Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, September 3, 2017

Director Report Card: Stuart Gordon (1986)

3. From Beyond

Following the success of “Re-Animator,” Stuart Gordon immediately went right to work on a second H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. He envisioned an on-going series of Lovecraft films, similar to what Roger Corman did with Poe in the sixties. Following those film's example, he brought together many of the same actors, wanting to create a troupe of performers as in his theater days. Gordon would more-or-less see this vision through, though it would be quite a while before his next Lovecraft adaptation. While “From Beyond” is not as universally beloved as “Re-Animator,” it is also highly regarded by eighties horror buffs.

In their secluded laboratory, Dr. Tillinghast and the sadistic Dr. Pretorius are working on a special device. Called the Resonator, when activated, the machine stimulates the human pineal gland. This has two effects. It expands man's consciousness, giving people a peak at the inter-dimensional creatures that occupy the same space as we do. (And allows them to see us.) Secondly, it causes the human mind to grow in new, disturbing directions. Dr. Pretorius is abducted by one of these otherworldly creatures. Tillinghast is accused of his murder. Dr. McMichaels, intrigued by his research, decides to investigate. They discover that Dr. Pretorius is still alive, transformed into something more than human. McMichaels becomes obsessed with the Resonator, forcing more encounters with Pretorius and the other creatures from beyond.

Perhaps the main reason why there had been so few Lovecraft adaptations before Gordon's film is because the author's style of cosmic horror doesn't lend itself to film very well. Stories based around unknowable, indescribable terrors beyond man's comprehension are inherently non-cinematic. However, Stuart Gordon does an amazing good job of bringing Lovecraft's brand of horror down to earth in “From Beyond.” The premise of the film, of man co-existing alongside eldritch abominations, the two simply being unaware of each other, is in keeping with Howard Philips' ideas. This certainly emphasizes man's uncertain place in the universe, that basis of the author's entire bibliography. Moreover, Gordon fills the film with bizarre, squamous horrors, the kind of monstrosities that would've crept out of Lovecraft's nightmares.

There was also, frequently, an element of body horror in Lovecraft's work. Deformed humans, the off-spring of creatures that can't be spoken of, would appear from time to time. Gordon runs with this, filling “From Beyond” with extravagant body horror. Dr. Pretorious' body shifts and morphs, the camera emphasizing the pure fleshiness of his transformation. One effective scene shows his skin peeling back, away from his face, before his head flies off on its own. Even as Pretorious' body changes into something horrible, he's always recognizably human. His face remains, his skin and bones are that of a man. This somehow makes him a scarier villain, his desire to transcend humanity rooted in a deeply human hedonism.

Gordon continues his habit of introducing naughty sex into Lovecraft's cosmic horror stories. In “From Beyond,” Pretorius' sexual habits veer towards the kinky, involving leather, handcuffs, and cat-o-nine-tails. Even after transforming into a beast, his libido remains unaffected. In fact, the Resonator seems to stimulate desire in people. Dr. McMichaels is transformed from a mousy, bespectacled lady scientist into a leather-bound dominatrix. Gordon sprinkles in some not-so-subtle symbolism as well. When the borderline asexual Dr. Tillinghast is repeatedly exposed to the Resonator, his pineal gland bursts from his forehead. The elongated, quivering organ is rather phallic looking. The doctor's reaction to the new sensation is orgasmic. This is an interesting twist on the mad scientist formula. Instead of being motivated strictly by a thirst for knowledge, the doctors are also driven by a desire for sex.

More than in most other genres, horror films are usually only as good as their villains. “From Beyond” has a whopper. Ted Sorel plays Dr. Pretorius as if the Marquis de Sade was into quantum physics. He's a true sadist and is motivated by inflicting his twisted desires on other people. Sorel brings a truly deprived quality to the part, lending every scene he's in a sleazy quality. He slithers each line of dialogue. Sorel's performances is even more impressive once you consider that he's covered in latex and make-up for the majority of his screen time. 

It's clear that Gordon's budget got a boost with “From Beyond.” The special effects in this film are far more elaborate and complicated than in “Re-Animator.” Dr. Pretorius, a shifting mound of twisted flesh, isn't the only monster in the film. The Resonator causes all sorts of odd creatures to appear. There's serpent-like fish-things, who swim through the air as if it was water. They're often accompanied by jellyfish-type creatures, tentacled buds with sharp teeth. One of the weirdest monsters in the film is a massive sea-worm that takes up residence in the basement. The design can't help but remind you of “Dune” but the creature's sheer size is impressive. Naturally, Gordon adds his share of graphic gore to the film too. Bodies are stripped to the bone, heads are bashed in, and brains are sucked out.

“From Beyond” is not only a follow-up to “Re-Animator.” In some ways, it seems to be an apology to Barbara Crampton. In their first film together, Crampton played a screaming damsel-in-distress, at the mercies of the men around her. In this film, she's just as naked and molested. However, Dr. McMichaels has way more personality than Meg Halsey. In many ways, she motivates the plot. She's the one who goes back to the Resonator, intrigued by what the machine can do. Her transformation into an S&M mistress does align her with Pretorious' twisted desires. It also makes her into a more realized human being, discovering new things about herself. (Surprisingly, the film never judges McMichaels for her sudden kinkiness.) It's a good performance from Crampton, the actress given much more to do.

“Re-Animator” would make Jeffrey Combs into a cult icon. While Combs probably could've just reprised Herbert West and make his fans happy, Dr. Tillinghast is a very different character. He lacks West's sardonic sense of humor. He's also much more morally upright, at least at first. He's a prototypical Lovecraft protagonist: He's seen horrors he can't unseen and, by the end, looses his mind because of it. He's even introduced inside an insane asylum. Combs clearly has a blast playing such a nervous, conflicted character. (He would elevate that to an art form in “The Frighteners,” a decade later.)

“From Beyond” is essentially built around a quartet of characters. Occupying the last corner of that square is Ken Foree as Bubba Brownlee, the cop investigating the strange events. Foree essentially plays the straight man, the ordinary person reacting with a mixture of bafflement and abject horror to the events around him. He's the only one who seems unaffected by the Resonator, keeping a clear head even as the situation gets crazier. Foree is very entertaining in the part and the film looses something after his exit. (Though we probably could've done without the scene of him running around in a red speedo.) That's about it for the supporting cast, though Gordon does fit his wife into a fun, small role as a bitchy doctor.

“From Beyond” is nearly as good as “Re-Animator” in many respects but trails behind Gordon's previous film in one aspect. There's an unnecessary stopover in the script, in-between the second act and the film's proper climax. Tillinghast, his pineal gland extending from his head, is carried off to a hospital. There, he discovers a newfound hunger for human brains. This feels like a scene from another movie, something out of a less sophisticated and trashier slasher flick. The gore is intense but this sequence ends up contributing little to the story. In many ways, it feels like a scene added to “From Beyond” to pump up the run time. We return to Pretorius' lab by the end, the story continuing unabated by the hospital set piece.

In “Re-Animator,” Gordon fled his theater background by making a film with an active, moving camera. In “From Beyond,” he expands his style into other directions. “From Beyond” is literally a colorful movie. An eye-rending color palette – a mixture of red, pink, and purple – overtakes the film any time the Resonator is turned on. This establishes a unique atmosphere, visually luring the viewer into an altered state. The colors also bring the fleshy folds of the villain's shifting body to mind. It's a good-looking film, the director leaving the confines of the stage far behind.

Instead of going the unrated route again, “From Beyond” was submitted to the MPAA. Due to its gore and kinky sexual content, the film underwent multiple revisions before getting an R rating. For years, this shortened cut was the only commercially available release. Luckily, the unrated director's cut has been on DVD for quite a while now, allowing us to appreciate Gordon's film in all its visceral glory. Ultimately, “From Beyond” is not quite as good as “Re-Animator.” It lacks that film's humor and strong characters.  However, it's still an audacious horror picture, full of awesome special effects and mind-bending ideas. [Grade: B+]

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