This month I have had the good fortune, thanks to those lovely people at Second Sight, to revisit a movie I haven’t seen since its original UK VHS release back in the late 1980s. The film is From Beyond, it was Stuart Gordon’s follow-up to his delirious and delicious Re-Animator, and it comes out on blu-ray and DVD on February 25th in a special edition packed with extras, about which more in just a moment.
Stuart Gordon’s horror movie career has been something of a chequered one, like most directors working in the low budget arena. Most consider Re-Animator to be his best work, but I would argue that Dagon, his 2001 adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, comes a very close second. A couple of years ago I was invited to Reading Library to discuss the history of Lovecraft in the cinema. Gwilym Games asked the questions and provided the film clips, and I did my best to entertain the audience with a summary of each movie under discussion. When we came to discuss Stuart Gordon I remembered that Dagon had been a project he had been trying to get off the ground since the success of Re-Animator. Frederick C Clarke’s late lamented Cinefantastique magazine even ran a preview of it with a beautiful cover painting of a gorgeous naked girl with gills rising from the sea. It eventually took sixteen years for Dagon to be made. The reasons for that are manifold, but amongst the many extras on the From Beyond disc is an interview with Gordon himself, who says producer Charles Band felt that people turning into fish wouldn’t be something audiences would be interested in.
So instead, From Beyond became the next HPL project after Re-Animator. Anyone who has read the story will know it’s a very slight piece – just a few pages which are essentially adapted to form the pre-title sequence of the movie. Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton are back from Re-Animator, but this time with their roles slightly reversed. Crampton is now the psychiatrist who cannot wait to turn on Dr Pretorius’s resonator device that Combs’ Crawford Tillinghast (great name) has been helping him with. Pretorius (Ted Sorel) has had his head pulled off by whatever THING the device has brought ‘from beyond’ and Crampton’s tissue-thin excuse for switching everything back on is that it will help Crawford overcome his psychological traumas. So the two of them, with ex-jock policeman Ken Foree, set off to get involved with all manner of great big slimy things.
One of the very fine things Gordon and his screenwriter Dennis Paoli have always done is make HPL sexy. There’s very little sex in Lovecraft’s writings apart from the deep subtextual horror of absolutely everything to do with it. Rather than be repulsed by sex, Gordon and Paoli often revel in it – Dagon has sexy Macarena Gomez as a half-tentacle woman, and the sight of Raquel Merono suspended naked over a pit full of wriggly things isn’t there just for horror value. It makes perfect sense, then, that in adapting a story that is about ‘extra senses’ that they make their experimenter someone who is impotent and looking for the extremities of experience. It therefore also makes perfect sense that Pretorius would have a room full of bondage gear and got up to all sorts of terrible things in his spare time in an attempt to turn himself on. When Crampton switches on the resonator she changes from cold obsessive psychiatrist into someone in whom the sensual side has finally been unlocked in a way that Pretorius was wishing for all long. Barbara Crampton’s contribution to Stuart Gordon’s Lovecraftian universe cannot be understated. A beautiful actress who also happened to be game for any outrageous activity that would enhance the flamboyant over the top sexiness of both From Beyond and Re-Animator, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job in both of these pictures, and I don’t think any other actress of the period could have (or would have). It’s surprising to hear on the extras that there was some concern that she was thought too young and gorgeous to be believable as a psychiatrist. I have to admit this never crossed the minds of either myself or my horror movie enthusiast friends when we first watched this all those years ago, and it didn’t occur to me this time, either.
At Pretorius’ house, while Crampton is busy getting into leather, Combs gets swallowed by an enormous worm (which could also represent voracious sexuality) which somehow eats nothing but his hair, which is a good thing from the point of view of the special effects as it makes it much easier for us to see his weird, sprouty pineal gland that pops out of what looks suspiciously like a vagina on his forehead. Combs now needs to eat brains and suck people’s eyeballs out in a variety of scenes that still feel over the top despite the amount of slime and weirdness we’ve already been exposed to. There’s not much else in the way of plot and From Beyond’s brief running time (about 80 minutes) ends with a big explosion and Crampton going beautifully insane.
As a follow-up to Re-Animator, there was no way one could not be a little bit disappointed by From Beyond on its original release. Filled with monsters, gore and sexy bits, it nevertheless feels quite different to Gordon’s first film. The attempt to provide as shocking a prologue sequence as we got from Herbert West doesn’t quite work because instead of seeing the gory aftermath of the attack on Pretorius, the effects work of his headless body is obscured by a poodle and a too-quick fade to the main titles. The photography, apart from the resonator room, is TV sitcom bright, as opposed to Re-Animator’s considerably darker, gloomy hues and grainier look. These are minor quibbles, really, though, as despite the fact that more horror movies are being made these days than ever before, it’s still rare to come across something as outrageous and creative as this. Second Sight’s blu-ray is a lovely transfer, and makes the weird colours of the resonator room and Combs’ pineal gland ‘visions’ a delight to behold. The disc boasts numerous extras, including a commentary track and separate interviews with Stuart Gordon, Dennis Paoli, Barbara Crampton, and Richard Band – quite possibly my favourite horror movie composer from this era. Add in the usual collection of trailers, photo galleries, and a featurette on special effects and Second Sight’s blu-ray of From Beyond is a very well-presented package of a kind of horror there should be more of but because there isn’t that just makes it all the more special.
JOHN LLEWELLYN PROBERT
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