The Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas is something of a Mecca for movie geeks. In addition to first-run theatrical fare, the Drafthouse regularly showcases cult, foreign, and classic films. For the last four years, Alamo programmer Zack Carlson has hosted a late-night horror movie celebration called Terror Tuesday and if you are a lover of horror, both esoterically brilliantly and obscurely awful, this night was invented just for you.
So I decided, since I am already a fixture at the Drafthouse, despite their best efforts to get rid of me, why not provide coverage for this weekly treat? The Terror Tuesday Report will dissect the movie shown as well as provide a barometer for the audience's reaction; as many of these films demand to be seen with an audience, this proves a vital component to the evening.
This week's film: The Beast Within. The Film
The Beast Within begins with a vicious attack on a young woman who is traveling through rural Mississippi with her new husband. The pair are on on their way to their honeymoon when a flat tire forces them off the road and while walking her dog in the woods, the new bride is beset and raped by a nasty creature. Seventeen years later, the couple has moved on from that terrible night and all their attention is now focused on their ailing, teen-aged son: Michael. While traveling, Michael becomes desperately ill and is hospitalized in a nearby backwoods town. As it happens, the boy's father is not the doting husband but the horrible monster from the Mississippi bog. Michael seems to be experiencing some rather interesting changes that turn him from a sweet, kind young boy into a brooding, dangerous maniac. What is this strange affliction that causes him to wreak havoc on all those around him? What is the connection of the community in which this family finds themselves? Wait, is he turning into a....holy shit!
I really loved The Beast Within. First of all, it's directed by a guy named Philippe Mora who made his mark in Australian genre films and was featured in the documentary Not Quite Hollywood; my favorite pulpit for international horror film exposure. This was the man that gave us not only The Howling II and The Howling III, but also Communion with Christopher Walken and a great little Dennis Hopper film called Mad Dog Morgan (though not horror, still fantastic). Of all the fare to which we've been treated this year, The Beast Within is definitely one of the most unique and, in my opinion, second only to J.D.'s Revenge in striking the right balance between unique and coherent. Despite its being so unparalleled, The Beast Within is also very quiet, unassuming, and understated. If there is one thing you can say about this film, and I will say many things never you fear, it's that it is unlike anything else you've seen.
The performance of Paul Clemens as teen changeling Michael has yet been the most praised aspect of the film and for good reason. Clemens is phenomenal at navigating the waters of both vulnerability and menace. When he is a normal teenager, he is shy, amiable, and even a little pitiful. When he's communicating the anguish of his transformation, he channels Lon Chaney's Lawrence Talbot from The Wolf Man which is about the highest compliment I can pay him. But he also has no problem using his entire physicality to portray ominous tenacity. The effect is all-the-more pronounced because we like the guy so much that it is truly jarring to see him become so detestable.
And the respectable performances don't stop with Clemens. His doctor, played by R.G. Armstrong, has been in so many movies I wouldn't be able to list half of the ones in which you've seen him; my favorites of the bunch being The Car, Race with the Devil, and Predator. He is genuine and sympathetic like no other character actor of the last three decades. I also really enjoyed the performance of L.Q. Jones (apparently being a character actor requires the adopting of initials) as the sheriff. This guy is a stable of Westerns which unfortunately means I haven't seen him in much; not my forte. But he is cool, collected, organic and impossible not to like. Honestly, there wasn't a bad or even lacking performance to be found which is quite impressive.
**Warning: Spoilers In This Paragraph** The concept of this film, and the underlying themes it suggests, is what makes it so fascinating to watch. The Beast Within has been erroneously labeled a werewolf movie by many whose perception of it is based solely on DVD covers and word of mouth. But that's not only factually false, but belittles a much more creative script. Michael isn't turning into a werewolf at all, but rather he's possessed by the spirit of his actual father who has a score to settle with the most prolific, most secretive family in the town. That father was locked in a cellar for years and gradually became a cicada monster. It's a bizarre exploration of Kafka's Metamorphosis story that also weaves an interesting parallel about adolescence. Michael struggles with his body changing and they even make reference to a symptom of his sickness being that he can't stop eating. The transformation element is especially terrifying for this character because, as a teenager, he's not entirely in control of himself or his emotions in the first place. The actual transformation scene is a spectacular testament to the capabilities and advantages of practical effects.
All in all, The Beast Within is a wonderfully dark mystery of a small town with a secret. The atmosphere is well-crafted and the performances are uncommonly superb. Mora demonstrates reserve and employs classic story-telling devices to create an incredibly unique film experience. It is truly one-of-a-kind and it's one of the few films at Terror Tuesday that would be just as effect seen alone as it would if seen with a crowd.
This was a very special night because Zack had the pleasure of hosting not only the film but director Philippe Mora and star Paul Clemens as well. I was so excited to meet Mora, given my raging geek erection for Not Quite Hollywood, and both provided ample wit and insight into not only the film, but filmmaking in general. There weren't too many of the familiar, heckling chuckles that have defined Terror Tuesday. It always strikes me when the film shown exceeds the audience expectation because, to the casual observer, it would seem they were bored or otherwise disinterested. But the reality is that nights like these are just as important to the horrorphile community as our beloved drek. A fantastic evening and one of the best films the event has ever hosted.
We were also treated to the short film The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon beforehand starring Paul Clemens. This short, though I unfortunately missed it then, was a big hit of last year's Fantastic Fest. It was quite a thing to witness; hysterically funny.