The Film: 4/5
**This review is based on a test disc provided by Arrow Video and may not reflect the final product. We will update the review if and when the final product is received.**
A rare horror exploitation film done with intelligence and heart, The Beast Within makes its debut on Region B Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Video as part of their U.K. distribution deal with MGM. Since more than three decades have passed since its theatrical release, does the American debut of Australian genre-hopping director Phillipp Mora (Mad Dog Morgan, The Return of Captain Invincible) still retain its power to shock and terrify? Even to the more jaded horror fans the answer may be quite surprising.
On their wedding night in 1964 newlyweds Eli (Ronny Cox) and Caroline McCleary (Bibi Besch) are traveling through the small town of Nioba, Mississippi when their car breaks down. As Eli undertakes a two-mile walk back to the nearest gas station Caroline is left by her lonesome. During a walk through the nearby woods she is attacked and raped by a unidentified creature. Left for dead, Caroline barely survives and is later found by her husband. Seventeen years later the McClearys' only son Michael (Paul Clemens) is slowly dying from a pituitary disorder that causes him to suffer from excruciating headaches. Since their physician is at a loss to figure out the reason behind their son's agonizing condition Eli and Caroline return to Nioba in the hope of tracking down any information about Caroline's mysterious assailant that could prove helpful. What they find is a town of dark secrets being protected at all costs by its judge/mayor Curwin (Don Gordon). While the McClearys continue to investigate, Michael leaves the hospital and travels to Nioba searching for some answers of his own. There he falls in love with local girl Amanda Platt (Katherine Moffat) and incurs the wrath of her violent father Horace (John Dennis Johnston) as his body starts to undergo a horrific transformation that drives young Michael to acts of murder. His parents team up with Nioba's sheriff Pool (L.Q. Jones) and resident doctor Schoonmaker (R.G. Armstrong) to uncover the origins of the town's best-kept and dirtiest secret Billy Simmons, who is preparing to be reborn through the body of Michael McCleary and unleash another nightmare of relentless terror on the people that have long struggled to keep his dark legacy hidden from the world.
I remember The Beast Within from the mid-90's when an edited-for-television cut made for one of the most memorable episodes of Joe Bob Briggs' TNT show Monstervision. Even before I first saw it I recall reading a review written by Briggs as one of the earliest installments of the classic drive-in newspaper movie column that made him a cult icon in the global cinematic underground. Seeing it in its complete, unedited form for the first time in my life, I was able to view Beast with the renewed perspective of a mature horror devotee. This time around it became a much stronger film. Flawed, of course, but oddly humane and resonant for anyone who recalls the agony of having to cross that uncomfortable bridge between adolescence and adulthood with no guide on how to navigate. Plus the film has some of the most grisly practical effects work of its time and it all holds up surprisingly well to this day.
For his U.S. directing bow Mora managed to wrangle for himself a top-quality ensemble cast to lend the absurd proceedings of Tom Holland's (Fright Night) punchy, pulpy script (loosely based on Edward Levy's 1981 novel of the same name) some much welcome credibility and emotional depth. The film is anchored by solid performances from veterans Cox (Deliverance, Total Recall) and the late Besch (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) as the confused yet determined McClearys and relative unknown Clemens (Communion), the latter of whom convincingly played a young man well into his teen years despite being in his early 20's at the time of the film's production. Though we aren't permitted to get to know Michael hardly before his unusual medical condition sets the plot in motion Clemens still succeeds in evoking empathy and loneliness in a character who was pretty much screwed long before he was even born. When he starts to transform into the horrific monster he was fated to be from the moment of his conception (through some incredibly juicy effects work by the great Tom Burman, whose interesting career in creating practical gore on a tight budget has carried him from drive-in cheapies like Frogs and The Thing with Two Hands to the hit ABC drama Grey's Anatomy) you can't help but feel his pain. We're not just watching a really cool FX scene, we're witnessing a good hearted kid turning into a murderous monstrosity against his will.
A Murderers' Row of character acting legends round out the supporting cast: Don Gordon (The Mack) makes for a suitably creepy mayor constantly acting on his own agenda and sporting a ridiculous hairpiece that becomes a priceless sight gag in the finale; Sam Peckinpah repertory company vets R.G. Armstrong (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and L.Q. Jones (The Wild Bunch) are invaluable presences as the only two sympathetic professionals left in Nioba; as suspicious undertaker Dexter Ward (one of several nods to the writing of H.P. Lovecraft in the film), Luke Askew (Cool Hand Luke) is heartily duplicitous; John Dennis Johnston, a future recurring player in the films of Walter Hill, makes for a perfectly pitiful brute driven by sheer paranoia to abuse his only daughter, played by the winsome Katherine Moffat in a performance of nuanced sweetness. Meshach Taylor (Designing Women) puts in an early appearance as Jones' deputy and acquits himself well despite not being given much of a character to play.
Mora's directing skills were honed to perfection shooting documentaries and naturalistic exploitation films in his native Australia, and with the help of cinematographer Jack L. Richards (The Monkey Hustle) he uses everything he has learned over the course of his then-young career to make The Beast Within a remarkably well-paced modern horror effort. Holland's script could have just as easily been made (sans the gore and rape) in the 1940's at Universal Pictures as it shares similarities in story and tone to the original Wolf Man, not to mention that Clemens' performance looks to have taken more than a few cues from Lon Chaney Jr. Burman and his FX team weren't permitted to go overboard with soaking the screen in stage blood and severed latex limbs but at least gave us some hideous monsters and the occasional gore gag, including a head getting detached from its body in slow-motion. Long deceased American-International Pictures house composer Les Baxter considered his score for Beast - one of his last film compositions - to be among the finest of his career. Armed with lush, emotional melodies and shrieking cues, Baxter adapts the musical motifs of dread and suspense he employed to great effect on films such as The Pit and the Pendulum and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (not to mention the A.I.P.-distributed U.S. cuts of Mario Bava's Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, and Baron Blood) for the bloodier 80's and comes up with a haunting minor masterpiece of the decade that knows exactly what to expect of its audience in every scene.
Arrow Video looks to have borrowed the same HD master prepared by MGM for Scream Factory's Region A Blu-ray release late last year because I have compared screenshots and the results are practically identical. That's hardly surprising and since the 1080p transfer was already the best The Beast Within has ever looked on home video it would difficult to improve on the studio's painstaking efforts. The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio in a near-flawless picture free of noticeable print damage and rich in bolstered brightness levels and increased sharpness in details. The proper framing allows the anamorphic Panavision cinematography to breathe with renewed life once more. Colors are balanced between muted and gaudy. The video is complimented fantastically by an uncompressed English 2.0 LPCM Stereo soundtrack that preserves the film's original two-channel Dolby sound mix with impressive clarity. Dialogue, music, and ambient effects mesh to amazing effect without creating audio distortion or a lack of balance in volume levels. English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.
Scream Factory's Region A Blu came equipped with two commentary tracks featuring Mora, Clemens, and Holland offering their recollections on the film and its cult following along with the original trailer and some radio spots. Only the trailer was ported over by Arrow but in place of the missing commentaries they have provided some special features that will make them a distant memory. Mora returns for another chat track, this one moderated by Calum Waddell. The dynamic between them is different than it was for the director and lead actor Clemens on their U.S. commentary because Waddell approaches his discussion with Mora from the perspective of a respectful admirer of the film. Nonetheless Mora is full of fascinating insights into the complicated production of The Beast Within and Waddell keeps the chat lively and informative by asking all of the right questions.
The absence of the Tom Holland commentary is more than made up for by having the writer participate in the well-produced retrospective documentary "I Was a Teenage Cicada: The Making of The Beast Within". Running 46 minutes and lacking in a single dull second, the doc also includes fresh interviews with Clemens, co-stars Johnston and Moffat, and special effects technician Garry Elmendorf and provides a pretty exhaustive overview of the project's origins, principal photography, creating the gruesome effects sequences, and the cultural reception of the final film. A highpoint of the supplements, "Teenage Cicada" is well worth your viewing time. Director Mora also contributes to "Storyboarding the Beast" (13 minutes), a featurette that compares finished sequences from the film to their original storyboard conceptions.
Lastly we have a stills gallery featuring color and B&W production photos and pics of special effects props culled from various personal collections, including Clemens'. Arrow's Blu-ray will also include reversible cover art with the original poster art and a newly commissioned image by Marc Schoenbach and a collector's booklet containing a new essay about The Beast Within written by Lee Gambin, author of Massacred by Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, and a contemporary article about the film along with archival stills and posters.
A standard-definition Region 2 DVD copy is also included.
With solid acting, terrific practical FX, and a pace that never flags, The Beast Within stands out from the glut of gore-driven 1980's horror with its emphasis placed firmly on telling a good story with relatable characters. It's a wonderfully effective chiller that could have easily been made into a classic four or five decades earlier and Arrow Video has given it an excellent Blu-ray presentation with a sharp high-definition upgrade and enlightening supplements that make this disc worth a purchase even if you already own the Scream Factory release from last year.