Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Beyond (1981) review


David Warbeck (Dr. John McCabe), Catriona MacColl (Liza Merrill), Cinzia Monreale (Emily), Al Cliver (Dr. Harris)

Directed by Lucio Fulci

The Short Version: One of the best examples of Italian horror, this 1981 Gothic gore mini epic is a flawed, yet shining effort in Senor Fulci's directorial catalog; a career that spans all genres. Bearing a visual style akin to the likes of Sergio Leone and Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci's movie about demonic forces entering our world is a visual feast of flesh splattered onto a cinematic canvas not unlike the hauntingly macabre landscape painted by the guardian of hell's gate at the films beginning.

In 1927 Louisiana, a group of angry villagers brutally assault, mutilate and crucify a man named Sweick, a painter and alleged warlock living in the Seven Doors Hotel, the apparent guardian of a door to hell situated in the hotel's basement. Fifty-four years later, Liza Merrill purchases the old hotel and notices bizarre occurrences that are intensified after she meets a peculiar blind girl named Emily. Detailing that she must leave the establishment before the gate is opened, a plumber inadvertently locates a hidden room in the bowels of the hotel thereby allowing hells minions to walk the Earth.

Fulci often took minor roles in his movies and here he is as the librarian (left)

Lucio Fulci is often referred to by fans and critics alike as either a directorial genius or a cinematic hack. The latter is a bit harsh, but Fulci has arguably been behind the wheel of a number of ghoulishly interesting productions most famously in the horror genre. While some of his genre efforts are painful exercises in tedium such as MANHATTAN BABY (a film that rewards insomniacs with some laughable effects work at the end), others such as HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981) serve up dollops of generous gore, but lack a cohesive script, or anything resembling common sense.

One of the best and creepiest shots in the film

THE BEYOND (1981), while possessing some narrative hiccups, nonetheless contains a nightmarish quality that, whether by intention, or by accident, is undeniably omnipresent. It's noticeable from the opening prologue and doesn't stop till the shockingly surreal final moments. Fulci touches on this otherworldy quality using it to good effect in his CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980), but is far more creatively inclined in its utilization here. HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY also possesses this aura of dread, as intermittent and lazily cobbled together as that film may be. One of four films dealing with the living dead, Dardano Sachetti's script (along with two other contributors including Fulci) attains Lovecraftian levels of arcane spookery even if all of the elements seldom grasp coherence. Exactly how does the book of Eibon fit into the scheme of things? If Sweick was actually the guardian to the gateway to hell, why does he ultimately end up as the key proponent of the demonic assault? Why does the little girl--whose eyes turn a milky white akin to Emily the friendly ghost--become evil?

Another grand photographic image worthy of a painting features the blind Emily in the middle of a causeway

Fulci's occasionally irrational, doom-laden terror tale of ghouls and ghosts entering our world bears more than a few passing similarities to Michael Winner's equally bizarre, but slightly more plausible THE SENTINEL (1977). Like that movie, the script for Fulci's film features a hotel situated over hell's realm guarded by a white eyed gatekeeper. The Italian picture is by no means a direct clone, but the connection is unmistakable. One thing Winner's movie doesn't have is a gruesome parade of cruelty that the Italians excelled at during the latter 1970s and early 1980s.

Over the years, Italian horror pictures have lovingly indulged in a fascination for ocular mayhem and THE BEYOND may well be the orb abuse champion. Whether poked, impaled, stabbed or crushed, eyes are also symbolic of a more supernatural level, such as the character of Emily, a blind, ghostly emissary from 'The Beyond' bearing solid white eyes. Also a young girl, who witnesses her mother's face turned into a pulpy miasma of grue loses her sight and ocular pigmentation after an encounter in a surreally imagined coroner's room replete with creepy cadavers.

THE BEYOND would likely be a lesser effort if not for the Gothic enhancement of Sergio Salvati's entrancing cinematography. The prologue is wonderfully captured on film and arguably one of the best sequences in horror cinema and a helluva way to kick off the movie. Sweick, the gatekeeper and a purported alchemist is working on a painting of a vast, barren landscape littered with lost souls. He's interrupted by a gaggle of torch bearing executioners. Proclaiming the consequences of his death, the villagers proceed to sadistically murder the man by the use of chains, nails and quicklime. As Sweick is viciously whipped (his flesh shredded by chains), close ups of his painting are seen accompanied by each thrash and cry of pain.

This painting plays an important role in the film, too, and is either the most linear aspect of the movie, or one of the most contrived. Apparently, it, too, acts as a door into hell. By the end of the movie, all roads figuratively lead to the basement of the Seven Doors Hotel. Entering the fog enshrouded hidden room uncovered earlier in the picture by Joe the Plumber, our two sole survivors find themselves unwitting occupants in the very landscape painted by Sweick--they have become a part of the painting--their eyes burned solid white, permanent occupants of this bleakly apathetic afterworld.

Sound effects are a fundamental component in foreign made movies, particularly those shot without live sound. It's not very difficult to discern a film shot with live sound and one without. In Italian horror pictures at least, the sounds of death weigh heavily on the effectiveness of the judiciously gory make up effects. As expected, they play an unnerving, yet crucial role in Fulci's malevolent masterstroke. From the shrill squeaking of a gurney, to the eight legged scuttling of an army of hellish tarantulas, to the oft used, unsettlingly heavy breathing of the living dead Fulci's film provides both an audible and visual assault on the viewers senses.

In what must have been an excuse to detonate additional blood squibs, David Warbeck refuses to notice that only shots to the head put the dead guys down

While it's a predominantly well made Euro excursion into demonic territory, the picture isn't all blood and roses. In one or more instances, a victim(s) merely stand there without the slightest bit of emotional response to the ghastly sights in front of them. Granted, this could be explained as a person being frozen with fear, but said character never registers fear, or any other impression. Also, how can the bodies of supposed netherworld specter's erupt in massive arterial fountains of blood and viscera? Can ghosts bleed?? While poverty row production budgets were de rigueur for Italian genre pictures, Fulci takes full advantage of the limited resources at hand. The hospital seen in the movie is almost as barren as the landscape painted by the warlock at the beginning of the movie. We only ever see two doctors--McCabe and Harris. Aside from the sight of numerous corpses in various stages of decay and mutilation, it's a fairly empty establishment.

While many (including Fulci himself) state the frequently nonsensical nature of these movies was intentional--owing more to a surrealist, baroque approach then to a fractured script and chaotic production schedule. Still, there's no excuse for the shot of Warbeck attempting to reload his gun from the end of the barrel to have made it past the editing stage and you even see Catriona McCall smiling at this obvious gag! Intended as a joke, how could something like that make it past the entire crew? Without knowing that was unintentional, someone seeing that for the first time would surely think the filmmakers were lacking in grey matter on par with the shuffling zombies up on the screen. With such oversights, it's no wonder foreign made genre product has never pierced the circle of the mainstream on a wider scale, much less taken seriously.

In the defense of THE BEYOND, there are some truly macabre, dream-like visuals and more than a few staggeringly impressive photographic shots that ably capture the sinister air of the plot. The intermingling of the natural and the metaphysical isn't as confounding as it is in Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (still an incredibly nightmarish movie experience just the same) However, one of the main culprits of Italian horror movie derailments are unnatural dialog exchanges. The spoken word does translate better in Italian in many cases. Generally the English dubbing does actually put these films in a dream-like world where individuals of the Earthbound sort would likely have a much different delivery.

Gianetto De Rossi's splatterific effects work are a major highlight that has since become the bread and butter of Fulci's most oft discussed portion of his directorial career. The aforementioned and numerous eyeball destruction share the screen with throat rippings, a bloody crucifixion, flesh shredding chain throttlings, a gruesome attack by hell sent tarantulas and a young girls head obliterated by a gunshot. There's also a climactic assault by the living dead, but gorehounds have shockingly never made mention that none of them are ever shown feasting on the flesh of the living, the then most popular plot device in zombie movies that extends to this day. De Rossi's gross out delights have graced the screen in pictures like LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE (1974), ZOMBIE (1979), RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS (1983) and American features like DUNE (1984), CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984) and also in the French horror flick, HIGH TENSION (2003). He also tried his hand at directing with the uniformly inferior KILLER CROCODILE 2 (1989) and CY WARRIOR (1990).

Released to American theaters by sleaze specialists, Aquarius Releasing in a heavily truncated version under the juicy title of SEVEN DOORS OF DEATH, that version was widely available on VHS by Thriller Video. The lurid, EC style box art was marketed with bogus critical blurbs by TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE makers, Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel--both of whom had never seen the movie. Fabio Frizzi's score was replaced with an all new soundtrack that fit the film just fine.

While it isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, THE BEYOND is almost unanimously heralded as Fulci's best picture in the horror arena by the legion of his dedicated fans. Of his zombie quartet, it's easily his most ambitious and most artistically realized amidst noticeable shortcomings and painfully low budgetary restrictions. Visually impressive thirty years after its making, Fulci and his cadre of usual suspects deserve accolades for what they were able to accomplish.

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay Limited Edition Tin set.

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