Monday, October 29, 2007

From Beyond

(1986) ***1/2

As I'm gathering these H. P. Lovecraft movies into my fevered brain, two questions seem to come up again and again. 1. His stories weren't really fleshed out enough to suggest an entire movie based on his work, so if you're going to make one, how do you choose what to add? 2. The "horrors" in his stories were exquisitely fleshed out, so how do you make the movie versions effective, especially with limited resources?

These are sticky questions, but after watching From Beyond, anyone looking to make a Lovecraft flick will have the partial answer to both: "not quite like that."

After answering both questions perfectly by directing Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon made another fairly astute choice of material to adapt. From Beyond has no mysterious non-Euclidean cities or vast, writhing Other Gods to portray, just a mad scientist achieving the unthinkable in his home laboratory (although this one has opted to use the attic instead of the more popular basement).

Good old Jeffrey Combs entertains us again, not as the head Mad Edward Pretorius but as his more level-headed assistant Crawford Tillinghast. Pretorius has invented a machine that uses vibrations to stimulate the human pineal gland and bring co-existing dimensions into visibility.

Here we see the machine's glowing tuning forks and one of the nasty eel creatures that they render visible. Part of the sublime creepiness of the original short story is that these critters are just filling the room, as if they make up the very atmosphere of the subtler realm. But, what the effects can't show us is made up for with plain meaness, as the eel takes a bite out of poor Crawford's face (see top). I love the "if you can see them, they can see you" maneuver. If you think about it, it operates within the same basic childhood logic that renders you safe from monster attacks if you're beneath the covers. And it's so perfectly Lovecraftian -- just daring to observe the loathsome mysteries of the universe invites the greatest peril.

True to his mad profession, Pretorius considers Crawford's being attacked by predatory eels a rousing success and cranks the machine up to 11. Then something comes and eats his head off and they toss Crawford in the booby hatch.

Here's where the need to expand on the material becomes apparent, because by now the movie has already moved past the original story. Lovecraft only hints at the presence of bigger, smarter things in the Beyond, but we never see one. As it stands the short story only gets us through the opening credits. Enter the pretty and controversial Dr. Katherine McMichaels, who pulls Crawford from the madhouse so he can get a chance to set his story straight. Joining them is the woefully un-Lovecraftian Buford "Bubba" Brownlee, the pro ball player turned cop who has a big smile for everybody, and who's played by the badass black SWAT guy from the original Dawn of the Dead. Later we'll get to see Bubba do this:

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When the machine is switched on, Tillinghast's innocence is assured as it does indeed reveal flying, fanged eels and jellyfish and also the bigger, smarter thing we've heard about -- although now it's merged with the personality of our mad scientist. His mania? To find a sensual experience beyond the boring five senses we know (as presaged by his S/M lifestyle), and induct as many victims into his new realm as he can. Fortunately, he can be switched off, and he is.

UNfortunately, stimulation of the pineal is a tempting feeling, comingling with the sexual urge, and in this stupor of curiousity Dr. Michaels wanders upstairs in her nightgown and turns the machine back on. Pretorius shows up to menace her in an even more inhuman form and Crawford and Bubba have to fight a giant lamprey eel in the basement to pull the plug. This is where we find out that Bubba, despite being a cop, thinks it's legal to sleep in tiny red briefs.

This scene is pretty damn good: the theme of dangerous curiousity is solid, you're not too mad at them for not going and getting more people because that's exactly what they were gonna do in the morning anyway, and Pretorius turns into a cool monster that looks to twist Katherine's head off with its mandibles. Up to now, the movie has been promising, a four star effort for sure, maybe even four and a half. But it is not to be.

From here the story unravels quickly. The machine starts turning itself on, there's a ridiculous scene with a bug swarm that only swarms certain parts of a room, Crawford's newly hairless head (because giant lampreys have Nair for saliva, apparently) looks even worse when his pineal gland pops out of his forehead, whipping around like a rubber feeler. He starts sucking people's brains out their eyesockets. What started as a creepy idea ends up a silly, confused, sensationalist affair.

Had the story been better, I might have been in the mood to forgive the special effects. Clearly Gordon and company are fans of Lovecraft's, and I understand the limitations of practical effects when it comes to the author's brand of squirming, incredibly hideous monsters, but I really think they could have done better than this.

Still, props to these guys for taking on Lovecraft with any amount of directness. From Beyond is by no means the worst Lovecraft movie I've watched this month, and there's some genuinely good creepy fun on the screen. Worth a look.

This screenshot was a total mistake but I love it.

In general news...just two more days, folks! Man, has it been fun this year. I am so amped about all the new contributors. What I haven't been amped about is my own spotty presence on this blog, but fear not!

In a recent effort to up my numbers and win win win, I have been opting to spend more time viewing than I have writing. I've been gathering screenshots as I go and starting Thursday I'll make sure I crank those bastard reviews out before the deadline. I have quite a few...

(whispers) Horrorthon!


Whirlygirl said...

I love that screenshot too!

Octopunk said...

Btw, when I spoke of the limitations of practical effects when portraying Lovecraft's brand of squirming, incredibly hideous monsters, this occured to me:

The absolute best achievements along those lines would be John Carpenter's The Thing. It's not a Lovecraft story, but it is his kind of monster. If you'll indulge me, here's what I said in my review of The Thing last year: "The transformations are hideous displays of truly chaotic flesh, the old forms bloodily ripping themselves apart, giving way to a wet fireworks display of writhing tentacles, sprouting insect legs and gooey viscera."

Oh. my. god. I just this second figured out why I have grown to like Lovecraft more and more over the years. We both fancy these ridiculously long sentences.

AC said...

fab review octo.

looking forward to reading your posts into november!

Johnny Sweatpants said...

This review somehow eluded me all week. I'm glad I finally read it though! I really really really need to read some Lovekraft..