The Beast Within is an ambitious monster movie that attempts to explore the metaphorical ghosts lingering over the atrocities committed by the residents of a small, noxiously chummy Southern town, and whose collective closets obviously symbolize the troubled historical legacy of the American South at large. A blip on Mississippi’s map, the fictional Nioba appears to be populated by roughly half-dozen people, each of whom is representative of an expected tenant of social corruption: There’s an unethical newspaper man, a venal undertaker, a devious judge, an abusive lout of a father, etc. But the facet of the town that prevails above all others is its impression of vast, dusty emptiness, as if it collapsed under the weight of its own prevailing guilt.
The film opens in the late 1960s with newlyweds Eli and Caroline MacCleary (Ronny Cox and Bibi Besch) driving through on their way to their honeymoon. Their car breaks down on a textbook-creepy country road in the middle of the night and Caroline is subsequently raped by a creature out of the woods after Eli inexplicably leaves her alone to fetch help. Flash-forward to the early 1980s, and the couple’s son, Michael (Paul Clemens), finds himself hospitalized for vaguely defined problems with his pituitary gland. Michael was conceived on the night of the rape, of course, and soon he’s drawn back to Nioba to settle some scores while growing into his bad new monster self.
It’s a promising idea with which to launch a horror film, and a few highbrow references to other genre writers (one doesn’t get the impression that a character is called Dexter Ward by accident) subtly affirm director Philippe Mora and screenwriter Tom Holland’s ambition to spin a morally complicated mystery rather than another formulaic tale of monster hijinks. But the plot never comes alive and, despite the pretensions on display, The Beast Within never particularly distinguishes itself from any other random poorly written monster movie, apart from maybe a heightened emphasis on exposition that’s meant to eventually pave the way for a series of creature money shots that don’t turn out to be any good anyway. Further dampening the mood is the disappointingly incoherent solution to the central mystery of Michael’s actual parentage, which pointlessly complicates what could have been a simple and efficient narrative through line.
The Beast Within isn’t as bad as its reputation suggests (there’s some atmosphere to burn and an impressive gallery of supporting character actors), but it’s really only for blossoming cinephiles and horror aficionados looking to finish their essays on “Key Moments in the Evolution of Bladder Effects” or “Lost Children: The Unofficial Film Adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft and Henry Kuttner” or “Psychosexual Ramifications of Bestiality in the 1980s American Horror Film.” Everyone else would be well-advised to mine the sentiment expressed on the film’s cover art: “Beware.”
Another terrific transfer from Shout! Factory. Blacks are richly delineated and grain texture and image clarity are strong. And the English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo lends Les Baxter’s occasionally eerie, often overbearing score a good amount of nuance and sonic oomph, while rendering the subtler details such as whispers and the snapping of woodland twigs with care and precision.
There are two audio commentaries, one by director Philippe Mora and actor Paul Clemens, and another by screenwriter Tom Holland. Both are enjoyably informal, conversational, and amusingly given to rationalizing the film’s problems (both attempt to explain its undeniable incoherence with the old saw about the necessity for dramatic ambiguity). If you have to pick just one, go with Mora and Clemens’s, as Holland’s tends to waver a little on the blowhardy side in the tradition of his other commentaries for Shout!, but he’s still a weathered industry veteran with a number of interesting tales from the horror-movie trenches. Finishing the package is the theatrical trailer.
Fans of the ever-rare "were-cicada" strand of horror film can now own the entire subgenre with this well-produced package from Shout! Factory.