Monday, February 8, 2010

The Beast Within (1981): or, I've Got You Under My Skin

I like to flatter myself that I've seen a lot of movies. Also, that a large number of those movies involve either directly or peripherally some kind of monster, which more often than not is a metaphor for some larger societal concern or truth. I've seen giant lizards that were metaphors for nuclear destruction. I've seen pieced-together, reanimated corpses that were stand-ins for the terror of science run amok. I've seen wolfmen that subbed for the ugly animal instincts at work in even the nicest of men. And I've seen an awful lot of naked sexy lady-loving female vampires that served as signifiers of the fact that I fucking LOVE to see naked sexy lady-loving female vampires.

And of course I've seen my share of flicks where a body-horror nightmare or bestial transformation is used as a metaphor for the passage from childhood to adulthood. Because let's face it--puberty is scary. You're growing hair where it never was before, parts of your body are changing, expanding, and seeming to take on an intelligence all their own, and you become a slave to forces outside your will. For pubescent boys, anyway, it's a short metaphorical leap from ball-drop to Balrog.

Still, in spite of my vast experience in the world of the Monstrous Metaphor, I was still slightly taken aback by its use in Philippe Mora's 1982 feature The Beast Within. I think I can say quite safely that this film puts the teenage sexual urge in a form I had never seen before and don't expect to see again: that of a mutated Giant Cicada-Man.

So yeah--points for originality at least.

"Wait a minute--did you hear banjo music?"

We open, as we so often do, with a pre-credits flashback to a simpler time, when the cars were cooler and the lead actors slathered in pancake make-up. We find ourselves in Nioba, Mississippi, in 1964, following newlyweds Eli MacCleary(top-billed Ronny Cox, star of Deliverance and a buttload of other films) and his blushing bride Caroline (TV veteran Bibi Besch) as they drive through the dark heart of nowhere on their way to who knows what secluded honeymoon spot. Deciding they missed a turn, Eli pulls a u-ie and gets the front wheels stuck on the loose gravel shoulder, then spins his tires till they're buried up to the axle. He decides to walk the three miles or so back to a filling station, insisting that Caroline stay in the car since she's a woman and clearly not up to a leisurely stroll of that distance. After all, she'll only be alone in the woods at night miles from the nearest signs of civilization. What's the worst that could happen?

If you guessed, "She could get attacked and viciously raped by a man-sized monster with a slimy gray exoskeleton," give yourself a cookie! The crime is blamed on local ne'er-do-well Billy Collins, who is quickly shot down by a country posse. The MacClearys leave Nioba, hoping to get on with their marital bliss by never speaking of the wife's horrible rape on their wedding night ever again.

The monster administers CPR: Cicada Penis Rape.

That resolution becomes problematic seventeen years later in Jackson, Mississippi, when Eli and Caroline find themselves at the hospital again, only this time because of a mysterious illness that's plaguing their coincidentally 17-year-old son Michael (Paul Clemens). The doctors are baffled but try to sound like they're not--the chief medical dude calls it "a chemical imbalance--an occult malignancy!" Which has got to be comforting to hear. While his parents worry, Michael has strange, atmospherically filmed dreams about an old house in the woods with something eeevil in the basement. With their son sweaty, rambling, and apparently on death's door, Eli and Caroline decide to go back to Nioba and see if maybe Michael's real father had some kind of condition they should know about.

Things don't go easy in Nioba, however, as the town elders--among them the helmet-haired Judge Curwin (an oddly David Byrne-like Don Gordon), his brother and professional Creepy Old Dude Edwin (Logan Ramsey), and even-creepier town mortician Dexter Ward (Luke Askew)--clearly have something to hide and don't take kindly to outsiders nosing about Nioba's bidness. None of them want to talk about the circumstances around Billy Connors' life or death, a fact that only piques the interest of the MacClearys.

Stop Making Sense

If your ears perked up when you read the names "Curwin" and "Dexter Ward," give yourself another cookie! (But that's the last one--you don't want to lose your girlish figure.) The H. P. Lovecraft nod is intentional, as the rest of the movie plays out as a sort of tonal hybrid of
"Shadow Over Innsmouth" and "The Dunwich Horror." After another vivid dream about the monster in the basement, Michael wakes up from his coma, boosts an Oldsmobile and heads down to Nioba himself, drawn there like a moth to a flame.

Michael first arrives, sweat-soaked and feverish, at the house of Edwin Curwin, to find the paunchy old man in his pajamas and a wife-beater, waiting for the handsome young delivery boy to arrive with his ground chuck. The delivery boy's apparently been stung by the old perv before, though, and left the groceries on the doorstep sometime before Michael arrives. As a result (what are the chances?) Edwin mistakes Michael for the shop-lad and invites him in for his tip. Some very uncomfortable exchanges follow, with Edwin making eyes and Mike and cooing about his clumsiness, "Boys always droppin' things. I guess you play with you yo-self too much!" He takes the creep factor up a notch when he starts making Mike a burger, kneading sauce into it with his bare hand while leering at his toy-boy and snarling, "I like mine RARE!"

"Here you go, son--now, make me feel pretty."

Suddenly the night is filled with the chorus of cicadas, awakening early in the season and startling Edwin so much he barely notices Mike getting even more sweaty and pale. He notices when Mike jumps on him and takes a bite out of his throat, however! This leads to a disquietingly artful shot of the old man's bare feet kicking at the raw hamburger--a sight I remember from seeing the film in the theater in the early 80s, and which has haunted me ever since.

While his parents keep looking for answers, Mike starts making time with local beauty Amanda (Katherine Moffat), daughter of Curwin Cousin and too-demonstrative father Horace Platt (John Dennis Johnston). Love blooms despite or perhaps because of the obstacles Horace puts in Amanda's way. Meanwhile Mike talks to town drunk Tom Laws (Ron Soble) and finds out that Billy Connors was studying ways to become immortal, something to do with the 17-year cycle of cicadas and their periodic "deaths" and rebirths. While this happens Mike takes time out from smooching Amanda to embalm Dexter alive at his funeral home! You know what they say about all play and no work...

"Me penetrated in the morgue? That makes for a switch."

As Judge Curwin gets antsier and antsier about the shrinking size of his family reunion guest list, the truth comes out--the Curwins were instrumental in locking the insane Billy Collins in his old house in the woods, wherefrom he escaped one night 17 years ago just as the MacClearys were passing by. Now re-embodied in Mike's corporeal form, Collins is visiting his vengeance upon his killers. Can Collins be stopped? Can Mike be saved? Can Amanda find love outside the vertebrate order?

The film is enjoyable in many ways, not least because of the atmospheric set design and cinematography. Phillippe Mora has come a ways here from his 1976 Australian bush ranger epic Mad Dog Morgan, and the monster attack scenes and episodes in Collins' house are interesting and creepy to look at. The gore scenes are well-handled as well, from the aforementioned arty ground-beef death to the wall-splattering embalming of Dexter Ward. He even gets to use the often-seen-in-the-80s "pointlessly topless corpse in the morgue" trope, which I never fail to make a note of. There's also a nice nod to Kurosawa, though I'm not sure whether Mora would count his samurai epics as an influence on this film.

You have to imagine it with kimonos.

The acting, however, leaves more to be desired. Cox is the best of a mediocre lot here, but doesn't get a lot to do. Clemens is frankly awful as Michael, and I could never believe a single word out of his mouth or a single attempted emotion on his face. The rest of the cast is kind of a parade of character actors, and the level of commitment and enjoyability in their performances varies widely, with the best probably being Logan's turn as Edwin Curwin. And Designing Women fans can look for Meshach Taylor as the loyal deputy and the only brothah in town.

But the real selling point of this movie--even in the 1980s TV spots--is the show-stopping transformation of Mike into the Cicada Man, which takes place in the Nioba hospital with the young man strapped to a bed and his parents and medical staff watching. Again, I remember being creeped out by this as an eleven-year-old moviegoer, and even though the bladder effects and puppetry are more obvious and cheesy looking now, it is still a standout scene. The final ten minutes of the movie are pretty wild, as Mike sheds his skin (like a cicada!) and then goes on the hunt for Amanda, since the Cicada-Man reproductive cycle is apparently always rape-based. Probably just as well there are so few of them around.

"Does it bug you when I do this?"

As a slice of 80s movie-monster mayhem, The Beast Within is pretty darned entertaining. It does drag in spots, the acting is somewhat questionable, and some of the plot developments don't make much sense (they have to try REALLY hard to get Amanda into a position to be endangered by BugMike, for instance), and the country songs written and performed by Ronny Cox on the soundtrack aren't really my cup of tea. However, for the transformation, some good gore, a bit of wildness and a creepy pervy old man dying with his feet in meat, I give The Beast Within 2.25 thumbs. Trust me, it's the best Rapey Cicada-Creature movie you'll ever see.

Meats and Feets


Anonymous said...

A cicada themed film you say? The first time I ever ventured to the east coast was during cicada season. Coupled with the sci-fi sound they make and dead bodies dropping everywhere, it truly made for an altogether creepy experience.

Anywhos, I'll have to check this out. Great review.

Anonymous said...

P.S. isn't the title of the movie a little deceiving? Shouldn't it be The Insectezoid Within?

Al Bruno III said...

Another fine article. I remember that as a lad I was fascinated with the wildly inflated bladders and untethered ta-tas.

I can tell you that I saw this film and GALAXY OF TERROR on the same night and my adolescence was never the same.

Anonymous said...

I make no bones about it, I love this movie! Great acting, great FX, and a wonderfully pataphysical explanation for the monster's creation. Always wanted an extended version to see what may have been left out of the theatrical cut. Highly recommended.

J. Astro said...

@ Planet Terror: I'm with you. The cover & title for this one makes it totally look like some sort of a werewolf pic.

Nevertheless, it's a great piece of 80's monster sleaze. Nice pick!!

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Planet of Terror & J. Astro--I guess technically a cicada is a "beast" of a sort, but yeah, you usually think of big hairy monsters rather than buzzing rapey bugmen. Still, maybe the filmmakers were all about subverting expectations!

@Al Bruno III--wow, GoT and TBW make an EXCELLENT double feature! The one-two punch of Cicada/Worm Rape! The mind wobbles. :S

@davidfullam--it's definitely worth seeing, and I can fully appreciate the MAD bits that make up its appeal. I don't know if any deleted scenes exist--the DVD I got from Netflix has a pretty amateurish splash/menu screen and nothing but the trailer for features. Some Cicada-Man enthusiast needs to go hunting! While I wasn't impressed with Paul Clemens in the main role here, I was surprised to see he went on to have a full career in movies and TV, including a part in the Christopher Walken alien flick COMMUNION and in the recent short film/internet sensation "The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon "--watch it here:

The Vicar of VHS said...

But here's a bonus feature--the stuff I forgot to put in the original review about the teen sexuality metaphor in the flick. Michael seems like a pretty immature 17 year old with his cherubic face stunted delivery, so it's easy to draw a line from his awakening sexuality to the bestial id impulses of the rapey bugman he becomes. There are also some uncomfortable scenes with Bibi Besch doting over Mike in a very Gertrude/Hamlet sorta way (see Olivier's version), and when Mike gets frisky with Amanda in the swamp, the morbid coitus interruptus seems a foreshadowing of things to come. And finally, the homoerotic subtext (or just TEXT) of Mike's meat-based encounter with Edwin is likely another facet in the whole "confusion attendant upon burgeoning sexuality" gem that's the centerpiece of this flick.

And I'm spent! :P

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