Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time?
When I was a kid, the VHS cover art for Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond was a staple of my trips to the video store. I always checked out the horror section first—even before my parents allowed me to rent those films—and I kept going back to that wild-eyed, melted face. Up until last night, when I finally sat down to watch it as part of my Crypticon/Chateau Grrr Celebrity Dinner research, I thought it was some kind of deep-space horror movie. This decades-long assumption was wrong, of course, but genre confusion was only the first surprise of the evening.
From Beyond, based on the H.P. Lovecraft short story, is about a mad scientist’s attempt to open up a portal to the fourth dimension. Things go horribly wrong for Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel) and his twitchy assistant, Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs), when the cosmic tuning fork in their lab unleashes a horde of other-worldly snake monsters and over-grown jellyfish. Tillinghast barely escapes with his life, but poor Dr. Pretorius has his head twisted off by a creature that disappears once the machine is shut down.
Tillinghast is blamed for the doctor’s murder, and is remanded to the custody of Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton), a psychiatrist at the mental institution to which he’s been committed. An examination of Tillinghast’s brain reveals that he’s not crazy, and that his pineal gland (believed to be the third eye) has expanded beyond any previously conceived capacity. Dr. McMichaels returns to Pretorius’s lab with Tillinghast and a wacky cop named Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree) in the hopes of re-creating the experiment.
On a new trip to the fourth dimension, the gang runs into Dr. Pretorious, who’s become a shape-shifting creature—all slimy limbs and hungry mouths on stalks; but always with his grinning, proud human face smudged somewhere inside the gore. He wants to absorb the three visitors into his new consciousness, and McMichaels, Tillinghast and Brownlee make the film’s second narrow escape with all their limbs intact.
Unfortunately, the powers of the fourth dimension act mostly on the mind, and our heroes find themselves acting strangely outside the lab. Dr. McMichaels becomes obsessed with going back to the 4-D space, and during the next encounter Tillinghast is half-eaten by the Pretorius monster.
By the time we get to the third (or is it fourth?) experiment, all three of the characters have gone crazy. Tillinghast is now a bald, mumbling freak with a third eye growing out of his forehead; Dr. McMichaels is a sex-crazed vixen in a bondage outfit, and Brownlee’s new uniform consists of a football jersey and shoulder holster.
The great thing about From Beyond is that just when you think it’s winding down, the story takes a sharp left turn into unpredictability. With all the repetitive trips to the fourth dimension, one might assume the characters will eventually get wise and just blow up the machine—or maybe fall victim to the Pretorius monster. But Stuart Gordon doesn’t let his audience off that easily.
He and co-screenwriters Dennis Paoli and Brian Yuzna brilliantly turn their film into a commentary on itself. From Beyond leaves coherence and plot conventions behind to become an utterly silly mess—one that works. Anyone looking for straight horror here will find a healthy amount of violence, nudity and creature effects, sure, but they’ll also be subjected to the kind of genuine strangeness that the genre could use more of.
Watching the film twenty-four years after its release, I have no idea if the campiness and wild fun was intentional on Gordon’s part. I hope so, because I relished all of the humorous touches that contribute to From Beyond’s off-kilter vibe (Dr. Pretorius’s sex dungeon; the lab’s location at 666 Benevolent Street). The film feels like the passion project of a horror nerd who was given a modest budget and no strings. This was Gordon’s follow-up to Re-Animator; and while that is the more recognized and coherent film of the two, From Beyond is far more interesting, playful, and deliciously random.
Now that I think of it, I’m glad I didn’t see this movie when I was a kid. I probably would have found it confusing and stupid, and not in the good way that it ultimately is.
Note: If anyone is looking for an awesome group costume this Halloween, pop in From Beyond and check out the Tillinghast/McMichaels/Foree trio halfway through the film. You and your friends are bound to win “Most Original” with those get-ups.