In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here.
So far this month, we’ve been looking at some of the best cult horror films to celebrate October. This week we look at Stuart Gordon’s best Lovecraftian vision, From Beyond.
For this column for the last few weeks we’ve explored some of my favourite forgotten horror movies for seasonal reasons. In Lake Mungo we looked at a movie that’s widely regarded as great but is just not very widely seen, and The Exorcist III is a film that was derided at the time but has since built a strong cult following and for good reason. This movie is a similar case but with one key exception. While The Exorcist III has grown to stand outside of the shadow of the original with its own fans and lovers, independent of the rest of the franchise, in many ways From Beyond is still in the shadow of another connected film.
H.P. Lovecraft was a piece of shit. I think we can all agree that. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other things to be said about his life and his work, but it’s worth acknowledging that right upfront. To his purist detractors his work is characterised by metaphors with racist origins told with stiff prose and uninteresting characters. Now, I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I don’t think it’s all true all the time. I think the way Lovecraft’s work looks out lonerism and outsiderness, while fuelled by racism, has a lot to say about how we become hateful people and everyone having hate in them. One of the stories that best exemplified the way his prose deviates from his normal rubric of storytelling is Herbert West–Reanimator. Before writing the first instalment he’d gotten some of his one off works told in pulp magazine ‘Weird Tales’ but Herbert West–Reanimator was the first to become serialised, with it’s more schlocky tone, it took itself less seriously and was more out for pulpy thrills which it hit squarely, and it was wildly popular. Lovecraft himself hated the pay he received and the need to end every story with a cliffhanger, (as opposed to your normal, ‘I’m mad, I pray that you don’t also become mad’ ending which is totally less cliche, right?). Never pleased, that man.
Anyway, come the early 80s and Stuart Gordon is a provocative stage director in Wisconsin whose plays had even been shut down by the police. Gordon had set his sights on making his latest stage extravaganza Herbert West–Reanimator. This was eventually fleshed out into a horror-comedy TV pilot, which would have made some sense given the serialised nature of the original, but I can’t imagine anyone seriously considering airing it on the television of the time. It eventually was fleshed out into a full script called just ‘Re-Animator‘ and the rest is history. Barbara Crampton and Jeffrey Combs give career highlight performances in a film that I… don’t really care for. For a horror comedy I don’t really find it funny at all, and the low-fi charming aesthetic is all well enough but there are films where that gels way more with the rest of the aesthetic for me, like The Evil Dead or even something like City of the Living Dead.
Shooting back to back, Gordon and much of the same cast shot another adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft which took liberties with the source material, with a higher budget, better effects, and the key to all this, Ken Foree. This is From Beyond. The crux is, like, Re-Animator has a really strong cult following. It’s a cultural artifact in and of itself, but the much more entertaining entry in Stuart Gordon’s back catalogue is From Beyond. It keeps Barbara Crampton in a much stronger and better written role, it keeps Jeffrey Combs and gives him so much more to do. Then, it just adds so much more goop, more slime, more monsters, more insanity.
The film takes H.P. Lovecraft’s very short story and just uses it as the pre-title sequence.The rest of the movie is made up wholesale, and that freedom from Lovecraft’s storytelling cliches only helps. In the opening sequence Jeffrey Combs is an assistant to a professor investigating whether the pineal gland, (a real gland controlling sexual hormones), is secretly a dormant third eye to see the other dimensions around us. Among the more fascinating world building elements of this film is implying that schizophrenics, (a condition popularly defined by seeing patterns in the world that aren’t there), have the condition they have due to enlarged pineal glands enabling them to see creatures the rest of us can’t. It’s a delicious plot machination that gets things rolling after the experiment is proved correct, and even though the professor, Dr. Edward Pretorius, has his head bitten off by a beastie, further research must be done because the potential revelations could relieve so many suffering from mental illnesses like schizophrenia. This is where Barbara Crampton, an arrogant but professional girl wonder upstart professor who thinks she knows everything there is to know, and Ken Foree as the emotional lightning rod of the film, Bubba Brownlee, a police escort who seems like the only character you could feasibly have a beer with in the film, come in. They travel to the late Pretorius’s old mansion, start experimenting, and things only get weirder from there.
The obvious thing to mention is that this film is just so much more ambitious than its predecessor. The creatures are complex and massive, and shot equally as inventively. We see Pretorius come back in myriad forms, each one more gross and complex and inhuman. He attempts to prey on the sexuality the machine brings out in people to tempt them to the other side in a way that almost seems to preempt Hellraiser a year before that movie’s release. Maybe Stuart Gordon had just read The Hellbound Heart. In the first scene he still seems vaguely human if very jacked on his own non-existent sexuality, then someone puts a hand on him and it sinks into his shoulder like playdough, then he takes his own face off. We’ve already seen strange carnivorous jellyfish with beaks by this point, and we’re still gonna see a giant worm in the basement that eats Jeffrey Coombs hair and Pretorius’ gradual destruction is still some of the freakiest shit I’ve ever seen. Of course we’re dealing with classic horror themes in post-Lovecraftian fiction of embracing the other in ourselves versus repressing as expressed through sexuality in a way Clive Barker was iterating on. It’s dealing with conventional morality versus the unknown of perversity that still brings joy, and order versus destruction, classic stuff. The interesting twist coms when Pretorius says the should-be-iconic “humans are such easy prey”, implying the question as to whether this was ever Pretorius or just a trap from the other side. Now the film for the most part stays like this four hander story in a spooky mansion with some BDSM shenanigans thrown in, but that’s only about ⅗ of the story, but also to say any more would be to be giving away the film’s greatest joys. Let’s just say that it involves a supernatural, horny, brain eating zombie rampaging through a hospital and space bees eating someone alive until they’re down to bones. It involves stalks growing out of heads and explosions.
From Beyond is a charismatically acted, beautifully shot, gory as fuck horror movie that eschews the out and out comedy of Re-Animator for a light romping tone that gets gruesome and terrifying when it needs to. It’s a joy to behold, and what makes me really, really sad is that Re-Animator is the one with the cult following. Although, the tide seems to be changing slightly in that regard, let’s keep pushing.