From Beyond, 1986.
Directed by Stuart Gordon.
Starring Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Ken Foree, Ted Sorel and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon.
Doctor Katherine “Wonder-girl” McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) is called upon by the District Attorney to assess whether Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs), suspected of the murder of his mentor Doctor Frank Pretorius, is fit to stand trial. With the events of that night shrouded in mystery, and Tillinghast’s explanation dismissed as the ravings of a mad man, McMichael’s insists on exploring his outlandish claims. Together they re-visit the scene of the crime where she is introduced to ‘The Resonator’, a machine that opens the door to a world beyond our own.
Stuart Gordon’s 1986 body horror classic From Beyond is now presented in a sparkling new Blu-ray HD print with an array of extras thanks to Second Sight. It is the first of Gordon’s Lovecraft cycle to be released on region B, with Castle Freak due out in the spring. Summoning up the courage, I fired up the Blu-ray player and prepared myself for a trip beyond my sensory perception.
Any discussion of director Stuart Gordon brings up comparisons to Roger “King of the B’s” Corman. Stuart Gordon is to H.P. Lovecraft what Roger Corman was to Edgar Allan Poe. Across four short years, 1960-64, Corman directed his eight film Edgar Allan Poe cycle starring the legendary Vincent Price, who bowed out of only the one adaptation: The Premature Burial.
Fast forward to 1985 and unlike Corman’s four year cycle, Gordon’s Lovecraft cycle would commence with Re-Animator and conclude twenty years later with his first episode in the Masters of Horror anthology series: Dreams in the Witch-House. In keeping with Corman, Gordon’s cycle exploited the talents of two actors, Gordon regular Jeffrey Combs starring in Re-Animator, From Beyond and Castle Freak, before Ezra Godden succeeded him for Dagon and Dreams in the Witch-House.
Adapting from a pre-existing source will remain a thorny issue, and whilst it should be remembered that the source material represents the author’s interpretation of a particular story, the adaptation is fundamentally a re-imagining by independent creative minds. Lovecraft’s short story From Beyond runs only as far as the title sequence, and from that point on the film is Gordon, Paoli and producer Yuzner’s creation of a Lovecraftian tale. Writer Paoli suggests in his interview featured on this Blu-ray release From Beyond was, “A collaboration with Lovecraft”, in which they expanded on the short story, and drew on other Lovecraft tales to depict From Beyond’s monsters.
It was in his essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” that Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” It is this fear of the unknown that lies at the very heart of From Beyond, an unknown world within our own that Crawford Tillinghast refers to as the “Beyond.” Lovecraft, Gordon, Paoli and Yuzna’s starting point may be the fear of the unknown, but both Lovecraft’s short story and its adaptation serves to familiarise the unfamiliar.
Barbara Crampton was cast despite initial concerns of her youthful appearance, her Katherine McMichaels decidedly older than the then twenty-eight year old actress. Gordon conveniently tailored the script by having Dr. Bloch (Gordon’s real-life wife) refer to McMichaels as the “Wonder-girl.” Gordon’s unwavering commitment to his Re-Animator lead actress afforded Crampton her opportunity to shine, and whereas Re-Animator was Combs’ film, Crampton would make this second collaboration her own.
Without McMichael’s back story the film exists as an empty sci-fi body horror, the characters stripped of the ability to guide the narrative, the body horror set pieces and the heightened visual style combined with advanced animatronics branding the film an example of style over substance. The back-story serves to ground Crampton’s character with a sense of believability in her desperation to save Tillinghast and other psychiatric inpatients from a fate that hits too close to home. Her internal conflict towards the “Beyond”, and descent into at times a sexual madness remains grounded and believable.
Meanwhile Combs delivers another fine performance, evolving from submissive assistant to courageous and authoritative scientist. He depicts the denouement of his character’s journey in a silent performance worthy of note, expressing the internal conflict as he loses the grip on his humanity.
From Beyond’s success is its apparent seriousness. The word apparent is important if only because in truth the deliberate use of the humorous names - Pretorius and Tillinghast. This is combined with the black humour of the Pretorius character and the surreal animatronic body-horror set pieces. From Beyond is stylistically excessive, yet the film never laughs at itself. It may allow us to laugh along with it, but never do we laugh at it, nor does it laugh at itself. The credit should go to Combs, Crampton and Ken ‘Dawn of the Dead’ Foree who play their characters and their reactions straight. I suspect that once Gordon shouted “Cut”, each afforded themselves a moment to crack a smile.
The Lovecraftian horrors are a delight to watch in this new HD print, bringing a sparkle to this variation on the haunted house movie - the twist that the ghosts can be banished by the flick of a switch. Sadly, even the new transfer cannot prevent this classic horror from betraying its age, but then the film is an example of the charm of 80s horror, a magic we cannot recreate, but rather re-discover through classic horror films such as From Beyond.
The bonus material will add to the experience of the individual’s discovery or re-discovery of the film. Stuart Gordon, Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton and Bryan Yuzna all contribute to what is an entertaining and insightful commentary, complimented by a selection of interviews with Gordon, Paoli and Crampton, which are solid companion pieces to a commentary track worth listening to - a rare thing nowadays.
Flickering Myth Rating - Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
This review originally appeared on Wages of Film.
Paul Risker is co-editor in chief of Wages of Film, freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth and Scream The Horror Magazine.