[26 March 2013]
It’s impossible to obviate the influence of the eminent Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1930) on modern horror cinema. Indeed, by all means and purposes we can identify Lovecraft as the pioneer in the combination of gothic horror and science fiction narratives. In his many short stories and novellas, Lovecraft presented human science and technology as the unintended doorway to a terrifying universe populated with unspeakable horrors that coexist alongside our reality. As such, films as varied as Alien, The Beyond, Hellboy, The Thing, and Prince of Darkness owe a big deal to the literary legacy of one of the greatest American writers.
However, in spite of their tangible influence on modern horror culture, the works of Lovecraft defy to be faithfully translated into the cinematic language. Cinema history shows that only a handful of films have been successful in adapting Lovecraft onto the big screen. But then again, these movies were not faithful adaptations of the original work. Instead, the achievement of these flicks resides on the resourceful ways in which they captured the nihilistic mood and creepy atmosphere that characterizes Lovecraft’s oeuvre.
Such is the case of From Beyond, an outstanding horror film based on the equally exceptional short story of the same title written by Lovecraft in 1920. Needless, to say, the short story merely inspires the events narrated by the movie. At the core of both narratives lies the invention of a magnetic resonator that stimulates the pineal gland (an endocrine gland located near the center of the brain in most vertebrate animals). In turn, this biophysical stimulation allows the experimenters to perceive a terrifying and frightening world that coexists alongside our reality.
As an unintended side effect, the unspeakable creatures that inhabit that hidden realm are also influenced by the resonator and quickly become aware of our world. The result is mayhem and madness for all those involved in the experiments with the resonator.
Arguably, the success of the film adaptation of From Beyond is due to the creative minds of director Stuart Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna, screenwriter Dennis Paoli, composer Richard Band, cinematographer Mac Ahlberg, and editor Lee Percy, as well as the histrionics of Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton. All of them had already explored Lovecraft’s territory with the groundbreaking Re-Animator, which quickly became one of the most important horror films of the modern era.
In From Beyond, Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) and Dr. Crwaford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) are two demented physicists that develop the above-described resonator. As the film begins, Dr. Pretorius and Crawford operate the machine and observe a myriad of strange creatures that coexist alongside our reality, but we cannot perceive them using our normal senses. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Pretorius’ head is eaten by one of the otherworldly creatures, while Crawford proceeds to destroy the machine. Barely five minutes into the picture and the filmmakers have already exhausted the decidedly short plot of the original story.
The rest of the film revolves around Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton), a young psychiatrist who has been called by the police to determine if Crawford is insane. Hesitant of using traditional medical techniques, Katherine insists on having Crawford recreate the experiment. So, accompanied by Detective Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree), they head back to Dr. Pretorius residence. Needless to say, they succeed, but they also find the malevolent creature that absorbed Dr. Pretorius mind.
From Beyond was made back in 1986, a few years before computer generated imagery took over the special effects industry. As such, From Beyond is one of the last movies to feature gruesome effects using a wide variety of physical effects such as make-up, prosthetics, and animatronics. While not excessively gory, this film features a large number of eerie and slimy creatures. In this regard, the large number of special effects created by Mark Shostrom and John Carl Buechler are as gross as magnificent, and they talk loudly about a now bygone era of cinematic magic.
While these special effects brilliantly bring to life the unspeakable horrors described by Lovecraft, the visual structure of the film is also used to further enhance the impact of the narrative. Indeed, there is an uncanny purple light in all the scenes that take place when the resonator is on. As psychedelic as it is hypnotic, From Beyond captures the visual experience of seeing for the first time a spine-chilling world that is hidden right in front of us.
Even though one could continue with several other accolades and praises for From Beyond, it’s difficult to imagine Lovecraft actually enjoying this film. Indeed, Lovecraft was raised in a traditionalist family by his mother, two aunts, and grandmother. While Lovecraft’s stories are heavy in monsters and other otherworldly creatures, they remain conservative in their depiction of sexuality. The same cannot be said about From Beyond, and neither about Re-Animator, for that matter.
Indeed, From Beyond is very explicit in the presentation of transgressive sexual practices such as bondage and sadomasochism. Furthermore, the sexual ideology of the film suggests a relationship between such transgressions to traditional values and monstrosity. For instance, the creature that absorbed Dr. Pretorius’ mind is portrayed as a sexually deviant monster eager to rape Katherine. Also, Crawford’s mutated pineal gland has an unmistakable phallic form.
In addition, the film reveals that the stimulation of the pineal gland leads to strong sexual arousal (in reality, even though the function of the pineal gland is not completely understood, it is know that this organ modulates and regulates periodic behavior such as the day/night circadian rhythms and seasonal mating displays). Needless to say, Katherine becomes a dominatrix that needlessly endangers the life of Crawford and Bubba.
Thanks to Shout! Factory, From Beyond is finally available in an impressive Blu-ray disc presentation loaded with several exciting extra features. Typical of the high definition digital format, the video and audio are top-notch, even for a 27-year-old film. This new edition carries over most of the extra features found on the previous DVD release from 2007. And it also adds some new supplements, including a new audio commentary with screenwriter Dennis Paoli and a magnificent documentary on the awesome make-up special effects. Definitively, this new edition warrants the double dipping for those dedicated horror fans that already have the previously released DVD.
By all means, From Beyond is one of the best horror movies of the modern era. And certainly one of the best films inspired by the creepy works of the legendary Lovecraft. Except for the squeamish and the virtuous, everybody else should be able to enjoy this depiction of those nightmarish metaphysical horrors that apparently surround our godforsaken existence.