So it’s Saturday night, and Red Molly and I settle in with some Chinese food and a movie. Being who we are, of course it’s a horror movie. This week’s offering, cast up by the tides of Netflix, was the 1986 movie From Beyond, based on the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name.
From Beyond was created by the team of Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna, who had also mined Lovecraft with the previous year’s Re-Animator, and would again in the much later Dagon. Gordon and Yuzna have been more successful than anyone else in bringing Lovecraft’s indescribable horrors to the big screen, but they’ve mostly done so by filling the movies with gore and body horror that would have had Lovecraft throwing up on his shoes and denouncing them as No Gentlemen.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Lovecraft had an innovative imagination for horror that may never be equaled; he created a new genre and whole new phyla of monsters. Even such giants as Stephen King only walk in his footsteps. But he had a writing style that made all of these unspeakable horrors seem as dry as legal briefs, he had the ear for dialogue that you just naturally develop when you’re a near shut-in who communicates almost entirely by mail, and he was a raving bigot to boot.
(Let me put it this way: one of his lesser-known short stories, Medusa’s Coil, tells the story of a mysterious woman who marries into an old Southern family. She’s a witch with connections to Terrible Elder Mysteries, but the ultimate, shocking horror revealed at the end is that she is, gasp, a negress.)
So it’s understandable that Lovecraft’s work might need a bit of tinkering before it’s suitable to another medium. To Gordon and Yuzna’s credit, they are reasonably faithful to the broad outlines of Lovecraft’s work, even if they do take some liberties with the details.
(Oddly, in Dagon they’re actually faithful to an entirely different Lovecraft story – The Shadow Over Innsmouth – but they are faithful. Except that they set it in Spain instead of New England for some reason. But that’s for another review.)
From Beyond shows more of such tinkering than the other two. This was largely unavoidable. The Shadow Over Innsmouth and Herbert West: Re-Animator were very long short stories, nearly novellas. Perfect length for direct conversion into movies. From Beyond, as you’d know if you followed the link, is about three pages long, if that. Some padding was necessary if Gordon and Yuzna wanted something longer than an 8-minute short.
Plot synopsis, with spoilers, to follow.
The movie begins in a mad scientist’s attic laboratory. Crawford Tillenghast (Jeffrey Combs), the mad scientist’s assistant, is working late. He types a command into his computer, and –
You know, I always find it funny, watching movies from the Eighties where computers are essentially treated as magic, or earlier science fiction movies where we’re informed that something awesomely high-tech and sciencey is going on here! by the presence of rooms full of state-of-the art computer equipment with clicking switches and rolling tapes (again, essentially treated as magic)…and realizing that I have more computing power in a single function of my phone.
Anyway. Tillenghast types a command into his computer, and the Mad Science machine – the Resonator, which looks like set of giant tuning forks – begins to run.
After a moment, Tillenghast notices a pink, eel-like creature “swimming” through the air near one of the tuning forks.
It is rather pretty, so I can’t blame him when he tries to touch it, but it turns out to be a bad idea: the eel-thing reacts like any wild animal might, and bites him on the face.
Rather unfortunate as first contacts go, but Tillenghast has just been bitten on the face by a creature from another dimension. As a scientist, this is still the most awesome thing that could possibly happen. He runs to wake his boss, Dr. Pretorius (a reference to Bride of Frankenstein), who is very pleased that the Resonator is finally working.
Too pleased, as it turns out. Both men can sense something coming, and Tillenghast understandably wants to turn the Resonator off. Pretorius refuses: he wants to see more than anyone ever has.
In another movie, Dr. Pretorius would playing with a puzzle box instead of building mad science machines.
Of course, Pretorius already has seen more than anyone ever has, and could surely look again some other time when Yog-Sothoth isn’t paying attention, but no one ever thinks of these things in these movies.
A neighbor calls the cops to complain about the noise and lights coming from the Mad Scientist’s Mansion that appears to be conveniently located in a charming suburb, and the police arrive just as Tillenghast comes running out the front door. Even though the police were called on a noise complaint, they promptly slam him down on the squad car and cuff him.
An indeterminate but apparently short time later, the scene shifts to a hospital, where we’re introduced to Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton, who had worked with Gordon, Yuzna and Combs the previous year in Re-Animator). We quickly learn three things about Dr. McMichaels: 1) She’s on the cutting edge of psychological theory; 2) the doctors at the hospital, especially one Dr. Bloch, don’t like her because (among other reasons) she experiments on her patients “like guinea pigs”, though exactly what she does that is different than standard clinical trials and experimental treatments is never made clear; and 3) she is easily distracted and none too observant of safety measures.
Dr. McMichaels has been called in because the police and the hospital have a difficult case: Dr. Pretorius is dead, apparently decapitated with an axe by Tillenghast. However, there was no blood on the scene – not on Tillenghast, not on the axe, not on the floor and not in the body – Pretorius’s head has not been found, and Tillenghast keeps insisting that “It. Ate! Him!” Specifically, he claims that he and Pretorius developed a machine – the Resonator – that would enhance the power of the pineal gland, thus allowing them to perceive the other-dimensional creatures that surround us at all times, and allow those creatures to perceive us. Somehow. Maybe by enhancing their pineal glands. And it was one of these creatures that ate Pretorius’s head.
I’m not going to pick on this “pineal gland” thing much, because it comes straight from the original story, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Tillenghast and Pretorius were physicists. What do they know about the pineal gland? And even if they were MD’s as well, how does a device that enhances a human’s pineal gland allow the other-dimensional creatures to perceive us? And even if we can perceive each other, how does it allow us to touch each other? The movie – and Lovecraft himself – might have been better off using a different kind of sci-fi bollocks and saying that the Resonator brought the separate dimensions “into sync” with each other, whatever that might mean. Now that’s a job for a physicist.
Interestingly enough, a CAT Scan reveals that Tillenghast’s pineal gland is, in fact, enlarged. Dr. Bloch simply takes this to mean that Tillenghast has a tumor which is causing his violent delusions, but McMichaels gets an inkling that Tillenghast might not be so delusional. The police just want to know what happened in that attic that night, so they release Tillenghast to McMichaels’s care. They only send along one officer for security, one Detective Buford “Bubba” Brownlee (Ken Foree, who might be more familiar to horror hounds as Peter from Dawn of the Dead). One would think that a suspected axe murderer, even one as scrawny as Jeffrey Combs, would rate more.
Once they get back to the Pretorius Mansion, things start to go very wrong very quickly, as one would expect in a movie that just barely tops eighty minutes.
First, we discover that Pretorius was mad in more ways than one when we find his bondage dungeon. Because a taste for BDSM is pop culture shorthand for “sick, twisted pervert and possible incipient serial killer”.
Second, we learn that the stimulation that the Resonator gives to the pineal gland is both an erotic and an addictive experience. This is why Pretorius, who “wasn’t satisfied with five senses”, wanted it in the first place. McMichaels and Tillenghast spend most of the rest of the movie with their faces mashed together for just this reason.
Third, we learn that it is McMichaels, not Tillenghast, who is this movie’s Obsessive Seeker Of Forbidden Knowledge. That’s interesting. That role doesn’t usually go to a woman. Off the top of my head, the only one I can think of is Professor Joyce Reardon from Stephen King’s Rose Red, though I’m sure there must be more. In McMichaels’s case, her obsession has its source in her father’s mental illness: he spent the last fifteen years of his life locked away in one asylum after another, with no treatment having any useful effect. She believes that the Resonator could be the key to curing schizophrenia, though right now it seems to be doing a better job of causing madness than curing it.
Finally, and most importantly, we learn that Pretorius isn’t properly dead. Yes, the “it” that both he and Tillenghast sensed coming in the opening sequence did indeed bite his head off, but it seems he wasn’t merely eaten – he was incorporated. He has become one of the other-dimensional creatures himself now, and over the course of the movie he is constantly mutating toward some horrible final form.
Pretorius describes what’s happened to him as the ultimate sensual experience, and he wants to share it with McMichaels as soon as possible.
By the way, thank you for showing us your breasts in that scene, Ms. Crampton. Very nice. I do wonder why Pretorius needed to stretch his fingers to fondle them, though.
So despite nearly getting eaten the first time, our merry band of fools (especially Dr. McMichaels) keep playing with the Resonator until true disaster strikes.
Along the way, Dr. McMichaels changes into some of the leather lingerie that Pretorius kept around for his lady guests. Because BDSM…
Look. I know what they’re doing here. Pretorius was addicted to sensual pleasures even as a human, and was forced to pursue ever-more-extreme experiences to satisfy his jaded palate, which led him to being consumed by the forces from Outside. Dr. McMichaels is clearly heading down the same path, and the outward symbol of that is her breaking into Pretorius’s bondage gear. I understand it. I really do. It’s a story as old as humanity’s attempts to control its sex drive. But the way they present it is unjust. BDSM enthusiasts may be perverts (and proudly so), but they don’t cause any real harm. It’s not fair that they’re Hollywood shorthand for sexual predators.
Anyway. They finally come to their senses after Tillenghast is nearly eaten by a giant extradimensional worm (the thing’s digestive juices stripped every bit of hair from his upper body and left his skin bleached), but of course by then it’s too late. The Resonator activates itself, Bubba is stripped to the bone by flesh-eating insects from beyond the pale, and Tillenghast’s pineal gland bursts through his forehead and becomes an antenna (much like the one Pretorius already has, uh-oh) before Dr. McMichaels shuts down the Resonator by spraying it with a fire extinguisher.
Note: this is one of the more annoying things about the movie. Every time the Resonator starts misbehaving, they have to use a different method to turn it off, because the Forces from Outside (probably Pretorius himself) learn to defend against attacks that worked before. They cut power cords, pull circuit breakers, spray with fire extinguishers…
But there is a big. Glass. Ball. Right! In the middle! Of the Resonator’s workings! Right there! Smash the damn thing!
Next scene, and we’re back to the hospital. The police aren’t listening to Dr. McMichaels anymore, though they don’t have any explanation of their own as to how Bubba got eaten.
Faced with something she just can’t explain in the form of Tillenghast’s condition (his pineal gland is wriggling around in his forehead like a parasite), Dr. Bloch is all too happy to turn her attention to Dr. McMichaels. Though she has every reason to be angry (after all, this whole situation really is Dr. McMichaels’s fault), it’s clear that Dr. Bloch is acting out of spite and jealousy when she sentences McMichaels to completely unnecessary electroshock treatment. They want us to hate her so we don’t feel bad when Tillenghast gets up off his sickbed and starts eating people’s brains, starting with hers, and it works.
I must compliment Tillenghast’s brain-eating technique here, by the way. Instead of going in through the thickest part of the skull like the Return of the Living Dead zombies do, he goes in through the eye socket.
During his rampage, Dr. McMichaels escapes and heads back to the Pretorius Mansion with a bomb that she got from…somewhere. With that many sticks of dynamite, she really could have just tossed it through a window and ran, but I can’t blame her for wanting to be absolutely sure. Of course, going into the house and placing the bomb on the Resonator sets us up for a final confrontation between her, Tillenghast, and Pretorius.
(During which we find out that Dr. Pretorius, the obsessive hedonist, was impotent. Because of course he was. Just ask General Ripper. Today we have Viagra, but in the old days you just had to go murderously insane.)
Of course, as any Lovecraft reader will know, it’s far too late to help any of them. By the time it’s over, Tillenghast and Pretorius have disappeared into The Beyond and McMichaels is left with shattered legs (impressive prosthetics there) and shattered sanity, doing her best to imitate Jeffrey Combs’s mannerisms as she declares to anyone who will listen that “It. Ate! Him!”
Now, for all of my MST3K-ing in this review, I have to say that I liked this movie. It’s good and fast-paced (even for its short running time), with some positively Cronenbergian body horror. The extra-dimensional terrors are well-realized, while still retaining a Lovecraftian hint that something worse is waiting beyond. After all, we never do see what initially took Pretorius, and his constant metamorphoses give us every reason to believe that he’s merely a larval form of that same horror.
And of course, Barbara Crampton giving us some more pleasant scenery.
Sorry to the heterosexual women in the audience, you are once again neglected.
This movie has been largely lost in the shadow of the more-famous Re-Animator, and that’s a shame. In the end, Re-Animator is just a very well-done zombie movie. This movie does a much better job of exploring the themes that Lovecraft is famous for (along with some that he wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, but those are mostly improvements), and it deserves a better fate than to be condemned to the five-dollar bin. Give it a look.