[13 October 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
No one thought it would be such a massive hit. After all, it was a goofy little splatter film directed by a relative genre newcomer. Besides, in a realm overrun by big name filmmakers using make-up and physical F/X to realize their most repugnant visions, how could an outsider to motion picture macabre make any kind of meaningful dent? Well, when Chicago theater director Stuart Gordon arrived on the horror scene with his unconventional Lovecraft adaptation, Re-Animator, legions of fans took notice. The zany zombie film with the over the top bloodletting became an instant cult classic, and as the years have rolled by, it’s become a beloved benchmark. Of course, once completed, Gordon faced a major obstacle – how to avoid the sophomore slump. After Empire Pictures’ Charles Band passed on several other ideas, another run at HP territory was devised. But this movie would be different than the first. It would move “beyond” anything the novice director had done before.
Indeed, From Beyond is more serious and less ‘spoofy’ than the tale of Herbert West and his day-glo decision to play God. It deals with more science fiction oriented elements, and delves deeper into the sleazoid sex only hinted at in Re-Animator. With a little more budget to work with, a cadre of accomplished craftsmen and technicians at his disposal, and a cast already in tune with what Stuart was hoping to achieve, the results are more compact and complete than that famous if frequently out of control first film. There is not a lot of complicated plot here – lab assistant Crawford Tillinghast is accused of killing Dr. Edward Pretorius after an experiment results in the death of the medico. Our hero claims innocence, offering instead an insane story about unseen entities that exist between the realms of reality and the ethereal. Psychiatric whiz kid Dr. Katherine McMichaels decides to take up his cause, and along with cop/protector Buford Brownlee, they return to the scene of the crime – and the pineal gland resonator that lies within.
Oddly enough, very little blood is spilled here. Indeed, the alternative narrative discussion finds Gordon arguing that he needed to replace the claret with slime. Seems the MPAA, angry that he released Re-Animator without a rating, decided to rake him over the coals come From Beyond’s consideration. They mandated cuts and edits that took most of the overt arterial spray out the set-pieces. For decades, this material was considered lost. After all, who would have thought that 20 plus years later there would be a need for gore removed from a horror movie? Luckily, a little archeology on the studio’s part turned up these trims, and tech geeks matched them to the movie. Today, we can see From Beyond the way the director intended – bile and body parts included. It’s not a more noxious experience, just one closer to how Gordon intended it to be.
It also doesn’t alter the original version’s viability. From Beyond stands as a stellar example of what ‘80s terror did best – expanding on old concepts while using any and all available resources to realize its ideas. There have been hundreds of mad scientist movies, each one offering its own unique take on the evil experiment gone radioactively wrong concept. But this movie makes a radical departure from such strategies in that it gives us competing crazed researchers – three if you count the evil quack back at the hospital that keeps putting Crawford in harms way. Pretorius may have started the dread, but McMichaels allows her inner lusts – for power, for personal glory, for physical love – to override her rationality. She becomes the far more threatening presence as the lure of the Resonator keeps her focused on pushing its limits.
While there is a John Carpenter’s The Thing like look to the main monster, Gordon again thwarts convention by making the “it” a thinking, feeling, being. When it gropes McMichaels out of sexual need, we feel the sleaze. When it tries to convince the others to join its biological make-up, it plays right into the standard human helplessness. This is thoughtful offal, organs and shredded muscle melted into a pool of psycho-sexual sluice. The effects really sell the premise, and the overall art design helps us believe in the machine’s menacing purpose. Once Crawford becomes brainwashed (literally), the motion picture meanders over into even more surreal splatter. After all, we are dealing with a creature who craves gray matter, and such mind bending tendencies really give From Beyond its excessive flavor. It matches well with what Gordon established in Re-Animator.
There are those who find that first film so much better that they tend to downplay Beyond’s solid scary film status. Granted, when the movie suddenly finds itself in S&M land, actress Barbara Crampton tricked out in full dominatrix mode to help McMichaels find her inner slut, it appears we’ve suddenly stumbled into Red Shoe Diaries territory. And a force of nature like Ken Fore shouldn’t be relegated to playing sidekick/clichéd first casualty. Still, for all its unexplainable tangents and Roma-esque madness, From Beyond is a brilliant film. Sadly, it represents the last time that Gordon would stand as a viable fear factor. As part of a contract with Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, he would soon find himself lost in a swirl of failed projects and no budget miscues. For every practicable attempt (Robot Jox, Fortress), there’s a wildly ineffective misstep (Castle Freak, The Pit and the Pendulum).
Here’s hoping that this new DVD – which also contains a nice retrospective and some intriguing storyboard to scene comparisons – will revitalize From Beyond’s reputation. Its MIA status from the format has often been cited as the reason behind its lesser consideration. Of course, Re-Animator’s rabid loyalists will scoff at any suggestion that this HP Lovecrafting can compare to the original bodily fluid fable. Though it may be hearsay to say it, From Beyond may be better than its predecessor. It feels more like a film and less like a series of F/X pieces piled together. We enjoy the character interplay more, and realize that the conclusion means more to us than who lives or who dies. We want to see Pretorius get his comeuppance. Thankfully, Gordon gives us that…and a whole lot more.