In the 1980’s Hollywood rediscovered the horror genre. After several decades of murderers, biker gangs, hillbillies and mutually assured nuclear destruction, Hollywood rediscovered monsters. Special effects were back in a big way, and this last pre-C.G.I. period of make-up innovation is, in some ways the most thrilling iteration of the squishiest art. Riding high on the success of his first major film Re-Animator, director Stuart Gordon re-gathered the same stars (Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton) and some tempting source material in a seven-page H.P. Lovecraft story, and headed to a studio in Rome to make a real old-fashioned monster movie. He succeeded in grand fashion.
The basic premise of the film is a scientific experiment gone horribly awry. Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel, and yes, that is the same name as the mad scientist in Bride Of Frankenstein) has invented a machine, the resonator, which, when activated, stimulates the human pineal gland, which grows and becomes a “third eye.” Once engaged, the resonator allows people to see into another dimension - and also allows the inhabitants of that dimension access to ours. Once the veil between the everyday world and “the beyond” is ripped away, things really start to happen. This alternate dimension seems to be the place where the most disturbing aspects of human behavior reside. Not only are there translucent eels with huge teeth floating around in the air, plague-like swarms of flesh-eating bees, gigantic tape worms, and indescribable humanoid slime beasts, but, under the influence of the resonator, people on our side of the dimensional divide experience heightened sexual arousal. Thus the scientists and psychiatrists involved in experiments with the resonator are exposed to the horrors of another dimension as well as their own repressed sexuality: a toxic and highly entertaining combination.
The majority of From Beyond takes place over a couple of nights while psychiatrist Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) forces Pretorius’ assistant, Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) to recreate the experiments he and his mentor performed with the resonator. The results predictably get out of control almost immediately…strike that…immediately, and we are exposed to every manner of sliming, oozing, biting, brain-eating (greatest brain-eating scenes ever!), dismembering grotesquerie known to film. The erotic subtext adds an even more enticing/repulsive element to the proceedings as we are treated to some of the best blonde-on-monster sex scenes ever caught on celluloid. The monstrous eroticism of some of the scenes are on a par with those in Alien. Eventually the resonator starts to show signs of sentience, and the opening between “here” and “beyond” is in danger of becoming permanently opened. To save the world, and stop herself from her own basest instincts, Dr. McMichaels destroys the resonator.
From Beyond succeeds so well because it is entirely unflinching in its exploration of the darkest themes. It doesn’t turn away from any of the most disturbing gross-outs. When a film does this it can go one of two ways; either we turn away in disgust and anger, or we hoot in appreciation and wonderment. For me, From Beyond is in the second category. The era of great horror movies that arose in the 80’s is best defined by this very struggle: how far is too far? The deciding factor is, surprisingly, humor. Like Re-Animator, this film also keeps a wink-wink attitude about the horrors unfolding on screen, allowing the viewer to be in on the joke instead of the butt of it. Stuart Gordon helped define where the line was in the modern era, probably to the overall detriment of the craft; however witnessing the cutting edge in its most visceral form is quite a thrill. From Lovecraft’s thought-provoking premise, to Gordon’s unflinching realization, to the over-the-top special effects, to the garish lighting and music, From Beyond is at the top of the heap of extreme(ly) scary movies.
- Paul Epstein