“…it always ended with screaming.”
It’s easy to pick a favorite Stuart Gordon movie, for me anyway. That’s always going to be the first one I ever saw, Re-Animator. For sheer inventive energy, ground-breaking gore effects, humor, horror, and a career launching performance by Jeffrey Combs. The film is a puzzle piece that fit my own mental knobs and notches well enough that I can enjoy it at pretty much any time.
A second favorite from amongst Gordon’s filmography is trickier, because he’s made such a wide variety of films. From giant robots (Robot Jox) to family-friendly Disney fare (Honey I Shrunk the Kids), he was the kind of creator who could move easily between genres, as long as they were interesting enough. Still, it’s his horror work that most remember him for, he was a Master of Horror after all, and while I confess to enjoying Fortress, Robot Jox and The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, it’s the horror films that stick out to me as well. And if forced, then my second choice in that genre is probably always going to be this film.
From Beyond is a new addition to Shudder this month. It can also be rented or purchased from Amazon and Vudu. A Blu-ray is also available from Scream Factory.
From Beyond is a minor H. P. Lovecraft tale, although one I’ve always enjoyed. The concept of a machine that can alter our perceptions to such a degree that we can view other levels of reality is one that’s always had a hold on me since I was in third grade and first saw a graph of the “visible spectrum.” The vast array of wavelengths on either side of that small set of frequencies always seemed like a place where anything could be hiding, anything at all. Lovecraft’s story intimates that yes, there are plenty of invisible things around us – and that being blind to them is a blessing.
Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna and screenwriter Dennis Paoli flesh out (pun intended) a fairly straightforward plot (for, you know, Lovecraft) with intriguing characters, gory special effects, and expanded details (such as the idea that the machine is stimulating the pituitary gland) that give enough heft to the story that you’re invested and entertained. It also features the return of my two favorite actors from Re-Animator, Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton, as well as upping it’s genre cred with Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree as Bubba Brownlee.
Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel in a nod, one hopes, to Bride of Frankenstein) and his assistant Dr. Crawford Tillinghast (Combs) test Pretorius’ invention, the Resonator, that can allow people within its field to see other levels of reality. This goes about as well as you would expect, with Tillinghast bitten by suddenly visible eel-like creatures and Pretorius – after a bout of megalomania – losing his head. You can’t just have headless bodies – bloody or not – without a suspect, and so Tillenghast finds himself arrested for murder.
Crampton takes the lead this time around as Dr. Katherine McMichaels, a psychiatrist and researcher whose ambitions lead her to spring Crawford in hopes of following up on Pretorius’ research (and, incidentally, proving Tillinghast’s innocence). With officer Bubba providing security, the two scientists engage the machine once again – only to find that now Pretorius exists in the wavelengths beyond visible site, and that he is horribly changed.
The effects for the creatures that float around in the Resonator field are just okay, but those for Pretorius (by John Carl Buechler) are inspiringly mad, with a level of body distortion and goopy tentacles that almost match John Carpenter’s The Thing for ick. (Some moments, such as Pretorius’ head splitting, seem directly inspired from Rob Botin’s effects.) It’s not just the Resonator reality that grosses out – scenes with poor Tillenghast in the hospital late in the proceedings include brain munching, sucking people’s eyeballs out and a disturbingly prehensile pineal gland that pops out of his forehead.
Despite the obvious dangers of using the machine, McMichaels, in part fascinated by the way the Resonator field makes her feel, returns to the lab and turns it on, leading the monstrous Pretorius to attack her and attempt to eat her mind. Bubba and Crawford manage to shut down the machine by cutting the power in the basement, but not before Crawford is partially swallowed by an enormous, worm-like creature.
Each instance of the machine being turned on effects our heroes, but in different ways. Katherine, in particular, feels fascinated by the increase in her sexual appetite and the way it dovetails with Pretorius and his sado masochism. Tillinghast’s pineal gland begins to give him a thirst of human brains. Bubba – well, Bubba is the most normal of the bunch and manages to save the others multiple times… until Pretorius figures out a way to turn the machine on from the other reality and things get really, really bad.
I love Barbara Crampton in this – it’s really the first film where she was allowed to be something more than a girlfriend or vicitim and she does a fantastic job. I wish she’d been allowed to do more leading work. Combs is also great, as always, and Foree is fun as the audience character, constantly asking why people are making these stupid choices and making sure everone’s fed. I’m less keen on Sorel, who is a little one dimensional (despite being in at least two different ones), but as a platform for much body horror he works fine.
One thing I noticed this time around – the Tillinghast radiation (yeah, it’s the Resonator field, but it’s Tillinghast radiation in the original story and it’s what I prefer) is a distinct pink/purple color that increases in potency and ubiquitousness as the film progresses. That’s pretty much how it looks and works in Richard Stanley’s The Color Out of Space as well – either a great coincidence or an inspired touch in that film.
The Bottom Line
Thought it feels a bit smaller and less inspired than Re-Animator, From Beyond is a classic piece of 80’s grue, an imaginative and freaky gore show with excellent effects and set pieces. Anchored by great performances by the main cast, I still love this film even if it never quite reaches the same level as Gordon’s first outing.