Monday, 27 July 2020

John Saxon

‘Rock, Pretty Baby’ (1956)

with Letícia Román,‘The Girl Who Knew Too Much’ (1963)

with Fernando Poe Jr and a bunch of other dudes, ‘The Ravagers’ (1965)

with Bruce Lee, ‘Enter the Dragon’ (1973)

with Jim Kelly, ‘Enter the Dragon’ (1973)

‘Black Christmas’ (1974)

with Maurizio Merli, ‘Italia a Mano Armata’ / ‘Special Cop in Action’ (1976)

‘The Cynic, The Rat and The Fist’ (1977)

with Rex Harrison, Dharmendra and others, ‘Shalimar’ (1978)

with Giovanni Lombardo Radice, May Heatherly and Tony King, ‘Cannibal Apocalypse’ (1980)

‘Battle Beyond the Stars’ (1980)

‘Tenebrae’ (1982)

‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ (1984)

‘Hands of Steel’ (1986)

‘Zombie Death House’ (also directed, 1987)

‘Nightmare Beach’ (1989)

I was very sad to hear this weekend that John Saxon has passed away at the age of 84.

Another one of those totemic, consistently great actors whose presence instantly takes the quality of any given film up a few notches, seeing Saxon’s name pop up on a set of opening credits is always a big “YES” / punch-the-air moment for me, and for many others out there too. And, as I think the photo gallery I’ve assembled above serves to illustrate, those moments tend to happen pretty frequently within the benighted corners of cinema to which I dedicate so much of my time.

He may never quite have achieved fame & fortune on the terms dictated by Hollywood, but few actors can boast a career as wild and woolly as the one summarised above, and, whether playing a karate champion, a clean-cut boyfriend, a chain-smoking detective, a mafia don or someone’s dad, John Saxon was always ineffably cool.

In fact, the way he could convincingly play such a wide variety of parts over so many years whilst essentially staying exactly the same, is a mystery which defies scientific explanation. John Saxon is always John Saxon, but that’s ok, because John Saxon is always good, and we always know he knows what’s up.

I’ve often wondered why he never (or at least, rarely) made the jump into leading man / action star type roles, as he clearly had both the charisma and the physical chops for it during his prime. (I mean, how many other actors could go toe-to-toe with Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly a few years before their 40th birthday and come out with a draw in the badass stakes?)

This is probably neither the time nor place to speculate on the ins and outs of Saxon’s career trajectory or the machinations of industry casting choices, but suffice to say, I’m pretty glad things worked for him they way they did. If he’d said ‘yes, sir’ to the studios in his early days and gone the squeaky-clean juvenile lead route… well, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be writing this right now, and pretty sure he wouldn’t have received a fraction of the love and adoration he received from cult/genre movie fans through subsequent decades.

Though usually classified as a ‘character actor’, he was a goddamn megastar to those of us who persist in watching those other movies, and his presence in the world will be greatly missed.


Thursday, 23 July 2020

Lovecraft on Film Appendum:
Cthulhu Sex Magazine.

In the past, I’ve tried to follow up each of my Lovecraft on Film post with a brief supplementary post, either highlighting some ephemera related to the recently reviewed film or showing off some scans of relevant artefact from my collection. When it came to finding something to compliment the lascivious themes discussed in last week’s discussion of From Beyond however, I’m afraid I drew a blank. Instead therefore, I thought I’d share a few tantalising images and scraps of info concerning a publication whose issues are sadly entirely absent from my modest archives.

Published in New York City from some point in the 1990s up to 2007, the blunty titled ‘Cthulhu Sex’ is notable for the sheer lack of information about its contents and creators which has made its way online.

The image above is taken from an ebay auction archived on the valuation site WorthPoint, whilst all other images and information in this post have been sourced from a series of entries on the zine on the SF/fantasy fanzine database site Galactic Central. Between them, these two links seem to provide pretty much the sum total of extant evidence concerning this publication’s existence.

The earliest issue which I can find a cover image for is Vol. 1, No. 13, published in 1998. This and a few subsequent issues seem to exhibit a raw, photocopied aesthetic, with splattery / grindcore style artwork that certainly doesn't hold back.

(Vol. 1, No. 13 - cover artist unknown.)

(Vol. 1, No. 14 - artwork by Paul Komoda.)

Soon thereafter however, the zine seems to have embraced a now very dated looking digital/DTP approach to design, moving toward a gothy/cyberpunky feel which is… less to my taste, shall we say. At least some of the extant cover illustrations from the MS Publisher era are still pretty cool though, nonetheless.

(Still working primarily in the realm of the monstrous to this day, cover artist Paul Komoda apparently went on to lend his talents to the 2012 remake of ‘The Thing’.)

(Vol. 1, No. 16 - artwork by Paul Komoda.)

(Vol. 1, No. 18 - artwork by Paul Komoda.)

(Vol. 1, No. 18 - artwork by Paul Komoda.)

During its second ‘volume’ in the early ‘00s, ‘Cthulhu Sex’ gradually became a somewhat more lavish, semi-pro type affair, even moving into colour, and featuring far less explicit / attention-grabbing imagery on its covers. A few examples follow;

(Vol. 2, No. 13 - artwork by ‘Popeye Wong’.)

(Vol. 2, No. 23 - artwork by Chad Savage.)

As to the actual contents of ‘Cthulhu Sex’, all we have to go on is a partial set of contents lists available on the Galactic Central database. Scanning through these, we learn that the pseudonymous figures of ‘St Michael’ (presumably credited editor Michael A. Morel) and ‘Father Baer’ seem to have loomed large over proceedings, with other contributors to the earlier issues including ‘Racheline Maltese’, ‘Abigail Parsley’ and ‘Oneroid Psychosis’. All of which gives me the pleasant (if likely entirely misleading) impression of some seedy clique of sun-shunning reprobates creeping around the back-streets Manhattan in the late 1990s, knocking on unmarked basement doors and whispering hoarsely to each other of ever more twisted new ideas for their next issue.

Later on, the sense of mystery dissipates somewhat, with a greater number of contributors using what may actually be their birth names (alongside some choice chatroom-era teen-goth alter egos). There are also what appear to be some interviews with bands (none of whom I’ve heard of, but imagine the sheer sense of accomplishment they must have felt when ‘Cthulhu Sex’ called them up to request an interview), along with the inevitable reviews section. More spine-chilling terror than any of the tentacle-sex based material is surely promised meanwhile by a regular column entitled ‘Gothic Nightclub Romance Monthly’.

The official website of ‘Cthulhu Sex’ appears to have been stone cold dead since the final issue hit highly selective shelves in 2007, but Horror Between The Sheets, a collection of writing taken from the zine, was published in 2005, and as of September 2019, a volume entitled ‘Letters to the Editor of Cthulhu Sex Magazine’ can sit proudly upon your shelves for only $16.99 payable to, courtesy of e-book/print-on-demand publishers Crossroad Press.

Authorship is credited to Oliver Baer - Father Baer himself no less - whose other credits apparently include “..a history of the Wu Tang Physical Culture Association”. His Amazon biography furthermore informs us that, “he has performed as an unspeakable horror from the depths and his likeness has appeared on film in the documentary ‘Tai Chi Club’ as well as in videos of different sorts.” What a guy.

And, that’s about all the info I can dredge up on this subject for the time being, though of course I’d be interested to learn more about this unique zine and its contents, particularly those elusive older issues whose covers seem never to have seen the light of a scanner. In all seriousness, I hope that ‘Cthulhu Sex’ provided a lively and valued community organ (so to speak) for the select group of readers and writers bold enough to place it on the counter of their local underground bookshop and/or post their subscription cheque to the mag’s Grand Central Station PO Box, and it saddens me that I missed out on the opportunity to at least sample an issue or two.

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Lovecraft on Film:
From Beyond

(Stuart Gordon, 1986)


“That Crawford Tillinghast should ever have studied science and philosophy was a mistake. These things should be left to the frigid and impersonal investigator, for they offer two equally tragic alternatives to the man of feeling and action; despair if he fail in his quest, and terrors unutterable and unimaginable if he succeed.”
- H. P. Lovecraft, ‘From Beyond’ (1920)

“It ate him. It bit - off - his - head... like a gingerbread man!”
- Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs), ‘From Beyond’ (1986)

After the surprise success of 1985’s ‘Reanimator’, a follow up was inevitable. Rather than embarking upon a direct sequel however (producer Brian Yuzna would later fill that gap in the market), director Stuart Gordon seems to have envisioned a thematically linked series of H.P. Lovecraft adaptations – presumably mirroring the pattern set by the Corman/AIP Poe cycle of the 1960s, which exerted a strong influence on Gordon’s work in the horror genre throughout his career.

Gordon’s initial proposal apparently involved adapting ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ (written 1931, published 1936), one of the most conventionally structured and comparatively action-packed of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos tales, but Empire Pictures boss and executive producer Charles Band put the nix on that idea.

Band was reportedly of the opinion that rampaging fish people wouldn’t make for good box office (whatever could have given him that idea?), but to give him his due, perhaps he was also concerned about the budgetary implications and/or the story’s rather icky racial/miscegenation sub-text. Either way, Gordon had to wait nearly fifteen years to realise his ‘..Innsmouth’ project, completing his quartet of Lovecraft films with ‘Dagon’ in 2001.

Back in the mid ‘80s though, Gordon, Yuzna and screenwriter Dennis Paoli instead went back to the drawing board and worked up a script based upon ‘From Beyond’, a short but perfectly formed Lovecraft tale which comprised part of the author’s first burst of literary creativity at the dawn of the 1920s, although again, it was inexplicably overlooked for publication until 1934, when he deigned to dig it out of his archives for the June issue of a small press publication named ‘The Fantasy Fan’. (1)

Weighing in at barely 3,000 words, ‘From Beyond’ is an important but oft-overlooked entry in Lovecraft’s oeuvre, arguably marking the earliest point at which the morass of imagery and ideas which we’re now inclined the throw together under the umbrella adjective “Lovecraftian” first began to coalesce – and, if you’ll forgive me a brief digression, it is an important story for me personally too.

When I first became aware of Lovecraft’s work as a teenager, some circumstance now lost to history prevented me from getting hold of the essential third volume of the then-standard Grafton / Harper Collins paperback anthology series, which contained the bulk of the core Cthulhu mythos stories. Instead, I had to make do for a while with volume # 2 (‘Dagon and Other Macabre Tales’), largely comprised of the earlier Dunsay/Poe-inspired tales and assorted other odds and ends.

Coming to these tales as a fan of reality-bending science fiction seeking gruesome new thrills, ethereal, pulp-poetic fragments like ‘The Tomb’ and ‘The White Ship’ initially left me rather non-plussed, but ‘From Beyond’ really grabbed me. I recall re-reading it multiple times, thinking, “ok, I get it now – this guy was really on to something”.

The June 1934 edition of ‘The Fantasy Fan’ – see footnote for further info.

Essentially, the story explores the notion that electrical waves keyed to certain frequencies can serve to activate “..unrecognised sense-organs that exist in us as atrophied or rudimentary vestiges”, expanding the range of human perception to allow us a glimpse of parallel layers of being which overlap with our day-to-day reality, causing us to realise that shapeless monsters float through the air around us in an incessant, seething throng. A simple idea, yet such a horribly compelling one.

Prefiguring the ‘multiverse’ theories first proposed by Schrödinger in the 1950s, whilst also touching upon weird, quasi-medieval notions of monads, ‘humours’ and other such unseen guff lurking within the firmament, ‘From Beyond’ finds Lovecraft tapping into the uniquely uncanny eldritch sweet spot midway between science and demonology which would go on to inform all of his best subsequent work.

In fact, ‘From Beyond’s mad scientist character, the splendidly named Crawford Tillinghast, squares that particular magick circle almost immediately, pushing his scientific fervour to the point where it impinges upon the realm of spirituality, as his ranting (which comprises a fairly hefty proportion of the text) begins to echo the kind of rhetoric espoused by advocates of the LSD experience and other such new age psychonauts over forty years later;

“‘Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with a wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie close at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have.’”

The manner in which Lovecraft manages to pull these high-falutin’ notions back into the horror genre is pretty inspired (“We shall see that at which dogs howl in the dark, and that at which cats prick up their ears after midnight”), and the inevitable revelation that “we are able to be *seen* as well as to see” provides the perfect hook upon which to hang the grisly denouement of this extraordinarily effective little story. (“Remember we’re dealing with a hideous world in which we are practically helpless,” Tillinghast reminds our unnamed narrator. “Keep still!”)

Initially likened to polyps or jellyfish, the “semi-fluid” things glimpsed by our narrator whilst under the influence of Tillinghast’s whirring electrical machine are soon revealed to be merely an appetiser on the story’s full menu of cosmic terrors, as the increasingly hysterical scientist begins to insist that he has “drawn down daemons from the stars”, leaving him hunted by “things that devour and dissolve”;

“‘My pets are not pretty, for they come out of places where aesthetic standards are— very different. Disintegration is quite painless, I assure you—but I want you to see them. I almost saw them, but I knew how to stop. You are not curious? I always knew you were no scientist!’”

Factor into this the story’s rich, Edwardian atmosphere of clanking, electrical machinery powered by “huge chemical batteries”, and the more conventional candle-lit, barely glimpsed horrors of the “..the ancient, lonely house set back from Benevolent Street” in which Tillinghast has been reduced to “..a shivering gargoyle” over the course of ten weeks of solitude, and you’ve got one hell of a potent little pulp yarn here. A pure, concentrated dose of head-fuckery for eager young minds, ‘From Beyond’ stands as one of most efficient summations of his strange art that HPL ever produced.

All of which presumably helps explain why the ‘Reanimator’ gang picked this story out as a good prospect for their next film, but, as you might well have imagined, bringing something like this to the screen was not without its challenges, to put it mildly.


“Suddenly I myself became possessed of a kind of augmented sight. Over and above the luminous and shadowy chaos arose a picture which, though vague, held the elements of consistency and permanence. It was indeed somewhat familiar, for the unusual part was superimposed upon the usual terrestrial scene much as a cinema view may be thrown upon the painted curtain of a theatre.”
- H. P. Lovecraft, ‘From Beyond’ (1920)

Surprisingly, the chief issue faced by Gordon, Paoli and Yuzna in working up their script for ‘From Beyond’ was not the obvious difficulty of translating Lovecraft’s wild, inter-dimensional visions into a form which can be assembled by special effects technicians and stuck in front of a camera - but rather the more prosaic issue of the fact the source material is so narratively slight.

Boil it down to crude, storytelling terms in fact, and for all of ‘From Beyond’s mind-bending ideas and heady, delirious prose, in terms of earthbound cause and effect there’s not much going on here besides “man visits friend in creepy house, sees unspeakable stuff, goes mad”. An interesting, masculine take on the minimalist “girl gets scared in old house” formula which animated so many ‘60s gothic horror films, perhaps - but a difficult one to try to stretch out to ninety minutes.

In trying to work around this, the writers hit upon the same solution utilised so effectively by Richard Matheson in his scripts for the ‘60s Poe movies (specifically, ‘The Pit & The Pendulum’ (1961) and ‘The Raven’ (1963)) – namely, using up the entire source story during the pre-credits prologue, then just spending the rest of the run time riffing wildly off the loose thematic threads of the original tale, figuring out an entirely new story along the way. (2)

To reverse their achievement and cut a long story short though, let’s just say that the Gordon/Paoli/Yuzna adaptation of (or perhaps more correctly, ‘extrapolation from…’) ‘From Beyond’ is really quite the thing - an overpowering, hugely enjoyable and exuberantly tasteless horror film whose tone of barely controlled hysteria makes it difficult to fully digest on first viewing – or indeed to reduce to an easy capsule summation even on the fourth or fifth go-round.

In spite of its singularity and strength of vision however, I’ve always come away from the film feeling that something was slightly amiss – perhaps simply as a result of the fact that it sidesteps the essential idea which I found so compelling in Lovecraft’s story.

Here, the “thousand sleeping senses” of which HPL waxes lyrical are boiled down to mere stimulation of the pineal gland, which can't help but strike me as at least a bit reductionist, whilst the film’s idea of allowing said gland to physically change and expand, eventually bursting through the forehead of Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs), causing him to spend the final act of the movie as an albino zombie - sucking out victims brains through their eye-sockets no less - feels like an all too obvious attempt to inject some crowd-pleasing, ‘Reanimator’-style medical gore into proceedings. (Having said that however, the horror fan in me of course can’t claim that Combs’ blood-drenched rampage through the wards of Arkham General Hospital is anything less than a joy to behold.)

Though somewhat updated to include flashing banks of both computer and valve-driven equipment, ‘From Beyond’s impressive attic laboratory set, built around the fluorescent, glowing tuning forks and central Van de Graaff generator-like sphere of the all important “resonator”, retains the spirit of that described by Lovecraft. At the same time though, I’ve always found the film as a whole to be curiously over-lit, notably lacking in the kind of shadow and decay stipulated by the story’s quasi-gothic atmospherics.

Even as sickly, over-saturated shades of red, green and purple play havoc over the screen once the effect of the resonator takes hold, we’re in a considerably more earthy – more fleshy - realm here than that described by HPL’s narrator, who likens Tillighast’s unnaturally hued attic to “..some vast and incredible temple of long-dead gods; some vague edifice of innumerable black stone columns reaching up from a floor of damp slabs to a cloudy height beyond the range of my vision.” (3)

In truth though, this change in visual emphasis is entirely appropriate to the new direction in which the film’s script takes the material. For all its gothic bells and whistles, Lovecraft’s story is essentially a coldly scientific nightmare. The denizens of his hidden layer of reality remain those we might encounter under a microscope – polyps, protozoa, and stranger, more unknowable alien life-forms.

After treating us to the sight of a few toothy, conga eel/hookworm-like beasties and spectral jellyfish though, the film largely jettisons the ‘parallel dimensions’ concept (or at least, fails to communicate it very clearly). Instead, it chooses to populate its unseen realm with something a great deal more recognisable to the experience of most human beings, even if, according to most accounts, it would have had Lovecraft himself reaching for the smelling salts.

To not put too fine a point on it, the new order of reality which is revealed when that naughty, bulbous pineal gland is vibrated just so in Gordon’s movie is full of nothing but SEX.


DR KATHERINE MCMICHAELS: Don't you understand? This is the greatest discovery since van Leeuwenhoek first looked through a microscope and saw an amoeba.
BUBBA BROWNLEE: Yeah, but he wasn't down there *with* the amoebas!
- ‘From Beyond’ (1986)

Of course, bringing an element of, ahem, feminine allure into screen versions of Lovecraft’s pointedly sexless tales wasn’t exactly a new innovation at this point. Until John Carpenter made the case for men-only horror with his tangentially Lovecraftian ‘The Thing’ in 1982, keeping a pretty girl or two on hand to be frightened and imperilled (if not actually slaughtered) was considered the key commercial imperative of all horror cinema, for better or for worse, and filmmakers tackling material derived from Lovecraft were happy to follow convention.

Given that mid 20th century horror cinema could be seen to represent the most misogynistic corner of the most chauvinistic of creative industries, it is perhaps no surprise that when it ran headfirst into the fear-driven psycho-sexual dynamics bubbling away beneath the surface of Lovecraft’s fiction, the results were… less than progressive, shall we say, with the female characters conveniently parachuted into HPL-derived plotlines being largely defined in terms of violence, helplessness and victimhood, even more-so than we would normally have expected within genre product of this era.

Although such a scenario never actually occurred in Lovecraft’s writing, the recurrent idea of a damsel in distress being tied down on a stone slab and sacrificed to the Great Old Ones goes all the way back to The Haunted Palace in 1963, and by the end of the decade, things were taken considerably further, with Dean Stockwell’s icky, somewhat Mansonite ritual rape of the drugged Sandra Dee in The Dunwich Horror (1970) - a scene which finds its natural successor in the even more delirious sexual assault perpetrated upon Barbara Crampton in what soon became by far the most notorious scene in Re-animator.

None of these films though had the wherewithal to fuse sex and horror in anything like the manner attempted by ‘From Beyond’.

In the most significant change the Paoli/Gordon/Yuzna team made to ‘From Beyond’s source story, Crawford Tillinghast is essentially downgraded here from his central ‘mad genius’ role, instead assuming the function of a mere traumatised assistant and witness to events, pitched somewhere between the unnamed narrator of Lovecraft’s tale and the obligatory cringing hunchback of the Universal-derived Frankenstein movie tradition.

The latter in particular seems an apt comparison, given that primary responsibility for the film’s mad science maleficence falls instead upon the shoulders of a newly created character, Dr Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) - the name presumably borrowed from another camp-skirting, taboo-shattering horror sequel, James Whale’s ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935).

Much like the character so memorably portrayed by Ernest Thesiger in Whale’s film (though of a more aggressively heterosexual inclination, to put it mildly), our Dr Pretorius here is an imperious sadist who seems to relish the opportunity of using science to tear down conventional limits of taste and decency, colouring the nature of his scientific breakthroughs with his own egomaniacal obsessions.

More than merely making folks horny, the pineal stimulation process perfected by Pretorius seems to accelerate the human libido like some crazed horror movie variant on Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone therapy, causing all living matter within range of the ‘resonator’ to eventually fuse into a kind of polymorphous perversion of undifferentiated flesh, held under the thrall of a dominant, alpha male will (that of Pretorius himself in this case, needless to say).

By raising the idea of jaded thrill seekers being being driven insane and/or propelled beyond bodily restrictions by sheer sensation, ‘From Beyond’ jettisons the austere cosmicism of Lovecraft, touching instead upon a mixed up set of ideas stretching all way back to the aesthetic extremism of J.K. Huysmans’ ‘Against Nature’ (1884), or perhaps even to antiquarian mutterings of Roman decadence which inspired it, whilst the story’s sub/dom, battle of wills element brings us back, somewhat inevitably, to that inadvertent progenitor of so many of sex-horror’s most compelling cinematic manifestations, De Sade himself.

Closer to home meanwhile, the predatory/devouring aspect of ‘From Beyond’s take on supernatural sexual hysteria directly pre-empts Clive Barker’s ‘Hellraiser’ (which hit big the following year), whilst its startlingly lurid body horror, together with Dr Pretorius’s post-human advocacy for the idea of the spirit unleashed from the limitations of the body, also puts the film on a similar trajectory to the shape-shifting, pan-sexual hallucinations of William S. Burroughs, or the treacherous world of David Cronenberg’s ‘Videodrome’ (1983).

Heady stuff indeed for a low budget horror flick, even if the film, perhaps wisely, works these ideas through not so much with actual human bodies, but via one of the most grotesquely chaotic parades of over-sized latex abominations that had ever been seen on screen up to this point, with the hardship that Sorel in particular must have experienced in the make-up chair frankly defying belief. (Always a keen proponent of the ‘crazed latex overload’ approach to horror, producer Yuzna would take these ideas to even further extremes in his own directorial debut ‘Society’ in 1989.)

With hyper-sensual sadist Dr Pretorius thus established as the film’s Big Bad, ‘From Beyond’s most inspired departure from horror movie convention has Barbara Crampton’s Dr Katherine McMichaels, rather than the top-billed Combs, emerge as the story’s prime motivator and central ‘doomed protagonist’ figure, creating in the process the most complex and interesting female character Lovecraftian cinema has seen before or since.


“‘You see them? You see them? You see the things that float and flop about you and through you every moment of your life? You see the creatures that form what men call the pure air and the blue sky? Have I not succeeded in breaking down the barrier; have I not shown you worlds that no other living men have seen?’”
- H. P. Lovecraft, ‘From Beyond’ (1920)

As ridiculous as it might sound, even today it’s extremely unusual to find a horror film in the gothic lineage in which the character inhabiting what we might call the ‘Vincent Price role’ – the domineering, morally ambiguous central figure who changes over the course of the story, becoming fascinated and/or possessed by the forces of evil – is a woman, but that’s essentially what Gordon & co give us here.

Although Jeffrey Combs provides a pretty much definitive reading of the nervous, weak-willed Lovecraftian protagonist here (it is difficult to read HPL’s description of Tillinghast’s “..high and unnatural, though always pedantic, voice” without recalling Combs’ unique line readings), he nonetheless seems aware that he is essentially a supporting character – a victim rather than instigator of events – this time around, despite his top billing on the poster, and he steps back accordingly. No match for the force of Pretorius’s malevolent sexual energy, Tillinghast essentially exits prior to the film’s final act, transformed into a mindless, albino monster before he meets his sorry fate.

As for Ken Foree’s turn as good-natured cop ‘Bubba’ Brownlee meanwhile, he seems to have wandered in from another film entirely (perhaps taking a wrong turn on his way to audition for a pre-‘Lethal Weapon’ buddy-cop movie?), with his light-hearted banter and comedic appetite feel absurdly out of place in the Lovecraftian universe. It’s always nice to see Foree (whom you’ll recall from Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1977)) getting a good role, and it’s impossible not to be charmed by his shtick - but nonetheless, Bubba’s materialist attitude and steadfast refusal to countenance the ‘other’ clearly indicate that he is no fit protagonist for this story. Indeed, his former football pro libido counts for little in the relentlessly hetero eyes of Pretorius, whose shapeless minions proceed to eat him at the first convenient opportunity.

It is Barbara Crampton’s Dr Katherine McMichaels therefore who lives on to battle ‘From Beyond’s inter-dimensional overlord, experiencing by far the most well developed arc doled out to any of this film’s characters in the process, with her earth-bound transformations between different female pulp archetypes in a way mirroring the trans-dimensional shape-shifting of Pretorius himself.

Crampton’s solid performance in ‘Re-animator’ gave us some hints that she was more than just yr average ‘80s ‘scream queen’ (or rather, more than just a somewhat competent actress who was willing to go all the way re: the singular demands of that film’s finale), but with ‘From Beyond’, the filmmakers really gave her a chance to step up and turn the tables on genre expectation, essentially taking centre stage amid the libidinous, latex excesses of the movie’s hyper-sexualised take on cosmic horror, and the results are pretty wonderful.

A radical psychiatrist who, we are told, disapproves of locking up schizophrenics, Dr McMichaels is initially introduced to us her through her antagonistic relationship with the more authoritarian Dr Bloch (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), who accuses her younger colleague of exploiting rather than rehabilitating her patients, using them as guinea pigs for her research as they are presumably allowed to run free to indulge their most destructive whims.

Be that as it may (and to be honest, the script is clearly just using these argument to set the stage for the mayhem which will occur once Dr McMichaels is assigned custody of the incarcerated Tillinghast, rather than attempting make any grander point about contemporary psychiatry), Crampton presents an almost comically buttoned up and repressed figure during these early scenes, complete with tightly bunned hair, woollen overcoat and oversized glasses. Even here though, she already manages to inject a hint of submerged kinkiness into her performance, failing to hide her obvious excitement when Tillinghast, confined to his asylum cell, begins to tell her of the work he and Pretorius carried out.

Once our gang are back at the Pretorius house, ostensibly in an attempt to help Tillinghast by repeating the experiments which led to his collapse, Crampton gradually dials up the more sensual aspect of her character, as her prim mannerisms and fusty exterior begin to feel more and more like some kind of perverse dress-up, as the true scale and freakery of Pretorius’s activities (both earthbound and supernatural) become increasingly clear to the good doctor.

It’s almost a relief therefore when, in classic camp / fairy tale fashion, Crampton lets her blonde locks down and dons the obligatory frilly nightie in preparation for bed time, allowing things to get really charged as she knowingly takes on the role of the timorous gothic heroine, practically role-playing it for Pretorious’s unseen spirit as she takes that same nocturnal walk toward the cursed attic that thousands have trod before her. Approaching, and indeed fondling, the rather phallic edifice of the resonator, she uses it to summon her learned lover from beyond as if it were some tribal fetish object, prompting a traumatic, slimy encounter with Sorel’s by now thoroughly inhuman patriarch, apparently magnifying both her attraction and repulsion to the heavily sexualised Other.

By the time Katherine has transformed herself, via the contents Pretorius’s on-site sex dungeon, into a kind of mind-blown, insatiable dominatrix, we’re heading into pretty uncomfortable territory here, as the warped hues of the film’s lighting and garish sleaziness of its interior décor becoming increasingly nauseous.

Following a delirious special effects showcase which sees Foree (in startling tight red y-fronts) and Combs (in a Miskatonic Uni t-shirt) battling a decidedly vaginal (yet also kinda phallic) giant worm in the infernal, flooded basement, Gordon leads us on helplessly toward the trademark, “this is going considerably further than I expected” / envelope-pushing type scene which he likes to include in each of his horror movies – which in this case involves Crampton, in full black leather fetish get-up, mounting the bruised and unresponsive body of Combs, who has been reduced to a hairless, shuddering albino after being swallowed and spat out by the suggestive, spectral worm. (And honestly, they wonder why the MPAA had some issues!)

If we can reclaim our jaws from the floor whilst all this is going on, we may again wish to award the filmmakers a gold star for defying expectation by casting Crampton as the aggressor here, and concede that ‘From Beyond’s weird detournement of the kind of titillation which hetero-male horror fans tend to consider their birth-right is in many ways quite admirable (for it is here that the dark mystery of the sex-horror ideal truly resides, cf: Cronenberg’s ‘Shivers’ or Franco’s Lorna the Exorcist). By this point in proceedings in fact, things have become infused with such a miasma of sickness – of, for want of a better word, grossness - that we can’t help but be to some extent relieved when Foree intrudes upon the scene, pulling us back to reality with a dose of good ol’ fashioned restraint and self-respect and/or slut-shaming reinforcement of patriarchal values [delete according to taste].

In terms of the moral schema through which the film’s script deals with all of these inter-dimensional sexual shenanigans, submission to one’s desires is framed as triumph of pure ego over collective human responsibility. Satisfaction, under the terms imposed here by the predatory Pretorius, can only be achieved through the destruction of another soul. When Foree’s character tries to snap Katherine out of her new persona as a kind of sleazoid, brain-washed nymphomaniac, there is more than just mere puritanism at work. Bubba, as an archetypical down-to-earth realist, realises that the kind of idealistic quest for mindless sensation embodied by Pretorius can lead only to destruction – first of the bodies and souls of others, and ultimately or oneself.

Trying to extrapolate some kind of real world analogue from all this, it occurs to me that proponents of sado-masochism and/or so-called polyamorous relationships might well be inclined to take offence at ‘From Beyond’s approach to sexual ethics, but, I’ll leave that battle for them to fight, should they wish to. Instead, I’ll merely state that, in terms of a horror movie, the conflict which rages within our characters between all-consuming ego rampage and the inter-personal respect for the bodily and cerebral identities of others, works very well.

Whether or not ‘From Beyond’ ultimately works as a film however, will largely be a matter of personal taste. Even if the production veers dangerously close to outright cheesiness in places, I’ve certainly grown to love it over the years, largely thanks to the excellent set of performances delivered by the cast (another Gordon trademark) and the astounding special effects work (that basement worm battle is really a thing to behold).

Many viewers though will doubtless find the excesses of the movie’s visuals and ideas difficult to process, and, whatever fans may have had in mind for a follow up to ‘Re-animator’ back in 1986, some lunatic fusion of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and ‘The Thing’ on an Empire Pictures budget was probably not it. Though the film has amassed a considerable cult following over the years, the initial reaction of audiences and critics was far from kind, with the response of many leaving theatres probably best summed up by one of the more memorable lines uttered by Combs’ Tillighast; “That… will be quite enough of that.”

Though Brian Yuzna proceeded to follow this particular strain of latex insanity even further in the aforementioned ‘Society’, he soon retreated to the comparatively safer ground of ‘Bride of Re-animator’, and ‘From Beyond’ meanwhile seems to have led to a decade long hiatus in Gordon and Paoli’s Lovecraftian adventures, as the director transitioned straight into a series of considerably more audience-friendly (or perhaps more to the point, producer-friendly) ventures, beginning with the thoroughly wholesome ‘Dolls’ (1987). Thus, ‘From Beyond’ is left to stand on its own merits as a kind of fascinating historical aberration. All of the film’s principal creatives and cast members would go on to make good horror films after this, and all of them would return to Lovecraft in some form or another, but none of them ever again attempted anything quite this unconventional and tonally extreme.


(1) Published between 1933 and 1935, ‘The Fantasy Fan’ was founded by an Elizabeth, NJ based teenager named Charles D. Hornig. Although its circulation remained minimal (subscribers numbered around 60, and the print run never exceeded 300 copies), ‘The Fantasy Fan’ is remembered an an important title within the earl ‘weird fiction’ community, publishing work by Lovecraft, Howard, Derleth and Bloch, as well as correspondence from HPL, Clark Ashton Smith and Forrest J. Ackerman. Surprisingly given their rarity and fragility, extant copies begin at a not unreasonable $150 at Abebooks. Further info via Wikipedia.

(2) In fact, there are numerous parallels between ‘From Beyond’ and Corman’s ‘The Pit & The Pendulum’ in particular. Both are the second movies in a series, coming hot on the heels of an initial big success, and both make a point of pushing the envelope far further than their respective predecessor, incorporating uncomfortable sexual content with a concentration on torture and/or S&M. Both have a rather unhinged, hysterical tone and encourage a dreamlike sense of shifting, uncertain realities, and on some level they also tell similar tales of a younger character losing his/her identity to the fleshy, sensual obsessions of an absent patriarchal figure. Both films even make extensive use of red in their colour schemes, for goodness sake. Coincidence? Quite possibly, but just putting the idea out there.

(3)Interestingly, both the extreme colour scheme used in ‘From Beyond’ and the discussion of ultra-violet light in Lovecraft’s original story seem to mirror the approach to visualising ‘impossible’ colours utilised by Richard Stanley in his recent adaptation of ‘The Color Out of Space’. As both films make clear, MAGENTA is clearly the colour of cosmic horror.

Monday, 6 July 2020

Ennio Morricone

(Cross-posted with Stereo Sanctity.)

Of course we knew this day would come, but still.

So, let’s get straight to the point here – Morricone IS film music, so far as I’m concerned. Even if he didn’t contribute to it all directly, a vast swathe of the cinema I love would sound very different without his influence.

Years before I actually saw any of the Leone films, hearing Morricone’s themes from them pop up on the radio (which they sometimes did in those days) was an event. My Dad (who, like many dads, had a yen for all things cowboy-related) would turn up the volume, and for a few minutes we’d soak it in. The drama, the atmosphere, the wild sounds were just completely intoxicating. They didn’t need any context – as always, Morricone’s music creates its own context. That was almost certainly the first time I stopped to think about music in films, about a kind of musical vocabulary which extended beyond lyrics and pop songs, and about the different ways in which sounds and images can combine to create emotion and excitement. Thirty years later, I’m still thinking about those things.

The medium by which I enjoy the Leone scores has moved over the years from radio, to parental vinyl, to CD, and back to my own vinyl, and during my adult life I’ve of course hovered up all the other Morricone I can find within my price range (which of course still only represents the tiniest fraction of the monolithic range of his total achievement).

From what little I know of Morricone’s beliefs and personality, I think it’s probably safe to say that he would wish to be remembered to the world for his work rather than his biography, so instead of rabbiting on further, I’ll share a swiftly cobbled together mix of fifteen (which could easily be thirty, or one hundred) personal favourite smash hits from his vast catalogue, assembled in no particular order. I’ll keep commentary to a minimum, because otherwise my responses to most of these tracks would just be variations on a theme of holy fucking shit.

Though the magic which Nicolai, Dell’Orso, Alessandroni and so many others brought to his recordings cannot be overlooked, Morricone remains a giant – one of the greatest composers and musicians of the 20th century, no questions asked.

For ease of ad-free listening, I’ve compiled these fifteen cuts into a mix on Mixcloud (embed below), but will also go through them one-by-one via Youtube links for those who wish to pick and choose.

1. ‘Titoli’ from ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (1964)

Here’s where it all began.

2. ‘Il Grande Silenzio (Restless)’ from ‘Il Grande Silenzio’ (1968)

3. “Valmont’s Go-Go Pad” from ‘Danger! Diabolik’ (1968)

4. ‘Svolta Definitiva’ from ‘Violent City’ (1970)

5. ‘La Lucertola’ from ‘A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’ (1971)

6. ‘Guerra E Pace, Pollo E Brace’ from ‘Grazie Zia’ / ‘Come Play With Me’ (1968)

7. ‘Giorno Di Notte’ from ‘A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin’ (1971)

8. ‘Magic and Ecstasy’ from ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ (1977)

9. Main theme from ‘The Thing’ (1982)

10. ‘Canzone Lontana’ from ‘Il Serpente’ (1973)

11. ‘Fraseggio Senza Struttura’ from ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ (1970)

12. ‘Ballabile No. 2’ from ‘La Cosa Buffa’ (1972)

13. ‘Titoli’ from ‘A Sky Full of Stars for a Roof’ (1968)

14. ‘Astratto 3’ from ‘Veruschka’ (1971)

15. ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ from ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (1968)

This theme makes me involuntarily break down in tears each time I hear it. Really, every time, like clockwork. Which has proved quite embarrassing whenever I’ve watched the film in company.

My reaction has nothing to do with any personal/biographical connections, or anything in the film itself (incredible though it is). The sound of the music is just completely overwhelming.

It is simply one of the greatest pieces of music ever recorded, and any classical buffs who want to fight about that are welcome to. Everything that is worth feeling within the human experience, I can hear in this.

R.I.P. Il Maestro.