Memory is a Giant Mutant Cicada Man

My earliest memories of watching horror movies were, I guess you could say, not exactly pleasant. Scary? Yes. Traumatic? Perhaps just a little. I was maybe around 8 or 10. My dad was watching some movie on VHS** one late night and I caught a glimpse of the glowing TV screen from behind him (whether he knew I was there or not, I can’t recall, but I don’t think he did).

The first image I remember seeing was of this guy in a bathroom. He was wearing a blue hospital gown. He then undressed, turned his back to the mirror and revealed a hairy growth/scar-like tissue at the base of his neck. It looked like it was on the verge of splitting open. (Yeeesh) The next thing I remember the same guy was transforming into something. Parts of his head were falling off, his facial features deforming beyond recognition. By the end of this transformation, he had become a terrifying bug-eyed creature of some sort. (Gaaaarghh) Seeing this left me paranoid and fearful for my own well-being. I was under the impression I had a similar skin condition on my back, and was going to suffer a similar fate. Phew, thank Christ for the overactive imaginations of children, right?

Later in my teens I tried to track down the movie these images came from, and finally found it in the late ‘90s: The Beast Within (1982), a creature feature directed by Philippe Mora, who’s also responsible for the gloriously awful werewolf travesty The Howling II:… Your Sister is a Werewolf and the super-creepy Christopher Walken alien abduction thriller Communion.

Upon rewatching it in its entirety, I can confirm that it’s one sick little movie, and is not, in any way, suitable viewing for children. Those disturbing images had stuck with me so much after all those years that it inspired an art project for the graphic design course I was taking. And if I had known I’d be revisiting the movie again, more than a decade later, for this blog, I would’ve kept those paintings and shared them here, but alas, they’re long gone.

Anyway, I watched the movie again last week, and it was only then that I could fully appreciate the extent of its grisliness (I’d forgotten much of the plot specifics since the initial rewatch). Adapted by Tom Holland (Fright Night) from Edward Levy’s novel, the story starts off with a woman (Bibi Besch) getting raped in the backwoods of Mississippi by an unseen man-creature-thing, and then picks up 17 years later when her son (Paul Clemens) falls ill and appears to be slowly turning into the same creature.

The Beast Within definitely lives up to the “Beast” part of its title. The film’s atmosphere is unrelentingly grim, with every performance pitched at screechingly histrionic levels. There are no sympathetic characters. The locals are portrayed as some of the skeeviest, most grotesque hillbilly types this side of Deliverance. And holy hell, that climactic transformation sequence! It hasn’t lost any of its gut-churning power. The slimy, rubbery prosthetic special effects by veteran make-up artist Tom Burman are disgusting, barf-inducing and crudely effective in a way that CGI can never be, and Clemens’ tortured performance — heaving and spazzing out like a man possessed — helps sell the agony of the transformation. It’s quite the sight, but yeah, not something you want to casually leave on TV for your children to peek at.

The other horror image that freaked me out as a kid was this (another fleshy/scar/skin thing):

I had a harder time searching for this movie – it’s even more obscure than The Beast Within: Gianfranco Giagni’s The Spider Labyrinth (1988). (I have to wonder right now, what was up with my dad watching these horror movies? He never showed any interest in them in the last twenty years of his life) Although the advent of DVD helped the re-release of countless, previously-tough-to-see Euro-horrors, The Spider Labyrinth curiously has never been given a proper, non-bootleg digital remaster, and I had to go the grey market route to obtain a murky-looking dub of a rare Japanese VHS release in order to watch it.

Today, the film’s even better than I remembered, a well-crafted, genuinely nightmarish summation of everything I love about Italian horror films, notably made at a time when genre masters like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci all have had their best work well behind them. If it had come out 10 years earlier, it might have been hailed a classic of its kind.

The conspiracy-driven plot, following a professor of languages (the wooden but awesomely named Roland Wybenga) who stumbles onto a bizarre spider-worshipping cult in Budapest, recalls films like The Wicker Man and Perfume of a Lady in Black, and fans will see unmistakable hints of Bava/Argento/Fulci here and there, but The Spider Labyrinth is no mere second-rate clone, with Giagni exhibiting style and atmosphere to burn. Sergio Stivaletti’s ghastly The Thing-like make-up effects, like The Beast Within, aren’t the slickest, but they’re difficult to forget once seen.

** Growing up in a wee South East Asian city in the ’80s, there were no legitimate, big chain stores like Video Ezy or Blockbuster around to service home video entertainment as there are in New Zealand. The “store” my dad used to take me and my brother to every weekend was called “First Release Video”. It was fairly small, and every tape on the wall was a copy with no cover art, just a white label and stenciled title. There were numerous folders that displayed the cover art in plastic sleeves, and we’d flick through them and point to the films we wanted to see. Then we’d get the lady at the counter to “test” them — usually in a top-loading VCR (remember those?) — to see if the “quality” was okay (i.e. tracking issues). If I could travel back in time for purely nostalgic purposes, to experience this ritual again would be at the very top of the list things to do.