As a sub-genre, body horror has often been used to explore adolescent anxieties about puberty, examining newly-awakened fears and desires that emerge as a person’s body begins to change. With this comes a terror of deformity and otherness, a loss of what was once familiar, as well as a certain apprehension associated with a person’s appearance and bodily functions. The Beast Within, released in 1982, also explores these themes and ideas, with protagonist Michael undergoing a post-pubescent metamorphosis. Though this transformation effectively illustrates the developing conflict on the adolescent body, The Beast Within is both confused and inconsistent, leaving more questions than answers in the minds of the audience.
When her car breaks down in the middle of a small town in Mississippi, Caroline MacCleary (Bibi Besch) is attacked and raped by an unseen monster. Seventeen years later, Caroline’s son Michael (Paul Clemens) is dying from an undiagnosed condition. Haunted by vivid nightmares, Michael escapes from the local hospital, and with a sudden urge to drink human blood, becomes increasingly violent to those around him. As the film progresses, Michael’s body begins to change, leading one doctor to guess that something unnatural is growing inside of him. The film ends with Michael sloughing off his skin and revealing the new person that he has become.
The Beast Within follows a conventional werewolf story structure, with Michael slowly coming to terms with the otherness of his body. He only attacks at night, and it’s no coincidence that the film is often lit by the light of the full moon. As we learn more about the other person inside him (the resurrected form of his mother’s rapist), we also see the resurrection of certain murderous and erotic fantasies, with Michael descending further and further into a psychotic nightmare.
But a big problem with the film is that a great deal of narrative logic is swept aside, leaving huge questions as to what exactly is going on. The first time Billy takes control of Michael, he explains that he is able to resurrect with shamanic magic. Nothing more is said about this, and it feels like an extremely lazy way to explain something as bizarre as a dead rapist being reborn in his son’s body. Similarly, Michael has some strange connection to cicadas that’s left entirely unexplained. They sing loudly when he’s nearby, and cicada magic is even alluded to at one point, but what this entails is anyone’s guess. This doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable, but it certainly prevents it from being the classic that it could have been.
Although The Beast Within is rather sluggish in its pace, it should be said that the special effects are uniformly fantastic. The transformation at the end of the film – reminiscent of An American Werewolf in London and The Company of Wolves – is well worth the wait, with Michael’s body slowly deliquescing. The individual is finally eradicated; flesh and bone, age and gender are all entirely indistinguishable. We see this transformation from the perspective of Michael’s mother, who watches helplessly as her son literally devolves before her eyes. Like all good body horrors, this scene is so effective because it reminds us of the transient nature of our own bodies, that all differences are removed when considering flesh, blood and bone.
The Beast Within – with its uneven pacing, awful soundtrack and questionable script – will never be remembered as a classic example of body horror, though the film does utilise some interesting imagery to explore its themes and ideas. The final 30 minutes is far better than the first hour, and it’s a shame that the film wasted so much time on unnecessary characters and vague exposition. People who like the gross-out element of horror films will find more than enough to enjoy here, but for everyone else, The Beast Within is a very strange animal indeed.
Words: Max Deacon @_Max_Deacon