyable if overly-familiar small town characters.

The blaring score by Les Baxter is sometimes overused - silence would evoke more horror. Also, the beast-Michael is creative but oddly cartoonish and unthreatening. Still, the end result is fairly satisfying. The Beast Within may not break much new ground, but it stands out from the crowd. What it does, it does well.

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