The 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. And 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 seeks 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 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 assistant for Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel, name stolen from Bride of Frankenstein) who, one dark and stormy evening, finally completes 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 powers up, Dr. Pretorious is found with his neck twisted in a spiral, head completely gone, and Crawford is arrested for the 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 doing.
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 see are eels and jellyfish.) Pretorious turns into all kinds of monsters, and eventually Jeffrey Combs becomes a hairless freak with an enlarged pineal gland spitting out of his forehead. He develops a taste for human brains — and likes to get them fresh.
It’s a gross-out movie, but 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 share 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 bit slow in the middle, and the structure is lumpy; the story is thin enough that they could have easily shaved 10 minutes from its 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. They are horror hammy. And there’s not much in the way of quotable dialogue. (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 the movie 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.