Wednesday, February 24, 2021

It's Cicada Time Again

Film: The Beast Within
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

Probably since horror movies have been in existence, one of the classic scenes is the transformation. There are plenty of classic transformations. Jekyll to Hyde, man to wolfman, vampire to bat, and plenty more. The Beast Within, for a film that has plenty of plot problems, has one of the greatest transformations in horror film history. That the film itself has a plot that makes zero sense doesn’t change the fact that the transformation that we get to witness is one for the ages.

We start close to two decades before the film’s present. Eli (Ronny Cox) and Caroline MacCleary (Bibi Besch) experience some car trouble in the middle of nowhere in Mississippi. While Eli goes back to the last town for help, Caroline waits in the car. Meanwhile, a creature breaks out of captivity nearby and finds Caroline. Naturally, the creature rapes her, then vanishes.

Seventeen years later, Eli and Caroline have a son named Michael (Paul Clemens). Well, at least Caroline has a son (wink wink). Michael is inexplicably ill, and so the MacClearys head back to Mississippi to see what they can find out. Their thinking is that what Michael is experiencing may be genetic. It is genetic, of course, but not nearly in the way that the MacClearys think it is.

What follows is, for lack of a better way to put it, parts of about four or five other movies. We’re going to discover a small Mississippi town that is hiding some secrets, specifically about the Curwin family that seems to have all of the positions of influence in the area. The Curwins, and the unsolved mystery of the murder of Lionel Curwin 17 years earlier is one of the stories that we’re going to pursue. It will be important that they learn that the body of Lionel Curwin was discovered partially eaten.

Meanwhile, Michael seems to be going through some odd changes. Suddenly sporting a thick Mississippi accent, Michael shows up at the house of local newspaper editor Edwin Curwin (Logan Ramsey). Somehow Michael has managed to disguise himself as the local grocery delivery boy. It’s not explained how he somehow got a job while his family was in the area temporarily or how, if he didn’t, he arranged to have Edwin Curwin’s groceries, but here we are. And, just as inexplicably, Michael kills Curwin and (as with Lionel Curwin in the past), at least partially cannibalizes the body.

Just after this, Michael is discovered by Amanda Platt (Katherine Moffat), who sees him as he collapses. One phone call later and Michael is in the hospital. No one, seemingly, checks the blood that he is covered with and compares it with the blood discovered at the gruesome death of Edwin Curwin. Oh, and suddenly Michael and Amanda are now dating. And here’s the thing—if I’m going to try to make any sense of this, I have to jump into spoiler territory. From this point forward, consider the rest of this under a spoiler tag. If you don’t want to know how all of these things tie together, you should move on.

What we discover is that Michael is being possessed at times by someone named Billy Connors. It turns out that Billy Connors, years before, was having an affair with the wife of Lionel Curwin. Lionel discovered this and kidnapped Connors, chaining him in his basement. Curwin then killed his wife and fed the body to Connors, and continued keeping him alive by feeding him other corpses Curwin got due to his job as the local coroner. This is all well and good, but here’s where it gets ridiculous. All of this made Connors metamorphosize into a bizarre, insect-like creature. He escaped, killed Curwin and then raped Caroline MacCleary. Hunted down and killed, Connors’s work was already done. He basically impregnated Caroline with himself and, cicada-like, has returned 17 years later to possess the body of his biological son.

Absolutely none of this is explained. We don’t know why Amanda and Michael are now an item, or how Michael managed to get Edwin’s groceries. We don’t know how (or why) Michael sneaks into the local morgue and kills the mortician. We don’t have a clue why Billy Connors turned into a giant cicada through cannibalism, how that transferred to Michael, or how his consciousness managed to survive over those years between his death and Michael’s birth. Literally none of this makes any sense at all.

It all comes down to that transformation sequence. Michael, losing control and knowing that Billy Connors is eventually going to take him over, begs his parents to kill him. When they don’t he, well, demonstrates that he’s more or less been a cicada the whole time. His head goes through a few weird convolutions (some of which have not held up at all, some of which have), and he emerges as a new version of Billy Connors. All of this was done practically, and while there are a few moments that are very clearly ridiculous puppetry and incredibly fake, there are some moments of pure genius here.

The transformation really is something. The rest of the movie is kind of ridiculous, but that moment almost makes the whole thing worth it.

Why to watch The Beast Within: A transformation scene for the ages.
Why not to watch: The plot goes in about eight directions at once.


  1. I think I saw this film nearly 20 years ago when it was on IFC a lot but I don't remember much of it. I just remember how dumb it was.

    1. It is. See it once for the build up to the transformation. After that, you can just skip ahead to the head bulging.

  2. When we lived in Virginia we had an [insert number of years] cyclical cicada outbreak. I loved the loud eerie sound in all the trees. But I'll still try to remember to give this a miss.

    1. If you still live in cicada country, you're in for a treat this year--it's the big generation of cicadas in 2021. Cicada Brood X is likely to take over for about six weeks this spring.

    2. I don't think we have cicadas in Cali. Maybe too dry for them?

    3. They're much more a Midwest and East Coast thing. Illinois is expecting a bumper crop this year.