A gooey treat for fans of cosmic horror, “From Beyond” is a special effects-driven cautionary tale from the mind of Lovecraft and Gordon.
Cosmic horror, as a genre, points towards HP Lovecraft as its epicenter, with tales that place us in situations where the unknowable makes its presence felt, either due to man meddling where he shouldn’t or by pure accident of discovery.
From Beyond is such a story, forming the basis here that is expanded to movie length.
Seemingly covered in Fangoria for ages, with pictures that suggested extreme eye-popping gore that would go further than any other horror film (as was the standard promise), I finally caught this on VHS sometime towards the end of the 80s.
In seeking to unlock the mysteries of the mind, Drs. Pretorius (Ted Sorel) and Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) create and build a device that will open the barrier between our world and the one we cannot see.
Dr. Pretorius is driven to constantly seek and attain more knowledge and, ultimately, power — no matter the cost to those around him. Tillinghast is his assistant, brilliant in his own right but is the polar opposite of his employer; he is a good man. Pretorius seeks to better his own position, to taste the forbidden fruit because he can.
Testing the machine, Tillinghast witnesses firsthand that whatever exists outside of our perception should stay there and informs Pretorius that the machine works.
All too well.
So, starts From Beyond, one of the more inventive, slimiest horrors of the 80s.
Regrouping Jeffery Combs and Barbara Crampton, director Stuart Gordon attempted to capture lightning in a bottle once more but found that it was slightly lacking when held against Re-Animator.
This might have been due to the straight tone because it is pitched as a horror story with little of the blacker-than-black humor that permeated through his previous release. It’s perhaps too straight, and audiences at that time were expecting something similar to Re-Animator.
Lovecraft’s short story centers around how that lust for power will always change those who seek it, even those who wish to use it for good.
The process of obtaining changes a person until they become unrecognizable to themselves. This change manifests itself in Crampton’s character, Dr Katherine McMichaels, who has been tasked with proving that Tillinghast is sane enough to stand trial for the (initial) death of Pretorius. She comes across as a wunderkind who crosses swords with the Institution’s Dr. Bloch.
During the initial tests, she finds that Tillinghast’s pineal gland has enlarged as a by-product of exposure to the resonator and that this bears some truth to his story. Having him released into her care, she sets about learning the true events of that night, along with Bubba Brownlee acting as her minder.
By now, you will have guessed that it will go horribly wrong as she recreates the experiment.
In doing so, she is introduced to the new and improved Pretorius, who now exists outside of normal perception, and to the unwelcome side effects of the machine, which starts to change her personality, corrupting her in much the same way as certain drugs will change a person leaving them wanting more in order to achieve that same high that they can never attain again.
From this point on, we are presented with an almost typical narrative structure.
Dr. McMichaels (Crampton) tries to justify her actions through the belief in a noble cause, as she desperately tries to control the feelings the resonator is unlocking. Bubba (Ken Foree) acts as the film’s even keel, attempting to show McMichaels that she is acting as a common junkie and trying to snap her back to her professional self. This is when the machine self-repairs, causing Bubba to meet his icky demise.
From here, we are on a race to the end, with McMichaels now on the receiving end of some no-so-special treatment at the hospital and Tillinghast, driven crazy by his ever-growing pineal gland, chowing down on the hospital’s supply of brains.
The final show-down is thrilling enough, with Pretorius now mutated/evolved beyond belief.
Although the ending is somewhat telegraphed, I won’t spoil it here for those who have yet to experience this gem.
There is a lot to love about this film, but the special effects are a stand-out and owe a lot to The Thing in terms of the sheer slime and general grossness that was a massive part of 80’s horror. They still hold up surprisingly well given the budget for this film.
Pretorius is played brilliantly, managing to convey the contempt he feels for everyone with just a look or a glance. He somehow is able to amplify this under a ton of makeup and sells it so well in the time he has onscreen.
Crampton and Combs shine, just as you might expect.
Crampton is especially riveting as her character undergoes a dramatic change, running through a range of emotions as the effects of the resonator take hold.
Combs continues his edgy, just slightly unhinged approach that works exceedingly well, and Foree is strong, though slightly underutilized.
From Beyond isn’t perfect. It plays out as a more conventional tale and stretches a short story out past its natural state. It is missing that element of black humor that is required even in the bleakest of moments, relying on the set pieces and the core players to carry it through.
But looking back and watching it again, I appreciate it more for not being a carbon copy of Re-Animator. It doesn’t have that same manic energy, but it tells the story of how the search for knowledge and attaining it will corrupt even the purest of souls despite the best of intentions.
It has a charm to it that might resonate with modern viewers, much the same way as those a generation removed from the best films of Hammer or Universal were captivated by them.
As a snapshot of 80’s horror, it does represent a fertile time of gooey proceedings where each new film aspired to have more gross-out moments than what came before, sometimes to the detriment of the story itself.
From Beyond manages to provide both gore and story in equal measures and is ultimately a gruesome treat that is ripe for re-examining.