Spooning with Paul Clemens’s Beast Within

October 7, 2015 — I became friends with Paul Clemens because of Edgar Allan Poe. Paul’s a Poe collector and co-wrote Edgar Allan Poe: Once Upon a Midnight, a one-man stage play that was performed internationally by John Astin. I caught the act years ago, and had seen Paul’s name on the byline, but it wasn’t until Paul contacted me out of the blue after the publication of Poe-Land to talk some Poe that I connected him to another passion of mine: Horror movies. Turns out, Paul is the star of the 1982 flick, The Beast Within.

The movie’s difficult to summarize. Let me show you: A teenage boy possessed by his mother’s cicada-monster rapist undergoes a murderous puberty in a small Mississippi town. The movie, directed by Philippe Mora, represents the early genre efforts of writer Tom Holland, who would go on to write Psycho II and then write and direct Child’s Play and Fright Night, as well as makeup artist Thomas R. Burman, who would later throw an application brush at everything from The Goonies to Scrooged to Godfather III.

Of course, I wanted to take advantage of Paul’s friendliness to interview him for the Halloween blog. Even if it was over a 33-year-old film. Maybe especially because of that. Turns out, the timing was perfect because he is part of a recently launched Kickstarter project for another genre movie, Ginosaji, which, believe it or not, is harder to summarize than The Beast Within. I called him up at his home in West L.A. from my temporary digs in Salem to get at both flicks.

JWO: You’re from L.A., your mom, Eleanor Parker, was a famous, multi-Oscar-nominated actress. You obviously had movies in your blood and bones, and you started acting from a young age, but The Beast Within was your first horror movie, right?

PC: Yes, indeed, my first horror film. I guess I was in my early 20s during its filming.

JWO: Were you into horror at all?

PC: Oh, I was one of those 1960s monster kinds who grew up with Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. I even got to write for them as a teenager and had a portfolio of pencil and pen-and-ink drawings I did of The Exorcist published there, since the studio wasn’t issuing photos at time.

JWO: Wait, I don’t understand. You had access to the set?”

PC: No, I went with a camera of the theater and took photos of the screen. It was difficult back then. You had to get the shutter just right and half of my photos were between frames. I had to watch the film several times to get enough useable frames to work from.

JWO: That's great. So what do you remember most about working in Mississippi in the early 1980s?

PC: I remember it being freezing. I felt bad for the body double for Kitty Moffat at the end of the film. Here I was encased in the full, warm rubber suit and she’s basically naked. You could see steam rising from her body.

JWO: You worked with some great character actors on the film—Ronny Cox, Don Gordon, R.G. Armstrong, Logan Ramsey, pretty much everybody in the cast. What was that like, especially since you were the star of the film and only like 23 or 24.

PC: I had a ball, all the people were wonderful. The big problem on the film was just trying not to laugh during certain scenes. Like the kitchen scene. Logan Ramsey in his white tank top, fondling all that meat. Half that scene was improvised and unexpected. Here I was, trying to build up this murderous anger in the scene, while behind the cameras everybody’s convulsed in laughter.

JWO: And on top of that, you were playing three roles, a teenager, a teenager possessed by his dead father, and the monster itself.

PC: Yeah, I guess it was a triple role.

JWO: But to a Famous Monsters fan, the fun role must have been the monster, right?

PC: I enjoyed the challenge of playing the good and evil aspects of Michael, possessed and not possessed—that Jekyll and Hyde dynamic. But, of course, the kid in me gloried in wearing the full monster suit, which was a lot of fun. But it was sometimes hard, too. I had limited vision and hearing capabilities. Could barely be heard through this huge head full of mechanical parts. And Philippe’s trying to give me directions like “grab her breast,” “touch her here.” And I’m thinking, “This is so weird.”

JWO: Why were you in the suit? Why wasn’t it a stuntman?

PC: There was a stuntman suit, but I was in the hero suit, which was molded for my body. I still remember my stunt double, though. His name was Sorin Pricopie, and he was from Transylvania.

JWO: The movie has this weird vibe, where it’s brutal in places, but meanwhile some of the scenes are bizarre-funny and there are lighthearted horror references throughout. Like over the hospital loudspeaker at one point, you hear, “Dr. Van Helsing, please report to surgery” and the movie throws around Lovecraft references before it was really cool to do so.”

PC: Yeah, it is a brutal movie. It has kind of a grindhouse grittiness to it, even though it was a studio film. But at the same time it references a gentler horror time like the letterman’s jacket I wore, which was a direct reference to Michael Landon’s character in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. In my case, it was I was a Teenage Cicada.

JWO: Tell me about the infamous transformation scene.

PC: It’s funny. Philippe and Tom Burman don’t really see eye-to-eye on that scene. Tom wanted less to be more and Philippe thought more should have been…Mora? Sorry. Philippe wanted everything taken to the max and some of those air bladders got inflated to ludicrous size. Some have called it a grotesque parody of Charlie Brown’s head, but what I like about it, somewhat perversely, is that it was foreshadowed early in the film when the doctor is squeezing that rubber toy with the pop out eyes and such, an obie it’s called, and then my head literally does that. There is an actual mistake in the transformation scene, a cutting room floor moment that was left it, when my back was split open and it looks like you’re seeing alien, insectile organs inside of me, when what you were actually seeing were the methyl cellulose-covered air bladders. Those balloons weren’t supposed to be exposed to the camera.

JWO: I assume that was a rough time for you. At some points you were almost a prop in the scene.

PC: Well, sometimes it was a mechanical bust they were filming instead of me, so a literal prop. Still, that scene took three days to shoot. There were four of five stages of prosthetics for me, and each time it took hours to switch between them. We shot it in a closed-down section of Whitfield State Hospital. It had this really creepy basement with mold all over it like it had been sunk underwater for years and marble tables with leather straps and archaic hydrotherapy equipment. During the filming, patients would show up in the doorway to watch, you know, me spewing methyl cellulose and screaming. At one point, during a break between shooting the transformation scene, we were tossing around Don Gordon’s decapitated head. Then we noticed a very unsettled-looking patient in his bathrobe watching us. We probably set his therapy back a lot.

JWO: And here you are, three decades later, filming another strange movie. Gino…Gin…I have trouble pronouncing this one.

PC: Ginosaji. It means silver spoon in Japanese. And the subtitle is The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon. It’s based on a short I did with director Richard Gale that came out in 2008, which was then turned into a web series, and now we’re looking to do a full-length feature based on it.

JWO: Like 29 million others on YouTube, I’ve seen the Ginosaji short, and the weird thing about it is that even though it’s 100% tongue-through-cheek, it still ends up being horrifying. So credit to you in that, I think, portraying a convincing victim. I’d almost rather Jack Torrance axe me to death or Leatherface chainsaw me to death or that Ringu girl do whatever she does rather than go through this neverending spoon attack. It’s almost Chinese water torture-ish.

PC: Well, thank you. I think Chinese water torture is a good comparison. Some people have described it as a metaphor for life, all the annoyances that by themselves aren’t much but which pile up after a while. I think of it more as a real-life version of Road Runner and Coyote or Spy vs. Spy.

JWO: How did you get involved in the project? Some guy came to you and said, "I want to hit you with a spoon thousands of times?"

PC: I read about an award-winning horror short called Criticized that Richard made and I really wanted to see it. But, not being a full-length feature, it was hard to track down. So I wound up contacting Richard through his website, and, as it turned out, he was a fan of The Beast Within as well as an episode of Quincy, M.E. in which I'd played a young man with Tourette's Syndrome. So he sent me a DVD of Criticized, which starred Brian Rohan (my talented Ginosaji co-star) and I was blown away by it and thought "Wow, I've gotta work with this crazy genius director!" So we met for coffee. Then, a couple weeks later, Richard calls and asks me to be in this weirdly unique film he'd been concocting. And the rest is hysteria.

JWO: The short film plays like a trailer for a feature film, but that’s one of its jokes, that something so non-epic as a man being hounded by a supernatural spoon-wielding entity could actually be an entire full-length movie. How are you guys doing it?

PC: When Richard told me he was going to make a feature film out of The Horribly Slow Murderer, I thought he was joking. Ninety minutes later, after he told me the story, I was a believer and totally onboard. It’s clever and big and epic, full of action. It covers continents and generations, involves a supernatural quest. Has a lot of roles. Jeffrey Combs is going to be in it. And it’s about a family curse, not unlike The Beast Within.

JWO: Is it the same genre as the short, which is an amalgamation of humor and horror and action?

PC: Somewhat, although this is more like an epic supernatural fantasy blended with those other aspects you mentioned.

JWO: That description makes me think of Big Trouble in Little China.

PC: I could see that, but it’s maybe closer in spirit to the films that inspired Big Trouble in Little China, like Tsui Hark movies. Imagine a synthesis of Chinese Ghost Story and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon crossed with the dark comedy of the original Evil Dead and Return Of The Living Dead and you'll have a pretty good idea of what we're going for with the feature. I guess the description "epic supernatural action-adventure horror-comedy" would cover all the relevant bases.

Our conversation continued, but diverged to Poe topics as it always does, so I’ll leave you guys with Paul’s pitch there. If you haven’t seen the original short, check it out below. You’ll dig it, so afterwards hit up the Kickstarter for the full feature. I’ve contributed to it, so I’m putting my money where this blog post is.

I mean, cicada horror? Spoon horror? Who would have known? Besides Paul Clemens, I guess.