Times have been a bit tough for fans of horror on the big screen lately, I’m not sure I can remember such a miserable year for horror films on UK screens than 2014 since the dark days of the mid-nineties, with only The Babadook really representing a break from tepid mainstream franchise horror. Which isn’t so say there isn’t still great horror to be found, but it lurks in the darker regions of streaming services or hides behind the generic DVD covers demanded by supermarkets. Everything has to look like everything else, so an original low budget film like 2013’s smart Resolution looks like any of a dozen depressing torture porn flicks racked next to it.
Things were a little different in the eighties. Growing up near Aberdeen I had a choice of two three-screen chain cinemas and there was no art-house/independent option to be found. Yet in a few short years between being able to pass for 18, and leaving for University in decadent Edinburgh (a city so rife with depravity it was possible to watch the occasional Russ Meyer triple bill!) I managed to see some choice horror at the local Odeon and ABC.
While there was the occasional horror blockbuster on the main screen like The Fly or Aliens (saw that on opening night, completely sold out, line around the block, it was bedlam) titles generally didn’t trouble screen 2 for long. I saw films as diverse and interesting as Hellraiser, The Hitcher, Evil Dead 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Near Dark, Day of the Dead, and… er… Dream Demon.
Some of these films I honestly think would struggle to get a theatrical release today (not necessarily a bad thing in the case of Dream Demon). One film I am sure would struggle to get made at all, let alone receive a nationwide release, is From Beyond Stuart Gordon’s trippy, psychedelic, and slime encrusted low-rent, punked-up version of Altered States.
Gordon’s previous film Re-Animator had been a surprise hit for B-movie uber producer Charles Band so a follow up was very quickly on the cards. Re-animator had not played widely in the UK outside of a long engagement on London’s Screen on the Hill (I remember eyeing the ads in national broadsheets enviously) and had suffered at the hands of the BBFC. Hoping for bigger success From Beyond somehow ended up reaching even the granite lined streets of North East Scotland (I can’t remember Barry Norman’s review, but I expect he was appalled).
Like Re-Animator, From Beyond is a mad scientist movie taken from a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. Behind the camera it reuniting Gordon with Re-animator writer Dennis Paoli and producer Brian Yuzna (all three share writing credit), and in front of the camera with actors Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton.
Crawford Tillinghast (the always enjoyably eccentric Combs) is a brilliant young physicist who comes to be under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Crampton) after his mentor Dr. Edward Pretorius is murdered under extremely mysterious circumstances during a radical experiment. Tillinghast is the chief suspect; certain details make the case one the police cannot easily close. Chief of these is the fact that while Pretorius’ body was recovered from the scene, no-one can find his head. Tillinghast has a crazy story about an experimental machine designed to stimulate the pineal gland, a dormant part of the human brain, and some extra-dimensional monsters. McMichaels wants to recreate the experiment, and so takes the unwilling but helpless scientist back the Pretorius’ mansion at 666 Benevolent Avenue, accompanied by genial cop Bubba Brownlee (played by Dawn of the Dead’s Ken Foree). At the flick a switch, all hell breaks loose.
Although given a bigger budget and more scope to go wild with slimy surreal special effects, From Beyond suffered a rough reception from the MPAA being subjected to cuts and never quite found its audience on its original release. It’s a film that has been crying out for a decent UK release for some time, and in February 2013 Second Sight brought gave the film the opportunity to be viewed afresh by a new audience of UK horror fans. So how does it hold up?
The answer is extremely well. The transfer quality of Second Sight’s reissue was (especially on Blu Ray) nothing short of spectacular, showing off ace cinematographer Mac Ahlberg’s glorious compositions and comic book lighting schemes. The quality of the grotesque special effects creations also withstands the added scrutiny afforded by high definition and looks far, far better then the plasticky CG so often found in modern B movie fare.
Although reasonably gory, it is the film’s kinkiness that really set off alarm bells at the MPAA. 1987 was something of a benchmark year for transgressive sexuality in horror also seeing the release of Clive Barker’s BDSM influenced Hellraiser. In From Beyond a side effect of the stimulation of the pineal gland is an increase in sexual appetite and the late Dr. Pretorius was, as Foree’s cop character remarks after finding his dungeon, ‘into some weird shit’.
I shan’t go into details, but suffice to say, once the machine is reactivated Crampton does one of the best transformations from tight-bunned (I’m talking about her hair, you people are disgusting) spectacle wearing, brainiac to leather clad, whip-wielding, ultra vixen. If this sounds titillating, it’s because it frankly is titillating
However, the film also has an unusual focus on her pleasure and her as the instigator of sexual activity against a passive, even feminised, male object (female pleasure is something of a red rag to the MPAA bull as anyone who has seen Kirby Dick’s excellent documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated will know).
From Beyond, (barely) acceptable in the eighties.
This is an exploitation film through and through. It’s not as perfect an example as Re-Animator. It isn’t as funny as the previous film and there are some clunky plot contrivances in the last act (in particular some ridiculous business with a bomb that appears out of nowhere to solve a looming story issue). However it is still a great example of the sort of batshit craziness the horror genre is capable of when not trying to produce cookie cutter imitations of the last surprise hit.
A version of this review first appeared on screenjabber.com