Thursday, July 1, 2010

From Beyond

The horror in Halloween is constant. At any moment, Michael Myers can leap out and kill you. Likewise, the zombies are everywhere in Night of the Living Dead. But other horror films are more conditional. Stay out of the water in Jaws, and you'll be fine. Don't fall asleep, or Freddy will slice you up in A Nightmare on Elm Street. By inserting safe zones for their characters, filmmakers can reinforce the danger of leaving their sanctuaries, so the viewer is thinking, "Now, he's screwed." For his followup to Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon operates on a similar logic in From Beyond (1986): when you can see the monsters, they can see you.

Based on the short story by H.P. Lovecraft, From Beyond opens with scientists Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) and Dr, Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) working with a machine known as the Resonator which is designed to stimulate the brain's pineal gland. Pretorious believes the pineal gland is a dormant sixth sense that will allow him to see beyond the range of human sensation. When the machine is powered on, they see strange creatures swimming through the air, beings from a dimension that exists parallel to ours. But something else appears, killing Pretorius, and Crawford is locked away in a mental institution as a paranoid schizophrenic. Psychiatrist Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) is convinced of his story and decides to recreate the experiment. With street wise cop Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree), Crawford and Katherine return to the house where the Resonator awaits.

The story by Lovecraft is less than ten pages and is used in the movie as the pre-credit sequence. From there, it expands on the concept of monsters beyond our perception around us at all times. We get slime, tentacles, claws, teeth, melting skin, giant slugs, weird bat creatures, and Pretorious, whose mind has merged with the creature that devoured him; he keeps popping up increasingly deformed, swollen, and mutated. The effects combine the creature work of John Carpenter's The Thing with the rubber reality hallucinations of David Cronenberg's Videodrome, and while From Beyond lacks to the budget of either of those films to match their realism, it makes up for it with inventive designs and overall grossness, and Sorel makes for a great villain in the tradition of the Hammer Films mad scientists.

And those are just the creatures. The violence is similarly disgusting. In addition to the aforementioned decapitation, there are brains sucked out through eyeball sockets, people shredded down to skeletal remains, and a very phallic probe protruding out of Jeffrey Combs' forehead. In fact, From Beyond ramps up the kinky sex as well. Before his accident, Pretorius was into bondage, keeping chains, videos, and restraints in a private room and being transformed into an inhuman monster doesn't alter his desires. Stimulating the pineal gland also causes arousal, which is the only explanation we get for Barbara Crampton donning S&M regalia later in the film before the creatures attack yet again. So, if you've ever wanted to watch a woman battle interdimensional monsters while wearing leather bondage gear, this is the movie for you.

Gordon uses a lot of psychedelic lighting to replicate the extremes of human vision, and he brings the same stylistic flair he brought to Re-Animator, a very straight-laced, tongue-in-cheek approach to some pretty out there stuff. Unlike Re-Animator, From Beyond is not as tightly scripted, and there are more plot holes. While it's fun to imagine the villain in Re-Animator taking a bus without his head, certain developments reek of contrivance here. The story also feels repetitious at times: turn machine on, monster appears, turn machine off, monster vanishes, rinse and repeat.

Still, it's hard not to admire what Gordon's done here: make an outrageous, unforgettable gorefest with classic Lovecraftian atmosphere and a wicked dose of black humor. This sort of movie will not appeal to everyone, but for genre fans, you can't go wrong.

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