“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!”)
“‘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)
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’.
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.
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.
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].
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.