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From Beyond

FromBeyondThe problem with sex fetishes, beyond the perhaps obvious, is that to anyone who does not share them they are ridiculous. S&M freaks, furries, Japanophiles (guilty), anyone who has a carnal interest in something that isn’t simply a human secondary sexual characteristic thinks they are being daring, and that others do not get it because of some flaw, when the truth is, if it doesn’t do it for you, it just looks stupid. And uncomfortable. Often gross.

Wedding H.P. Lovecraft to sado-masochism is From Beyond‘s big idea, and it’s the biggest part of From Beyond that does not really work. Mostly a titular adaptation (the tale is over and done with before the opening credits roll) From Beyond takes the Lovecraftian notion that danger lurks beyond not just the corners we can see but the ones that are invisible to us, and that as we learn more we bring ourselves closer and closer to danger, and weds it rather unhappily to the sad story of a scientist who can’t get it up. He is seeking to see the Beyond because earthly sensual pleasures don’t do it for him anymore.

When I first saw the film, back in high school, I remember hating it and not getting it in equal measure. As a growed up guy who has seen both parts of the world and what horror cinema has become, From Beyond fills me with a longing. I long for movies where weird things that cannot be readily explained happen, and where disappointing visuals come from a failure of budget, not imagination.

Jeffrey Combs stars as Crawford Tillinghast, the rather woebegone research assitant of Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel, name stolen from Bride of Frankenstein) who, one dark and stormy evening finally finishes work on their joint project, The Resonator. It’s designed to excite the pineal gland with the intent of opening up new pathways of seeing, of experience. What it does is vibrate in such a way that it makes the invisible, monstrous world around the researchers visible.

After the machine is turned on, Dr. Pretorious is found with his neck twisted in a spiral, head completely gone, and Crawford is arrested for his murder, locked away as a schizophrenic. Only Dr. McMicheals (Barbara Crampton) has a particular soft-spot for schizophrenics, and an interest in Dr. Pretorious’s work, so she arranges to have Crawford sent back to the house, with a police escort Bubba (Ken Foree) in order to see for herself just what the doctor was up to.

The antics that follow are half gore horror, half S&M soft-core. Pretorious was a sadist who believed the resonator could bring him new levels of sensual pleasure. But, as I said in my opening paragraphs, one man’s sensual delight is another man’s laugh riot, and all of the S&M business leaves me so cold, it keeps all of From Beyond working for me.

What does work, though, are the buckets of gooey weirdness and outlandish oddity. Similar to Nightbreed, this late 80s special effects extravaganza was at the end of the world of cinematic practical effects. The monstrosities created for this movie run the gamut from fascinating to hideous to… maybe a little quotidian. (It’s a shame that when the resonator first turns on, all we really get to see are eels and jellyfish.) Pretorious turns into all kinds of monsters in this movie, and eventually Jeffrey Combs becomes a hairless freak with an enlarged pineal gland spitting out of his forehead, who develops a taste for human brains – and likes to get them fresh.

It’s a gross out movie, but it’s a gross out movie more in the vein of Cronenberg than Friday the 13th, where every piece of penetrated flesh is ripped apart by a new idea, not by a knife or an axe. Maybe you could live the rest of your life without ever seeing two men sharing a single body and ripping each other to pieces from within (in a totally NOT gay way, honest) but it makes for interesting cinema. And it wouldn’t look nearly the same if done in CGI. It would be smooth. Real special effects required real world things to bang up against each other, to fill real space. Light bounces in better ways in the real world. KY Jelly reflects better than anything in an effects program.

Taken as drama (or even horror) From Beyond is okay. It gets a little slow in the middle, and the structure is lumpy, and story thin enough that they could have easily shaved 10 minutes off it’s already short running time. But it’s in the lumpiness of the storytelling, the strangeness, the willingness to engage with oddness that makes it interesting. Besides Combs and maybe Sorel (who is barely on screen without being covered in slime for two minutes) the performances are not great. Horror hammy. There’s not much in the way of quotable dialogue. (And the trailer line, “Humans are such easy prey” is lame). But, similar to Society, directed by the producer of this film Brian Yuzna, what deficiencies it has in its filmmaking are, at least partly, made up for by succeeding in its ambitions – to show crazy things that aren’t random nonsense, but that support the theme of the film.

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Body Double

_625body_doubleBrian De Palma’s sixteenth film is lurid Hitchcock (a novel idea the Master almost nailed in Psycho, had he not included that abysmal Talking Psychoanalyst bit at the end), souped up with extra doses of sleaze and swank, and more Fuck You potshots at the movie industry (and De Palma himself) than you can appreciate in one viewing.

From what I can tell, few if any critics in 1984 got the joke. Feminists decrying misogyny couldn’t see the humor in the woodenness of the acting, or the playful male gaze (e.g., the stand-in who’s in fact not the body double gets drilled to death by a masked marauder who likes to watch, and the D-list actor who excels at playing the D-list actor hero is impotent to save the woman in peril [that last, too, a classic cinematic trope] after watching her perform within a performance, in a film made by a director who gloats in the hackdom for which he is ceremoniously trashed by the clueless taste-makers of the time). De Palma grins at us mischievously: The De Palma (2016) documentary reveals he had carte blanche to be as glossy and gauche as he dared. Be it a Beverly Hills shopping plaza, or a Z-grade film set, the lovingly lit locations — and the way he lets the camera (here, the most important character) gracefully zoom or dolly in on them — connote a director who revels in the flash, even as he pokes holes in it. In good Brechtian fun, he even throws in a Frankie Goes to Hollywood music video that at first seems anachronistic, but which we soon realize has grown organically from the story.

Body Double is about voyeurism, and the Hitchcock language of cinema; but it’s riveting because it chooses to be funny about it, and because De Palma has the balls and the chops to pull it off. We are constantly aware we’re watching a movie. We’re watching people watch each other, deviously, lustfully — however they happen to do it. The movie is also a parody of bad filmmaking — and by extension, a take-down of 80s Hollywood culture. Maybe that’s intellectual bullshit.

Still, I defy anyone remotely entertained by the film to not see De Palma (fresh off Scarface, and at the absolute peak of his powers, with full producer-director control) spying on, stalking, and finally busting a gut at the movie and the viewer in damn near every frame. None of this detracts from the trance of the film. He’s having a ball, yet his craft (his command of it) remains sincere.

It’s a comedy, folks. A violent as hell, tits-in-your-face laugh riot. Do you not see?

Of special merit: Pino Donaggio’s syrupy, half-electronic score, itself breathtaking and overwrought; and Melanie Griffith (Holly Body), a porn star who happens to be the only character that is “in her own skin” from beginning to end — except when she pretends to be someone else, and even then she exudes total confidence and sex appeal.

Rating: A

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Eagles – The Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks

eaglesgreeksLinda Ronstadt’s backing band go out with a stoopid ditty fit for a frat party. Incidentally, after years of honeyed licks, mellow vibes, and facile good times, they offer a window on a career they might have had (Don the Faun & The Golden Noses), had they rocked harder and been a lot less self-absorbed. The song says more about their End of the Coastline Debauch than anything else they did, or “stood for” — except, maybe, for that allegorical song about a haunted hotel. That one is really popular in some Thailand bars.

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Luna – Best of Luna

bestoflunaThe third Velvet Underground album dropped in a Midori sour, rimmed with a crushed Quaalude.  The sound is bright but slightly askew:  A Manhattan drawl on the order of Lou Reed joins a bent, melodic tour of Galaxie 500 — which fits, because that was singer-songwriter Dean Wareham’s previous band.  Luna was more pop, though, which means weirder.  Highly recommended.

Rating: A-

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Prince – Controversy (the first side)

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It wasn’t simply that Prince was a singular talent.  He was different.  It was the way he melded his God-talk, his lust, and his fondness for funk, pop, rock and r&b into a spare and (then) shocking whole.  Never mind the envelope-pushing, though.  That was just one way of getting your attention.  The dude made catchy music that felt both old and familiar, modern and classic.  It really was a new sound.

Always searching, always dissatisfied, always bold, he did in the 80s what Bowie had done in the 70s.  So fully had he absorbed his craft—the cream of what other musicians had done and were doing— he became expert at competing with himself, since no one else could.  Part of the fun of following Prince during his heyday (i.e., the decade he emerged as a full-blown star) was watching him do a new take, a different spin, on what he had proven he could do just by breathing.

In the 90s, right up until his death this year, Prince seemed to grow bored with the game.  He had gained a rather cantankerous image as a control freak who pushed band mates and fans away with his constant need to change (or weird) things up and limit access to his life and music.  But none of it ever pissed me off.  To me, it just raised his mystique, even if I was mostly unimpressed with the music he released.  To me, nothing could detract from that sweet spot he had claimed in the early 80s, when he was liable to wear a trench coat and bikini briefs, and sport a paper-thin mustache, while cranking out tight, minimalist sex beats.

That’s the Prince I return to the most. Prince_sexuality

The first two cuts from Controversy (1981), “Sexuality” and the title track, pick up where the Dirty Mind (1980) album left off—with Prince disavowing labels and norms others might want to pin on him, insisting on his right to party up, get down, and find succor in a world that knows no bounds where race, sex and gender are concerned.  Lyrically, the songs feel jumbled, like he’s courting big concepts that don’t really signify for him outside of the buzz words he’s turned into their titles.  That’s OK, though.  The real star is the music, which drops, bumps and bounces with a rhythmically phat sense of propulsion.  All of which leads to his best slow jam, the insanely lubricious, melodious “Do Me, Baby,” a vocal performance that, in the space of a song, takes his previously thin, nervy delivery and transforms it into a wild display of screams, moans and falsetto yelps that hold no peer in Prince’s catalog.  It’s the climax of the album, and it’s only the third cut in.  Three tracks of assured body music—one a steady stomp, one a coiled whomp, and one a slow build of vocal pyrotechnics—and the first side of this oft-overlooked album is complete.

The second side consists of oddities far less danceable, demented, or urgent.  It’s a fitting B side; Prince shoots his load on the A.640

But “Controversy,” “Sexuality,” and “Do Me, Baby” form a perfect trio, an apt demonstration of the man’s skill and range—instrumentally, vocally, and lyrically—at a time when he was fighting to make his mark, doing shit almost no one else was doing, sticking his neck out when he still ran the risk of being pelted with beer cans*.  Together, they capture the bare essence of the Prince sound (itself a fantastically bare aesthetic—a one-man show behind, and in front of, the boards, with only a few instruments on hand), as well as any album he released prior to Purple Rain.**  No Revolution backing him up, no strings or horns thrown into the mix.  Just a rude boy wonder who wishes we all were nude—programming his Linn drum machine, playing his guitar, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, slapping his bass, and teasing with his androgyny.  Daring us to funk with him.

*Famously, Prince opened for the Rolling Stones on their 1981 tour of America, and was booed off the stage for the sheer outrageousness, the “novelty,” of his look and approach.  (When in fact it was just another version of the same titillation at which folks like Jagger and Presley had excelled, back when they were pups on the scene.)

**He did, of course, return to this oddly spacious but airless sound again, most noticeably on parts of Purple Rain, Parade, and Sign O’ the Times (not to mention all of The Black Album / The Funk Bible).  But, for my money, it gelled on the string of albums he made in the early 80s.