“And you will face the sea of darkness, and all therein that may be explored.”
Let’s continue through the Gates of Hell, shall we? Descend a little deeper, a few more levels down. You’re not afraid, are you? It’s okay, I’m with you, though that’s not my hand you’re holding, here in the dark.
Today we come to my favorite Lucio Fulci film, and possibly his least traditional in terms of classic storytelling. The narrative has never seemed that important to a Fulci film, but The Beyond takes that laissez-faire approach to plot to an extreme that approaches nonsense (some may say “approaches?!” in a pearl-clutching tone of voice). Let’s just say that cause and effect are sometimes uncoupled in this film, and that attempting to nail a coherent series of events together may leave you like Dr. McCabe, muttering “impossible” as you slowly go mad.
After The City of the Living Dead Fulci made a more straightforward film in The Black Cat, a movie that possesses much more in the way of a traditional narrative, though that may be down to needing to have at least some resemblance to the source material. But when Fulci again teamed up with screenwriter Dardano Sarchetti for his next project the two men seemed to have been intent on throwing story out the window. Fulci has expressed his desire to make something he called “pure cinema,” the idea that the images of film could create meaning out of themselves, rather than being created already attached to an existing meaning (plot etc.). With that in mind, the “screenplay” of The Beyond seems to have been nothing more than a loose amalgamation of ideas strung together with some specific words to unify them. Even key elements – like the symbol of the Book of Eibon – were added almost by happenstance (it was based on a tattoo his daughter had).
So while there IS an overarching storyline to The Beyond – the brutal murder of an artist in 1927 opens one of the seven gates of Hell beneath a hotel in Louisiana and its effects begin to be felt in modern day (1981) – I think of it as more a horror jazz piece, a riff on a theme (fitting that it takes place in and around New Orleans). The individual images and set pieces are the point, and the connections formed between them are a sometimes explicit and sometimes left to us to infer. One of the benefits of this approach is that anything goes – any horrific image or moment can be added, as long as it contributes to the mood. It does mean there are things that sometimes don’t work, variations that don’t live up to the quality of the rest of the piece. (I’m thinking of the spiders, in particular.) And it means that trying to figure out the why and how is a mug’s game, doomed to failure. Not that I won’t give it a shot.
One more thing to note in this rambling introduction is that the film’s title in Italian is actually L’aldilia’ – or “The Afterlife.” Given Fulci’s religious sensibilities as noted somewhat chaotically in last week’s review, this seems important. While The Beyond is non-denominational and doesn’t seem expressly religious The Afterlife is more significant. “The Beyond” could signify another world, another reality or just madness – something past the limits of what we see and understand. “The Afterlife” is specifically about what comes after we die – after life. With that context you could look at The Beyond as an exploration of something like the concept of Purgatory. We’re watching souls suffer, yes, but in the end they are allowed to move on into “the sea of darkness.”
And maybe that’s just too much to put on a film where a man’s tongue is eaten out of his mouth by fake spiders.
Which reminds me, we’ll once again be taking a trip down:
(This means gory descriptions and images below.)
I have two different Blu-ray releases of The Beyond – the Arrow Films 2011 set and Grindhouse Releasing’s 2015 version. I like them both, but prefer the extras on the Grindhouse release, so that’s the one I watched for this review. (Also, it has a glow-in-the-dark cover.) Picture quality is fairly good, but there IS room for improvement and so I await the inevitable 4k release at some point.
For streaming options, The Beyond is available for free (some with ads) on Roku, Tubi, Kanopy, Dark Matter and Plex, as well as free for subscribers on Shudder, Hoopla and Flix Fling. You can also rent/purchase it from Amazon, Flix Fling and Alamo on Demand.
What’s funny about positing the idea that The Beyond is a film without a story, without inherent meaning, is that I’m then going to try and piece meaning out of it. I think in some ways that’s the point, that we make meaning out of our experience and by trying to provide experiences without meaning, Fulci is offering us the opportunity to create our own story out of the film. So that’s either visionary or lazy, I guess. It’s also self-serving, as it means that whatever meaning I choose to convey to a scene – or even to the film in its entirety – has at least as much importance and weight as anyone else’s.
The opening sequence of The Beyond takes place in 1927 where an artist named Schweick is working on a bleak landscape in room 36 at the Seven Doors Hotel somewhere in the Swamps of Louisiana, when a group of men arrives to confront him. There’s no specific reason given for the mob’s actions – though one person refers to Schweick as a “warlock” – but there are notes of racial violence in the frantic eyeballs of the black man who works at the front desk. Schweick is “other,” and that’s all the mob needs to justify their actions, which include whipping with chains and an eventual crucifixion in a wall in the basement. Schwieck, in a moment easily missed, urges the crowd to be careful of what they do, for the hotel is built on one of the gates of hell. Nobody listens.
In my mind the slaying of the artist cracks the door, but it’s the events of City of the Living Dead that throw it wide open. That’s why nothing much seems to happen between 1927 and the modern day and why things go so spectacularly wrong so quickly. When we’re introduced to Liza (Catriona MacColl), the new owner of the Seven Doors Hotel I assume it’s All Saints Day. The dead now walk the earth, and that’s why the blind girl suddenly appears in the Hotel and frightens the house painter off his scaffold.
Why not, right?
Things happen, not necessarily in order, nor in an easy to understand time frame. Dr. John McCabe (David Warbeck) is summoned to treat the injured painter and forms a connection with Liza, as well as functioning as the voice of rationality in the coming scenes. Joe the plumber arrives to work on the pipes in the basement before being killed after discovering an extension to the basement. The creepy maid, Martha (Mater Tenebrarum herself, Veronica Lazar) finds Joe’s body as well as that of the long-dead and horribly quick-limed artist, Schwiek. Both bodies are taken to the morgue at the hospital where Dr. McCabe works. (As with the priest in City, Schweik will serve as both sacrifice to and harbinger of the forces of darkness.)
I’ve always thought that Joe and Martha had some sort of relationship, especially given their exchange of gazes during her pronouncement that she’s created a walkway over the flooded basement “for Joe.” That’s another one of those moments that’s not followed up on, however, and only given meaning – if any – by the way the actors deliver the scene (and our impression of the same). The way Martha and her creepy son Arthur behave – and Liza’s line about them both having “come with the hotel” suggests that there is some connection between them and the supernatural events that occur, perhaps minions of the force – hotel, gate or The Beyond itself. That doesn’t protect them in the end, however.
Liza heads into town leading to one of the most visually poetic moments in the film as she is stopped on the road by the appearance of blind girl Emily (Cinzia Monreale) and her guide dog Dicky. After some typically squicky gore moments like the death of Joe, this is one of those ‘roses in a dungheap’ sequences, with the road appearing to go endlessly into the distance while water presses in on either side, the blue-dress of Emily standing out against the non-color of the highway and the windswept isolation of the whole scene. Emily says she’s been waiting for Liza and takes her to a well-appointed mansion in town where she plays piano and urges Liza to leave the hotel.
Liza can’t leave, however, as she explains to Dr. John later at a bar. She’s destitute and has to make the hotel – a bequeathment from a distant uncle – work.
Meanwhile – or days later or… well, time isn’t exactly the point here – a woman arrives at the morgue to claim Joe’s body. She leaves her daughter, Jill (Maria Pia Marsala) outside while she dresses the corpse, but she sees something that makes her scream. Jill rushes in only to see her mother laying underneath an open bottle of acid which proceeds to melt the woman’s head. Jill attempts to escape the resultant flood of foaming gore, only to find a freezer full of mutilated corpses. What are we to make of this scene? Other than a brief moment where Schweik’s corpse seems to show a brief blip on an oscilloscope there’s no real plot advancement. It’s just a character – an innocent at that – being forced to suffer through a horrific experience. Maybe THAT’s the point, that even innocents suffer in the hands of capricious fate. Or maybe Fulci just hates kids. (And man, hospitals in Fulci’s world have little staff and really well-stocked morgues. Not to mention huge, lidless jars of acid.)
Liza’s reluctance to leave leads to Emily showing up at the hotel in order to convince her by telling Liza “everything.” While she’s explaining the history of the hotel a buzzer for room 36 goes off and Emily is convinced that it means Schwiek has returned. Then she finds a painting – the same one that the artist was working on in the opening scene – but running her hands over causes her hands to bleed and she flees into the night, screaming. Fulci forces us to pay attention to this moment by removing all sound from the sequence and then reinforces its oddity by making Liza replay it again and again (in slow motion). The implication is clear – that Emily and her dog are ghosts – but why is it so overplayed? It’s almost as if Liza’s attempt to make sense of it is more important than the actual information. (Especially as Dr. John will confirm the “Emily is a ghost” concept later when he visits her house only to find it abandoned.)
Liza then investigates room 36 where she finds the Book of Eibon (Fulci’s Necronomicon stand-in) and then the corpse of Schweitzer, hung up in the bathroom. Dr. John, the voice of reason, arrives momentarily only to find the rooms empty. In another horror movie this would be a prelude to the inevitable “you think I’m crazy!” scenes where the main characters struggle with who is right, but Fulci isn’t really interested in that. Dr. John is going to find out he’s wrong soon enough, but first we’re going to go visit the hall of records with Liza’s architect friend…
Though the fake spiders take a lot of shit, and for good reason – they’re terrible – I actually love this scene for a couple of reasons. First, on a meta level, I love that it’s actually Lucio Fulci playing the character who brings the architect into the room. And then locks him in. It’s such a great nod to the whole act of creation as a horror director. “So here’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to lock you into this room (scene) where terrible things will happen to you and where you can never escape (because it will forever be on film).” On the experiential level this cements the idea that the hotel, or the gate, or The Beyond or whatever force is orchestrating things, is simply arbitrarily cruel. It paralyzes the architect (I assume that’s why he can’t move after the fall) and sends a shitload of spiders to eat him alive – only to erase the only reason that I can think of for him to be removed. The blueprint of the hotel (revealing a hidden basement extension) disappears from the book as the man dies. The “force” could have done that BEFORE the man looked at the book, but no – it lets him see it, and then removes both him and the reason FOR removing him.
This arbitrary violence from the forces (of hell? The Beyond?) involved isn’t limited to innocent victims. Emily is attacked at her home by the ‘zombie’ of Schweitzer, even as she screams that she’s done what was asked of her and that she doesn’t want to go back. The “force” doesn’t care, though, and even though Dicky dispatches Schweik it’s only a momentary respite until (shades of the blind man attack in Suspiria) Emily is killed by her own guide dog. Martha and Arthur, too, are dispatched by more mindless minions of the “force” – with Martha having her eye forcibly shoved out of her skull by a zombified Joe. It’s almost like any minion with a mind of its own is being eliminated, leaving no id to represent The Beyond, only animus, only motion and action instead of will.
After a few other unsettling moments Liza and Dr. John find themselves in the empty hospital, surrounded by an army of animated corpses. (For a quiet town where the Doc knows everyone there are certainly a large number of messed up bodies.) This sequence comes the closest to a standard zombie flick with the doctor shooting corpse after corpse (and never seeming to comprehend that shooting them in the head takes them down). Liza find the girl, Jill, in the morgue – though she doesn’t question why the girl would be there. That probably has something to do with her being infected by “the force” and now having the same blind eyes as Emily. While they attempt to escape Jill attacks and is brutally shot dead by Doctor John. (what happened to “first, do no harm” doctor?) I remember reading rumors that these scenes were forced on Fulci by a producer eager to include the monster Fulci was most well known for, but the looseness of the film structure means that it works fine. Yes, it makes no sense and follows nightmare rules (good luck figuring out how many bullets have been fired from that gun), but that’s the whole movie by this point.
(As an aside – a moment where the group enters an elevator and we see the Doc start to load his gun by shoving bullets down the barrel (!) was apparently intended as a joke. You can even see MacCol start to grin as the door closes. Fulci left it in, and I can’t imagine he didn’t see it in editing. It’s only a few frames and nothing would have been lost had he cut it. That means he specifically decided to have that “mistake” as part of the proceedings.)
Liza and Dr. John escape through a door in the morgue and find themselves… descending the staircase into the basement of the hotel. Even Dr. John can’t countenance this possibility, but we’ve been watching a film where there are EKGs for dead people, a bookshelf full of tarantulas and bathtubs with rotting corpses in them. For us it’s Tuesday. The living dead won’t stop coming and so they have to move forward, into the opening in the wall, into the light. Through the open gate and into what lies Beyond…
Our two heroes somehow end up in the bleak wasteland portrayed by the artist, Schweik, blinded like Emily and Jill, and a voice over intones “And you will face the sea of darkness and all therein that may be explored.” And if you’re like me, the first time you see it you say out loud to the credits “what the hell just happened?”
Since that first viewing I’ve decided to mentally connect the three films in Fulci’s loose trilogy, though, and that provides a possible meaning – and again, I think this is a film where the viewers are tasked with applying their own meaning to events. So for me, this is hell or purgatory. This is the afterlife. Liza and Dr. John have passed into an underworld, but the gates have been opened. This is a hell where the dead have already left, an empty and ultimately meaningless afterlife. It’s a depressing thing to contemplate – what if you died and when you got to whatever comes next there was no one else there?
The original ending had Liza and John arrive in an amusement park – maybe the closest thing Fulci could come to imagining as paradise. Budget restrictions meant that a last minute substitution of the deserted plane ended up on the screen, and I honestly think it’s a more powerful film for it. Even if you don’t subscribe to my meaning – or any meaning – it’s still an effective image, one that sticks with you long after the eviscerations, impalements and eyeball mutilations fade.
The Bottom Line
The Beyond, as I mentioned, is my favorite Fulci movie. The dreamlike pace, the creeping dread, the awesome set pieces. It’s an experience, and maybe THAT is the point – not meaning, not story, but to experience the wonder and violence and randomness of the film as if it was a horror tone poem. On the whole, though, I think it comes close to fulfilling Fulci’s vision of a story that emerges out of its imagery, one that works the way a nightmare works – without logic, without reason, without plot. It simply is, and the meaning we take from it is the meaning we bring to it.
And if that’s too much to lay on a gory Italian horror film? I’m okay with that.