Written by: Brain Yuzna, Dennis Paoli, and Stuart Gordon (adaptation), H.P. Lovecraft (short story)
Directed by: Stuart Gordon
Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Ted Sorel, and Ken Foree
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Don't you understand? This is the greatest discovery since van Leeuwenhoek first looked through a microscope and saw an amoeba!”
"Yeah, but he wasn't down there with the amoebas!"
"Yeah, but he wasn't down there with the amoebas!"
There are three major reasons to check out Stuart Gordon’s follow-up to Re-Animator: the ridiculous effects work, the fine cast, and Barbara Crampton in S&M gear (maybe not necessarily in that order). Once again working from an H.P. Lovecraft short story, Gordon presents From Beyond with the same broad, splat-stick approach as its predecessor. Though less-revered than Re-Animator, this one is arguably more weird and campy, but no less memorable.
Benevolent Street doesn’t exactly have a sinister ring to it, but if you’re talking about the house at 666 Benevolent, chances are that strange shit is going down. That’s where Dr. Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) and Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) have unlocked another plane of existence by creating “the resonator,” a machine that stimulates the pineal gland. This organ allows one to see beyond normal perception, but it also brings something from beyond, and Pretorius soon becomes a casualty. Tillinghast survives but gets tossed in an insane asylum where he meets Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Crampton), who wants to return to the house on Benevolent Street to finish what was started.
From Beyond is almost like a cyberpunk companion piece to Gordon’s first film and is certainly working with similar themes. While this one is perhaps leans a bit more towards the metaphysical, there’s still the obvious Frankenstein riffs of toying with science and the nature of the soul. In fact, it’s probably got more in common with Frankenstein than Re-Animator; whereas that film was mostly concerned with the visceral, literal nature of re-animating a dead body, From Beyond is all about shedding corporeal husks (“it’s only a body,” after all) and experiencing something sensual through the mind. What’s great, however, is that this is still somehow a very sexual, physically stimulating affair: the pineal gland takes the shape of a phallic stinger, and the entire experience of crossing over into the beyond is loaded with unsubtle birth imagery, such as the weird, flying sperm-like stuff. In fact, the film’s climax is announced by the breaking of water, which leads to one of the film’s staggering effects displays.
All of this is terrifically conceived both technically and tonally; it’s wildly silly stuff, Gordon plays it up that way. He also hands the film over to the real stars: the effects crew (headed by the legendary John Carl Buechler), who construct some really wild, strange designs. It always struck me that both Gordon and frequent collaborator Brian Yuzna were like Cronenberg’s little brothers in body horror in their ability to mangle and deform their casts. This is the one time they come close to topping the master, as the elaborate, twisted malformations on display are truly impressive (incidentally, Cronenberg’s most memorable deformities, The Fly, also bowed in ’86--it was a good year for mad scientist flicks). At the center of it is the hideously contorted Pretorius, brought to life by a giant apparatus that renders Sorel unrecognizable. The sliminess of it all is certainly noteworthy; everything from the brain-sucking (through the eye cavity) to the amniotic splatter is marked by a slick gooiness. This leads to a great visual pun involving egg yolk that lets you know you’re in on a big joke.
Gordon wisely holds all this stuff back, though; for about half an hour, we’re actually presented with the mystery of just what happened to Pretorius. Tillinghast tells us he died because something unseen bit his head off (“like a gingerbread man,” Combs so earnestly insists), so we’re eagerly anticipate what lies beyond. This also provides a serviceable amount of time to introduce the decent cast of characters. Combs and Crampton are of course carry-overs from Re-Animator (and would continue to pop up in Gordon’s films), but there’s a bit of a role reversal here. Once again a brilliant scientist hailing from Miskatonic University, Combs is much less prickly, though he’s still quite theatrical in his portrayal of the frantic Tillinghast. He’s not the obsessive scientist pushing to stretch the limits--that would actually be Crampton, who is an underrated scream queen. Her screen-stealing S&M scene is awesome not only for its obvious visual appeal, but also for its absurdity. If that’s not enough, you also get cult favorite Ken Foree as her police escort; not only is he the token minority, but he also insists he’ll “be right back” at one point, so there’s little doubt who might be first to go out of the trio.
The S&M stuff is interesting; it belongs to Pretorius, whose desire to reach beyond his carnal knowledge anticipates the same stuff that would show up in Hellraiser a year later. However, From Beyond isn’t grim and disturbing like that film; instead, look to where the obvious inspiration for Pretorius’s name: Bride of Frankenstein, another broad bit of mad science gone awry. I’ve always found it interesting how Gordon was able to funnel and co-opt Shelley’s themes through the bizarre visual stylings of Lovecraft; I suppose it follows that he’d channel James Whale in both of these films. His career has been an odd one, as he never quite came close to recapturing the grandness of his first two efforts and found himself in the DTV market within ten years (though Castle Freak is admittedly one of the great films to emerge from that arena).
From Beyond is one of the great effects-driven splatter flicks whose grand guignol sensibilities are buoyed by a sly sort of humor. I’d hesitate to call it a horror comedy, but one can certainly imagine that the mutated form of Dr. Pretorius likely had a twisted tongue grafted to its cheek. The slight satirical leanings and its gentle thrashing of the mad scientist genre make for a deviously entertaining horror film. It also happens to be one of the last major horror films to bow on DVD; arriving in the fall of 2007 (along with other stalwarts like The Burning and Tales From the Crypt), it made its digital debut completely uncut courtesy of MGM/Fox. The presentation is quite immaculate, as the transfer is rich in color and finely detailed; the Dolby Surround track isn’t reference-quality, but it’s fine. Special features include short features entitled “The Director’s Perspective” and “The Editing Room Lost and Found,” a photo montage, storyboard comparisons, and a commentary with Gordon and the cast. Scream Factory has also released a recent update that ports over all of this and adds some new stuff, including a recent interviews with Combs and Crampton. About the only thing missing is a mini-resonator packaging gimmick. Buy it!
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