Judge Chris Kulik has long struggled against his Bat within.
He's on the verge of becoming a man…eater!—The Beast Within
After the sun has set…after the night wind has died…comes the hour of…The Bat People
You've got to hand it to MGM: they've been really swell about releasing some truly bad films to DVD. Of course, they found a good moniker in Midnite Movies, which gives folks a chance to re-live some memories of going to double bills at the drive-in. For this release, they have brought together two films with no connections whatsoever: 1982's The Beast Within and 1974's The Bat People. Time to turn off the lights…
Facts of the Case
The Beast Within—In 1964 Mississippi, a young couple have a car accident near Black Pine Bog. Eli (Ronny Cox, Total Recall) goes to get a tow truck, leaving Caroline (Bibi Besch, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Kahn) to fend for herself. Without warning, she's raped by some kind of swamp creature, leading to pregnancy. Flash forward 17 years later, and their teenage son Michael (Paul Clemons, They're Playing With Fire) is starting to have strange health problems, symptoms of which cannot be identified or diagnosed by his doctor. His parents are convinced the night of the accident had something to do with it, but little do they know that Michael starts to kill many of the local townspeople, thirsting for their blood. A visit with a pretty girl named Amanda makes Michael have a change of heart, but the beast inside him won't allow it.
The Bat People—In 1974, a young couple are on their honeymoon in a nondescript Midwestern town. While visiting some caverns, Dr. Johnny Beck (Stewart Moss, Raise The Titanic) and his wife Cathy (Marianne McAndrew, Hello, Dolly!) decide to leave their tour group and do their own spelunking. Unfortunately, a bat bites Dr. Beck's forehead, causing him to have a series of hallucinations and convulsions. Cathy is convinced he's contracted rabies, but Dr. Beck knows all too well that rabies doesn't cause you to transform into a bat-creature in the middle of the night with an appetite for human blood. After a nurse and a pot-smoking trailer girl get killed, the local Sergeant (Michael Pataki, Rocky IV) begins to suspect the Doc may be responsible.
Like I said, there are no connections whatsoever…
The plot scenarios should clue you in to the fact these films will only appeal to a certain type of audience: horror and bad film fanatics. As for myself, I must consent to having soft spot for these turkeys and occasionally pop one in for a good laugh. I had seen The Bat People before, long time ago on a cable channel after midnight, but The Beast Within remained elusive to me. The latter is arguably the better of the two films, with a confident budget, an impressive veteran cast, and some eye-popping make-up effects. As for the older feature, well, first things first…
Like most bad horror movies, it's the writing that stinks. Based on a novel by elusive horror writer Edward Levy, Beast was adapted by Tom Holland, his first script outside of television. Granted, I've never read the book, but Holland's inexperience comes through in multiple hits. For one thing, the romance which blossoms between Michael and Amanda is superficial to the hilt…and it happens much too fast, which only results in the viewer not caring about their plight. Secondly, the back-story and identity of the swamp creature is way too far-fetched; plus, it seems to take Holland forever to explain the mystery. On top of all that, even after so much explanation, the film still ends up not making a whole hell lot of sense. Complimenting the ridiculous script is the poor direction of Phillippe Mora (Communion), who acts as if he has no idea what a jump-cut is and opts to linger too much on one person or set-piece.
For what it is, however, The Beast Within does have its little pleasures. The transformation scene near the end is surely the highlight of the piece, with some excellent air bladder effects (which were all the rage after the back-to-back success of The Howling and An American Werewolf In London) courtesy of maestro Tom Burman (The Unseen). Sure, there is no shortage of gore and slime for those that are into that sort of thing, but the film sets its own limits, never getting downright disgusting. Kudos also to Tom Hoerber's grisly make-up, as well as Les Baxter's effectively eerie score, which was not only his last for film, but also one of his personal favorites.
The movie's greatest strength is its veteran cast. Not only do you get Ronny Cox and Bibi Besch creating sympathetic parents, but you also get L.Q. Jones (The Mask Of Zorro) as the beaten Sheriff, R. G. Armstrong (Predator) as the town doctor, and Logan Ramsey (Walking Tall) as the beast's first victim. Unfortunately, Paul Clemens doesn't have the required clout to sell the young man's pain, but he reportedly loved doing the role so much because of his passion for horror. Even when the film is at its worst, the actors' professionalism rings true.
I wish I could say as many positive things for The Bat People, but that would be practically impossible. This American-International opus is full of unintentional laughs that it's no wonder it was selected as a candidate for Mystery Science Theater 3000…where it played under its original title, It Lives By Night. Everything about The Bat People screams ineptness, making The Beast Within competent on every level in comparison.
How writer-producer Lou Shaw (creator of Quincy M.E.) convinced AIP to make this tripe is a mystery. Evidently, he spent many nights watching The Wolf Man, as this film all-too-obviously substitutes the lycanthropes for the flying mammals. Writing a bad clone is one thing, but Shaw didn't even bother to make the characters interesting, with his idea of development making the local law enforcement a drooling sex maniac. The claustrophobic camera movements and zooms are all too typical of '70s cinema, and director Jerry Jameson does more than his fair share.
If anything, I hope its cast was well paid. Stewart Moss and Marianne McAndrew are husband-and-wife in real life, but I sincerely doubt this was a cinematic honeymoon for them. Moss especially looks and acts uncomfortable, and his attacks register unintentional laughter; add to that his inability to make the audience understand—or comprehend—his motivations, and you almost feel sorry for the poor guy for having to deal with Shaw's script. The attractive McAndrew actually fares much better as the grieving wife, while Pataki is nothing more than a redneck-with-authority stereotype.
The biggest disappointment of The Bat People is the cheap make-up effects, courtesy of the late, great Stan Winston (here billed as Stanley). Still, he's not entirely to blame as this was the first gig for the then-28-year-old prodigy, and it certainly gave him experience; what severely hurt him was a serious lack of funds for him to really go all out. What we do get is a rubbery "bat hand" for a few seconds, some eye covers with blood tears, and a full mask which doesn't come until the end. After experiencing such designs, you'll find it hard to believe that a four-time Academy Award winner was responsible for them. Still, we have to credit The Bat People as being his major break in the business, for the images of the Predator, Edward Scissorhands, and, most notably, the terminators in T-2 might not have had the same impact.
Despite these films' negative reputation, MGM has done a spectacular job presenting them on this dual-layer DVD. Starting with The Beast Within, we have a 2.35:1 anamorphic print which has nice contrast and clarity, with fine flesh tones and black levels. Very few scratches and anomalies are present. Even more impressive is the The Bat People's 1.85:1 print, showcasing colors that avoid fading and perfect flesh tones. There is still a softness present, which is naturally due to the film's age, but the results are still better than expected. On the audio front, both films are given a DD 2.0 Stereo track, with Beast getting an additional 2.0 Spanish track and Bat getting a 1.0 Mono track; all of them are sonically kosher. Finally, we have English, French, and Spanish subtitles (along with closed captioning) for both titles and no extras.
Call both of these films crap all you want, but I got a kick out of them. Even The Bat People, as bad as it is, does has an oddly appealing atmosphere which lets you keep watching and not be bored by it. Still, The Beast Within is vastly superior, warts and all. If you do decide to check these out for Halloween, don't say I didn't warn you!
Both films are found guilty of being enjoyably bad excursions, and MGM is free to go for a solid technical presentation. As for Stan Winston, the court wishes him a peaceful rest. Court is adjourned!
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