Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Glenn likes The Beyond? Where's the consistency in that? Savant reviews have extolled the understatement, poetic dialogue and eerie images of older horror films, and laid into exploitation pictures that throw together a series of gory shocks and call it art. I spent the '70s and '80s avidly reading about Euro-horror masterpieces I couldn't see. Twenty years later when they became available on DVD, some of them were bound to be disappointments.
But even as a I grumbled at some of the worshipful words in the Hardy Encyclopedia of Horror, some gems did materialize out of the fog of hard-to-see cinema.
Lucio Fulci's zombie and 'gates of hell' films are insubstantial in some ways -- lightweight in theme, short on intellectual ideas. I have to say I have little love for the majority of his pictures -- too much of a prude, I suppose. The Beyond is no improvement in subject matter, as on one level it's yet another stomach churner aiming to revolt the audience every seven minutes or so, as if keeping a train schedule. But I think Fulci got most everything into balance on this one. Does this show have an important point to put across? Not really, as all it wants to say is that our world is an illusion, a brief pause on the way to a realm of pure horror. The Beyond doesn't waste time with pseudo rationalizations for its nihilistic content. Horror stuff happens, without a lot of debate. Is it disturbing? Yes and no. A prude like myself probably feels guilty thinking, 'Who knows I'm watching this?' Quite a bit of the awful stuff that happens is ludicrous. Yet the film has beautiful images that pull us in and empathetic lead performances that keep us interested. Even better, the movie has a good present-tense this-is-happening tension, which spirals beyond its obvious horror material to a kind of disoriented, all-encompassing delirium.
The establishment of this feeling of constricting delirium counts for a lot in modern horror.. It's as if Fear were a Black Hole, and the warped emotional reality around its perimeter creates strange sensations. For a little kid, an even slightly disturbing film can set off waves of chills. I don't ever remember being strongly affected by Universal's classic movies when I was young, but the contemplation of Karloff's ages-old Mummy or his cadaverous Frankenstein's monster still generates a chill or two. Normally I'm a skeptic like the Dana Andrews character in Night of the Demon, so I resent movies that seriously expect me to believe in superstitious dogma. The Beyond keeps its mysticism vague and its jeopardy personal. Whatever power is turning reality into a nightmare, is punishing human beings for being physical beings capable of suffering pain. It's ridiculously simple, but it's also part of the human condition. We're vulnerable and we're scared.
Don't expect more original concepts. As with many ghost stories The Beyond is about a serious real estate problem. New Yorker Liza (Catriona MacColl) has bought an old New Orleans hotel that needs a lot of work. Her maid and handyman aren't very bright, for they stay on after both a painter and Joe The Plumber (Giovanni De Nava) are horribly killed under mysterious circumstances. Jill is confronted with frighteningly real horror-visions, such as a mutilated corpse crucified to a wall in room number 36. Then there's the horrible 'thing' the maid finds under the murky surface of a glop-filled bathtub. A contractor takes a bad fall while looking up the hotel's original blueprints. While he's lying conscious but paralyzed, a horde of tarantulas eat his eyes and tongue. Faced with a morgue filling up with rotting corpses, skeptical Dr. John McCabe investigates the hotel. He chides Liza for imagining these hallucinations, which now include a phantom blind woman, Emily (Cinzia Monreale/Sarah Keller) who warns Liza to leave the hotel and not come back. Sixty years ago, resident artist Schweick (Antoine Saint-John) lived in room 36. He learned the hotel's diabolical secret: the building is home to one of seven doorways to Hell. When the witch-hunters came to execute Schweick, he was painting a landscape displaying a vision of Hell itselfÉ from personal observation.
Intelligent and bright-faced Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck provide a human contact that makes the various excesses of The Beyond work, no matter how ludicrous some of them become. A couple of the effects are just bad, as when we're meant to accept wind-up spiders, or a victim's face so fake that it seems to be made of Play-Doh. But the majority of the gore effects excel in their perverse artistry. Is City of the Living Dead the Fulci picture where a woman appears to vomit out her organs, as if turning inside out? No finesse there, that just seemed egregious. The makeup artists of The Beyond pull off illusions where we think we're watching a real face, that will soon cut to a fake mask so that some disgusting mutilation or another can occur. Nope -- in a traumatic eye-gouging, the switch to the special makeup replacement must have happened earlier. I can see the trick knocking audiences for a loop.
In the irrational context of The Beyond, all of these awful things are happening simply because the portal Hell is opened, loosing the undiluted evil of the cosmos yadda yadda. Therefore nothing needs to make sense except the awful realization that the Forces of Hell (or the filmmakers) have thought of horros more awful than those we could think of on our own. A spike being pounded through a man's wrist is frighteningly convincing. A woman's head is driven onto a similar spike in a way that pushes her eye out of the front of her head -- splat. It's done in shock cuts. Gore hounds will simply snarl their approval, perhaps congratulating themselves for being tough enough to take these jolts and ask for more. Perhaps that's the appeal. "I survived The Beyond, therefore I am." Who is more insecure, the viewer unaware of these horrors, or the horror fan who believes he's immune to them?
Lucio Fulci must have scratched his cornea as a child, because he places eye trauma at the apex of morbid fears. It certainly is for me, as I've always avoided touching my eyes and have never considered wearing contact lenses. All of Fulci's main actors eventually wear full-eyeball contacts that give them milky-white horror-eyes, and I hope the discomfort is less awful than it looks. I'm not the fainting kind but any messing about with eyes is definite discomfort zone stuff. I'm strictly a John Agar -- Paul Birch type when it comes to those things. Both of those actors had to wear oversized contacts for a 'monster' effect, and reportedly hated them so much that filming was disrupted.
The Beyond ends with the requisite army of mutilated, rotting zombies coming forward to menace the main characters. They appear to subscribe to the Official George Romero Rulebook: a gunshot to the head drops 'em like a bad habit. But the film saves for its penultimate shock one horror effect directed against a child, which tops any I've witnessed. This was before CGI, of course. Nothing we see in a film today shocks because anything that one can think of, can be done. This is different. The Beyond takes us by surprise with the sight of a head being blown in two by a point blank pistol shot. A human being is turned into an awful bloody mess in a fraction of a second. It's almost shameful to admit that one ends up admiring this near-perfect illusion. This one effect satisfied and sated my desire to see such things; I have expended my curiosity for effects that imitate atrocity photos. The Beyond 'used up' my interest in further titillation in this way, and shortened my tolerance for this end of the genre.
The film comes together in a rather sublime ending unrelated to the taboo of human mutilation. Leave it to Italian designers to invent The Beyond's flooded hotel basement, which is practically a River Styx, just one short flight down a rickety circular staircase. Beyond that is a paradox-world, an oneiric void where, no matter which way one turns to look, there's only one POV, a 'view' that you yourself inhabit, or more accurately, have merged with. This uncanny visual contradiction is related to phenomena in other fantasies. The unchanging perspective on the hill in Invaders from Mars is one, as is the tunnel to nowhere in Michele Soavi's Dellamorte Dellamore. Also coming to mind are the dimensionally constrictive rooms in Mario Bava's Kill, Baby... Kill! through which one can chase one's self, as if in a hall of mirrors designed by Escher.
These contradictory visual concepts must be kept simple to have the right effect -- a six-way clever construction as in Whedon and Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods requires an instruction booklet just to get on the same page as the author. The horror in The Beyond is as simple as Schweik's painting, which paradoxically is itself as real as Hell -- unchanging, practically two-dimensional.
I understand some experts consider The Beyond to be a culmination of sorts, as if what has followed in the same vein has mostly re-plowed the same ground. A mainstream review perspective doesn't work with The Beyond, as there's no good answer to a question like, 'where's the quality script?' The words aren't evocative but the images are. The likeable main characters, the sense of place (and anti-place) make it work for me -- and I thought I had plenty of sales resistance to modern guts 'n' gore horror. Perhaps someone could catch me on the right day and make me see the sublime virtues in Jésus Franco's films. But first they must catch me.
Grindhouse Releasing's Blu-ray of The Beyond seeks to be the ultimate release of this exotic horror effort, one that's not likely to be announced in your Sunday newspaper supplement. Grindhouse's excellent technical presentation puts the show far into the plus category. The picture looks great, from the atmospheric sepia toned opening to the lush New Orleans locations (which I believe are real) to the hotel interiors oozing (often literally) with the meticulous Italian art direction of those days -- great, great stuff. We even admire Fulci and cameraman Sergio Salvati's choice of lenses. The images cut so well that I forget to notice whether scenes are shot wide or with long lenses. I don't recall many zoom shots... proof that I was once again pulled in deep enough not to click off mundane technical observations.
The extras are legion, and really too much for this viewer. A second Blu-ray disc contains nine or ten extended interviews and post-screening Q&A session tapes from various dates, mostly in England. MacColl and Warbeck (why weren't he and Ian Ogilvy bigger stars?) have fun playing amused celebrities, giving out with, 'We never thought this would become a cult film' speeches. The best of these interviews is with sleaze distributor Terry Levene, who turned The Beyond into a U.S. moneymaker under the title 7 Doors of Death. Levene looks like the real article, a tough negotiator and grindhouse money magnet. A third CD disc contains a remastered original soundtrack, which includes some nice New Orleans- flavored cues. The full list of extras is below.
Am I showing The Beyond to relatives this Thanksgiving? I don't think so. I'll have difficulty defending it to some of my horror-fan friends, including two very astute colleagues, themselves fine film artists, that I was never able to sway into an appreciation of the extremes of David Cronenberg. Just remember me as the inconsistent guy who likes The Beyond, but gets huffy over The Exorcist.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Beyond Blu-ray
Sound: Excellent optional mono mix, Italian language dub.
Supplements: 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound; commentary by stars Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck; interviews with MacColl, Cinzia Monreale and Giovanni De Nava, U.S. production manager Larry Ray, make-up artists Giannetto DeRossi and Maurizio Trani, cinematographer Sergio Salvati, writer Dardano Sacchetti, producer Fabrizio De Angelis, composer Fabio Frizzi, original U.S. distributor Terry Levene, and Antonella Fulci; archival interviews with director Lucio Fulci and David Warbeck; German pre-credit sequence in full color; still galleries and theatrical trailers; liner note essays by Chas. Balun and Martin Beine; Bonus CD of original soundtrack album by Fabio Frizzi newly remastered; glow in the dark slip cover.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: 2 Blu-ray discs and one Music CD in keep case in card sleeve.
Reviewed: May 2, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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