I have a weird love-hate thing with H.P. Lovecraft. I recognize that a lot of the themes, creatures, and worlds he created are brilliant and integral to the horror scene as it is now. I’ve heard people tell me or have read plot synopses of some of his greater works like The Call of Cthulhu, The Shadow Out of Time, and At the Mountains of Madness and been enthralled and intrigued by the imagination of these disturbing, universe-changing stories. And do I even need to mention his creation of the Necronomicon? But then I got to read them and I’m incredibly bored by his writing style, and movies based on his work haven’t fared much better. I wrote about a particularly dumb adaptation of The Dunwich Horror a couple of years ago.
Amid all the bad adaptations of some dense and hard to get through stories is a set of films by director Stuart Gordon, (who no matter what else he does will be forever remembered as the guy who directed Re-Animator in 1985), to date the very best movie based (loosely) on a Lovecraft work. And he followed up that success with another Lovecraft adaptation with largely the same cast and crew, and it’s easily the second best Lovecraft movie, 1986’s From Beyond.
“From Beyond” was never one of Lovecraft’s more highly regarded short stories, having appeared in the pulp magazine The Fantasy Fan in 1934. Reviews of the time called the concepts “interesting” despite “immature writing.” (Sort of my complaints.) But the concepts were very interesting: a scientist and his aid have created a device that stimulates a person’s pineal gland, which then allows them to perceive another plane of existence—one populated by strange slug and worm-like creatures. The machine also allowed the alien beings to perceive us, which proved particularly bad.
The whole of the short story makes up only the opening scene of the film and so Gordon and his Re-Animator writer Dennis Paoli had to — if you’ll pardon the pun — flesh out the plot and create something that could sustain a feature-length runtime. As they did with the previous film, they upped the sex by a whole lot, and even extrapolated on the pleasure responses a stimulated pineal gland would have on people. The result is a weird sort of Hellraiser motif wherein the scientist is a hedonist who wants to achieve the highest form of pain and pleasure, and the sins of the flesh are no match for the sins of the mind.
Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) is that hedonist and at the beginning of the film, he’s taken over by the things from another dimension and his assistant, Dr. Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs from Re-Animator) has to stop him. However, he’s called mad and a murderer — because who would believe him — and placed in a mental ward. Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton, also from Re-Animator) is fascinated by his claims and orders a CAT scan which shows that Tillinghast’s pineal gland is enlarged and growing. Clearly something happened, and she believes he can show her the Resonator machine and prove his innocence.
Naturally nothing goes to plan, and after they’re joined at the house by Detective Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree), the attempt to turn on the Resonator allows a now-mutated Pretorius to appear, telling them that “humans are such easy prey.” The more the machine is one, the more it affects Tillinghast and Katherine, and soon his pineal gland pops out of his head and he begins craving human brains. But more and more creatures come out of the other dimension, and the fate of humanity hangs in the balance.
From Beyond is certainly a lesser movie than Re-Animator, but it’s also not trying to be played for as many laughs. Bringing stuff back from the dead as the earlier film did can be done comedically, but this story doesn’t have much in the way of hilarious moments—save the general humor of the Bubba character. This movie does up the gruesomeness and the pulsating flesh monsters that have become a staple of producer Brian Yuzna (who went on to direct the king of pulsating flesh monster movies, Society).
One thing I particularly enjoy about both of these films is their inherent color schemes. Re-Animator‘s hue was a constant neon green, almost yellow in its brightness, and the whole movie sort of kept that color even when the formula for bringing people back to life was nowhere around. Similarly, From Beyond uses a bright neon pink or magenta to accentuate the other dimension and the growing of the pineal gland. It gives them each a definite look and feel all their own and makes them stand out as being something different from usual darkly lit horror movies.
The cast is very good. We spend most of our time with Combs, Crampton, and Foree, and they play off each other rather well during the middle part of the movie. The Resonator effects people differently and after her brief first exposure, Katherine’s amorousness is raised and so she puts on leather dominatrix outfits and tries to get it on with an unconscious Tillinghast and later Bubba (who even in his underwear still has his shoulder holster on). These scenes are there for titillation, yes, but they also give Bubba a very strong sense of morality and allow for Katherine to experience the allure of the other dimension. She’s at once aghast at herself and also wants to find out more.
Combs has the interesting position to being both a hero and a villain of the piece. In Re-Animator, his Dr. Herbert West is an amoral antihero, but here his Crawford Tillinghast wants nothing to do with this infernal machine but keeps having to use it for greedy people to see. Which (of course) then causes him to mutate and eventually become the monster of the piece, eating people’s brains due to an uncontrollable urge.
I feel like, in general, Lovecraft stories made into films work best — or really only work — when they deal with some horror or atrocity impacting a small group of people, be it a town or a school or what have you. The bigger Elder Gods style of his overarching work in general doesn’t seem to work. Even Gordon himself directed an adaptation of one of these stories (Dagon was the name of the film, though it was actually based on the much later story The Shadow over Innsmouth) to varying degrees of success. But From Beyond and Re-Animator represent the imagination and the ghastly stuff Lovecraft was known for but with a bit of an edge that makes them more palatable to modern audiences.
From Beyond is a lot of fun, also very grotty, and that’s what you want from a gruey ’80s horror flick, I think.
Images: Empire Pictures