THE BEAST WITHIN. Lovecraft – inspired dark horror story
…led by Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers, as well as the macabre escapades of new talented creators. Sam Raimi directed The Evil Dead, Stuart Gordon Re-Animator, while Dan O’Bannon and Tom Holland made their directorial debuts with the former’s Return of the Living Dead and the latter’s Fright Night. However, before their directing careers took off, both were known as horror screenwriters, and it’s worth taking a closer look at Holland’s 1982-written film, The Beast Within. Later, this creator would also produce a surprising script for Psycho II and, most famously, become known as the director of the original Child’s Play, but this horror film directed by Philippe Mora should be considered the most terrifying thing Holland created in his career. Perhaps not as memorable and perfect as his later works, but decidedly more shocking.
The opening credits of The Beast Within are set against a backdrop of the moon, but it is not the moon that serves as the introduction to the romantic myth of the werewolf. In the prologue, we witness how a newlywed couple, Eli and Caroline MacCleary (Ronny Cox and Bibi Besch), experiences car trouble in the middle of the night in the midst of a forest. Eli decides to walk back to the nearest gas station, leaving his wife in the car, a decision that proves to have fateful consequences. Shortly thereafter, she is attacked and raped by an undefined creature that had been imprisoned in the basement of a nearby house. The scene of the assault on the woman is intense, graphic, and, as a result, unsettling, even though the perpetrator is a fantastical character. This introduction foreshadows a particularly bleak and hopeless kind of cinema, with no prospect of anything resembling a happy ending. This feeling intensifies when the MacClearys’ son is born as a result of that act of violence. Michael (Paul Clemens) appears to be an ordinary boy, but after his 17th birthday, he contracts a mysterious, deadly illness. Eli and Caroline decide to locate the attacker, who is the biological father of their son, in the hope that it will help determine what ails Michael. They head to the town of Nioba, located in Mississippi, near where the attack occurred years ago. However, they quickly realize that their private investigation is unwelcome to some of the townsfolk. Shortly after their arrival, their son comes to town and, on the first night, murders one of the residents.
The Beast Within points to the danger lurking within the main character, which is easy to believe when we witness his first crime. He appears late at night at the door of the owner of the local newspaper, a rather unhygienic individual who mistakes the boy for a delivery person. With a pale face, quiet, seemingly weak, but with a malevolent smile, Michael suddenly pounces on his victim, tearing him to shreds. Throughout the entire scene, he clutches a piece of ground meat in his hand (and between his toes) that the victim had previously prepared for a burger, making this already gruesome scene even more repulsive. From the beginning, we realize that something is amiss with the boy, and he is not entirely responsible for this or subsequent crimes. The motif of the werewolf is therefore echoed here, although the explanation of what happens to Michael is more complex and boils down to something more than being bitten by a beast or, in this case, rape. The latter seems to be a consequence of a different heinous act, evil deeply hidden and forgotten by the residents of Nioba, which is also referred to by the English title. The beast in the form of Michael arrives in the peaceful town to hold its residents accountable for their past sins.
Although the film is not an adaptation of any of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, Holland’s screenplay subtly incorporates Lovecraftian motifs (small-town conspiracy of silence, a family secret centered around a imprisoned monster, the transformation of a human into something inhuman), also using familiar names for Lovecraft enthusiasts – the funeral home owner is named Dexter Ward, and the victims quickly become members of the Curwin family. However, the atmosphere created by Mora departs from New England stiffness to Southern hospitality, although in this case, one should probably speak of its absence.
American Gothic has a rural dimension in The Beast Within. The residents of Nioba are connected to the surrounding land and the traditions governing this region for many generations. The small-town and civilized appearance are repeatedly questioned by their attire, behavior, and ultimately, the history that catches up with them. It’s worth noting that this only applies to the Curwin family line. Other characters they encounter, such as the city-dwelling MacClearys, the local police officers, and the doctor who cares for their son, are modern people. Also, not coincidentally, the Curwins hold important positions in Nioba. The owner of the newspaper and the funeral home director are nothing compared to their cousin, who serves as both the mayor and judge. Only the father of innocent Amanda, whom Michael begins dating, seems to be less affluent but also passionate and brutal. With the revenge for unimaginable wrongs, the removal of an element that testifies to the town’s backwardness, corruption, and madness will also come.
Shortly before the climax, both beasts reveal themselves in their full glory. We learn the sins of the Curwins, and Michael undergoes a genuine transformation into a monster. The scene of his transformation is the most memorable moment in The Beast Within as it delivers the chilling promise made in the film’s prologue. At that time, the monster was barely visible but undeniably not human. When we later witness the transformation process, the creators do not spare us the details, presenting a scene that matches American Werewolf in London, The Howling, and The Thing in terms of execution and shock effect. It’s a shame that the final effect is not as convincing, and the last 20 minutes boil down to the escape from the monster, pushing the parents’ drama into the background.
Mora’s horror (not coincidentally the future director of two The Howling sequels) is at its best when it depicts Michael succumbing to his inner voice, in which we still don’t want to see a murderer. For a long time, Holland’s screenplay doesn’t explain the relationship between his teenage protagonist, the Curwin family history, and the recurring cicadas throughout the plot. The explanation, which raises additional questions with no time for answers, is part of the appeal. Despite these imperfections, the dark tone of The Beast Within surprises with its seriousness amid the more lighthearted horrors of that decade, providing strong impressions when the beast is finally unleashed. And this is a sight that is hard to forget.