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From Beyond

by Alex Kirschenbaum Apr 30, 2020

Indescribable shapes both alive and otherwise were mixed in disgusting disarray, and close to every known thing were whole worlds of alien, unknown entities. It likewise seemed that all the known things entered into the composition of other unknown things, and vice versa. Foremost among the living objects were great inky, jellyfish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony with the vibrations from the machine. 

-H.P. Lovecraft, “From Beyond”

The original 1934 H.P. Lovecraft short story “From Beyond” details the twisted trans-dimensional experiments of one Dr. Crawford Tillinghast, who creates a machine that allows gratuitously excessive pineal gland enhancement. This in itself yields a sensory awakening, wherein Tillinghast and his unnamed best friend (our narrator) find themselves suddenly able to see the aforementioned terrifying translucent creatures from beyond the realms of traditional human perception. Tillinghast tries to set the monstrosities upon his friend, that friend destroys the machine, and Tillinghast perishes from what local police deem to be a stroke. But we know better.

In 1986, after thrilling cult audiences with the wicked Frankensteinian horror comedy Re-Animator (1985) — another stellar Lovecraft adaptation — key players Stuart Gordon (writer/director), Brian Yuzna (a producer before, a producer/writer here), Dennis Paoli (writer), Barbara Crampton, Jeffrey Combs and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (stars), Mac Ahlberg (cinematographer), Lee Percy (editor), and Richard Band (composer) reunited for an encore: a feature-length adaptation of From Beyond. The Gordon iteration of From Beyond presents as a more psychedelic but also more straight-faced science fiction horror show than its predecessor. That said, it is clearly very much still a tonal and spiritual successor to Re-Animator.

Gordon would go on to create several other Lovecraft adaptations, including Re-Animator: The Musical (2011), the Crampton-Combs reunion Castle Freak (1995), Dagon (2001), and the “Dreams In The Witch House” episode (2005) of TFH Guru Mick Garris’s excellent Masters Of Horror anthology series. Gordon referred to the prolific author as “a treasure trove” in a 2014 conversation with Birth Movies Death.

In the film version’s expanded plot, research scientist Dr. Tillinghast (Combs) is the housemate and associate of the man responsible for creating the Resonator, the machine responsible for pineal gland stimulation, Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel). After a nosy neighbor discovers an apparently stark raving mad Tillinghast fleeing the scene of a freshly headless Pretorius next to the Resonator, the surviving scientist is institutionalized.

Brilliant young psychiatrist Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Crampton) is brought in to examine Tillinghast. Tillinghast tells a skeptical McMichaels the spectacular truth: the trans-dimensional beasts made visible by the Resonator killed Pretorius. Upon discovering that Tillinghast’s pineal gland has expanded significantly, McMichaels convinces the psychiatric ward imprisoning Tillinghast to release the doctor into her care.

Accompanied by ex-Detective Bubba Brownlee (Dawn of the Dead star Ken Foree), an ex-footballer, McMichaels commands a hesitant Tillinghast to demonstrate the power of the Resonator to prove the veracity of his claim, at the house where Pretorius met his demise. Then things really get weird.

The Resonator indeed unleashes frightening translucent beasts, who initially attack Brownlee. They are accompanied by a wildly changed, shapeshifting Pretorius, who beckons them to join him on the other side. Though they are able to shut off the Resonator at first, the gang struggles to shake its after effects, which include engorged sexual appetites and severe headaches brought on by their growing pineal glands.

Soon, a dangerously curious McMichaels finds herself compelled to reactivate the Resonator, and the team does battle with Pretorius plus an increased arsenal of homicidal beasts from beyond. They also begin waging war against irrevocable psychological (and in some cases physical) changes in themselves. Where things go from there, dear reader, I’ll leave for you to discover. Let’s just say that happy endings are rarely the preferred terrain of this moviemaking crew.

Gordon, a TFH Guru who sadly passed away last month, is operating in fine form here. He and Ahlberg create evocative science-fiction atmospheres with unique color schemes and unexpectedly extreme narrative twists and character turns. Gordon’s Chicago theater background always enabled him to conjure bold, moving performances from his actors, and that remains the case here.

Running a brisk 80 minutes, this contained-location comic sci-fi/horror mash-up moves at an invigoratingly relentless clip. Part of this concision was dictated by necessity: according to a Den of Geek piece and Gordon’s own Shout! Factory Blu-ray commentary, Gordon apparently submitted evolving edits of the film a dozen times to the MPAA in order to secure an R rating and dodge the dreaded NC-17, a kiss of death at the domestic box office. What was cut? Oh, you know, just some mild brain-eating, head-bashing, and pineal gland-chomping. But never fear, gore hounds — though truncated in the extant cut, none of those moments have been wholly omitted.

In a Shout! Factory Blu-ray featurette entitled “Paging Dr. McMichaels,” Crampton discusses just how significant a performative step McMichaels was for her. “Katherine McMichaels is my favorite Stuart Gordon role I’ve ever played, and one of my favorite characters that I’ve ever played anywhere in anything. And I consider it my best role to date, really.” The obsessive, driven, brilliant McMichaels stands in stark contrast to coquettish coed Megan Halsey, Crampton’s Re-Animator character. Combs takes a similarly major acting pivot, depicting Tillinghast as a reluctant, highly moral and honest (at least, at first) mad scientist. Tillinghast is a far cry from titular Re-Animator Herbert West, a demented graduate student who would kill to prove his outré theories.

Foree proves to be a pragmatic, no-nonsense grounding force against the two eccentric scientists, and our most rational route into emotionally appreciating the chaos that ensues once the gang’s experiments get progressively more radical. Ted Sorel’s gregarious, scenery-chewing turn as the “enlightened” Pretorius — his name perhaps a reference to Ernest Thesiger’s sadistic Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) — remains unshakably creepy long after the final credits roll.

No From Beyond conversation would be complete without properly praising the film’s absolutely mind-bending special creature effects work, created by Mark Shostrom (who designed the various forms of the Pretorius creature), John Buechler, John Naulin and Anthony Doublin. Body horror never looked wilder.

Without giving too much away, the delightful final shot wrings unsettling comedy from a moment of sheer terror and tragedy. In one of the Shout! Factory Blu-ray’s several first-rate making-of featurettes, Crampton reveals that she ultimately proposed this unforgettable last laugh, and her acting adjustment here makes for one of the great money shots in all ’80s horror.

If you just can’t get enough From Beyond chatter, this writer highly recommends checking out Scripts Gone Wild’s epic recent From Beyond screenplay reading, wherein Crampton returns as Dr. McMichaels.