Saturday, July 23, 2011

#112: The Beast Within (Philippe Mora, 1982)

If we've learned anything from the movies, we know we should never leave a man or woman behind when we go off to get help. Let's isolate one of many scenarios. (Assume we're in the days before cell phones, unless you're a phone-hating Luddite like me.) You and your lovely wife and loyal dog are driving down the road in an unfamiliar area. It's dark. You miss your turn. You realize your error, and you swing the car around too fast and drive off the road. As you attempt to reenter the highway, your tires get stuck in some deep, soft gravel. You attempt to get out of it, but you can't. You're stuck hard. The nearest town is less than two miles away, so you walk back to town to get a tow. You leave your lovely wife and dog behind to guard the car. Big mistake, jerk. Why? Because a crazed man-beast KILLS YOUR DOG AND RAPES AND IMPREGNATES YOUR WIFE!!! That's why, sucker.

This is exactly what happens in the early moments of Philippe Mora's The Beast Within, a sleazy little drive-in/midnight/B-movie horror show that is not particularly good, but not too bad. This is the kind of movie horror fans will enjoy, but it is decidedly not the kind of movie that has crossover potential with non-aficionados of the genre. What we have here is little more than plot, gore, a few moments of dark humor, a little atmosphere, a weird cicada metaphor, killings, monster rapes, possession, good and bad southern accents, and weird mutations and transformations. Certainly not a waste of a few hours, but hardly one of the classics.
After the opening scene, The Beast Within moves 17 years into the future. It seems the unfortunate couple decided to keep the monster-rape baby. He's since grown into a nice, normal teenager, but complications have arisen. Shortly after his 17th birthday, his pituitary gland starts going crazy, and he's hospitalized in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. The doctor tells them he doesn't really know why their son is having this problem. He thought it might be genetic, but both parents have been tested and are fine. The mother wants to tell the doctor about the true genetic father of the boy, but pops is still uptight about the whole monster-rape thing and refuses to discuss it. After some pressure from his wife, he decides to relent, to an extent. The couple revisit the town where the horrible incident occurred, Nioba, and conduct some research into the little town's sordid secret history. They pose as journalists writing a book about crime in small town America, but they don't really fool anybody. They do discover that, despite the townsfolk's insistence that there haven't been any serious crimes in Nioba, a man was ripped apart and partially eaten around the time of the rape.

Their son soon escapes from the hospital and wanders Nioba at night, driven by a strange impulse sent to him from beyond the grave by his man-beast father. He's caught and put in the hospital in Nioba. Meanwhile, the couple's journalist story falls apart, but they make a friend in the sheriff and a few enemies in the undertaker, the newspaper editor, and the judge. This town has a dark secret, and everyone is involved. Meanwhile, the son keeps escaping the hospital and raising hell at night. He is then recaptured and put back in the hospital. This happens so often in this film that it moves beyond parody. Soon, members of a prominent family in the town start getting killed. Are any of these dramatic events connected? Why, yes, all of them. Funny you should ask.

Most of these events are all just preamble for the film's final 20 minutes. We get a pretty sweet transformation/mutation scene that owes more than a little to both The Exorcist and An American Werewolf in London. God, I miss non-CGI special effects. Hollywood wastes so much fucking money on catering and marketing schemes and star's salaries and bullshit. Why not blow a little money on master craftsmen making real stuff instead of the oddly textured and unconvincing computer effects that look like they're happening in a different dimension than the rest of the action on screen? Maybe, some day, CGI will look right. Right now, it's a joke and it makes every movie it's in look cheap and shitty. I'm just shouting into a void, I know. I complain about this 100 times a year, and no one will listen. "Hey," some Hollywood exec is not saying right now. "Some semi-employed, occasional substitute teacher is complaining about CGI on his blog. Let's scrap this shit and go back to foam and latex. Get Rick Baker on the horn now. We've got some robots and severed heads to build. Take it out of Shia LaBoeuf's salary. We've given that dope enough money." That will never happen. I just don't get our world sometimes. Why does technology always trump aesthetics? Just because we can do some things doesn't mean we always have to do some things. CGI can suck my ass in hell for all eternity.

Now that I've hit my quota of CGI complaints for the second quarter of 2011, I can resume my review. The Beast Within is loaded with veteran character actors, which may be of some interest for film buffs, but unfortunately does very little with them besides using them to further the plot. Still, it's enjoyable to see so many of them in one film. They include the late Bibi Besch (mother of Samantha Mathis), Ronny Cox, L.Q. Jones, Luke Askew, R.G. Armstrong, Logan Ramsey, Ron Soble, Don Gordon, and Designing Women's Meshach Taylor. Many of these actors have worked with Sam Peckinpah. Meshach Taylor has not. L.Q. Jones and Luke Askew get the best use of their talents out of the mediocre script, but Logan Ramsey also gets a nice moment when his character, so excited about the hamburger he's about to grill before he's attacked, decides to grab a handful of raw beef and eat it as he's being killed. He's not going to let a little thing like being murdered stop him from enjoying his rare meat.

The writing/directing team behind The Beast Within would go on to long careers in the horror genre. Writer Tom Holland later wrote the screenplays for Psycho II and Class of 1984 and wrote and directed Fright Night and Child's Play. Director Philippe Mora is an interesting case. Though his parents are French and he was born in Paris, he's lived most of his life in Australia and was one of the pioneering directors of the Ozploitation scene of independent Australian B-movies in the 1970s and 1980s. He was offered The Beast Within on the basis of his violent 1976 Western, Mad Dog Morgan, one of Dennis Hopper's rare 1970s leading roles during his bridge-burning, drug-fueled insanity period. The producers thought, "Hey, this Mora guy is great with blood and violence and he hasn't worked in a few years so we can probably get him cheap." The movie kicked Mora's career back into gear, and he's worked steadily ever since in two distinct tracks: genre B-movies and documentaries about philosophy, history, art, and culture. His other genre films include The Return of Captain Invincible, Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf, Howling III, Communion, and Pterodactyl Woman from Beverly Hills.

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