Today I watched Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond (1986)
There is a small but vocal contingent of film fans who worship at the altar of practical effects to the detriment of the digital. Considering the commonality between the age of many of these fine folks there is a very understandable reason for people to feel this way. In the mid to late Eighties practical effects had been the norm for so long that the level of excellence was unparalleled and when digital effects came onto the scene they were incredibly rough by comparison. Thankfully From Beyond is not Lawnmower Man and it stands as a testament to the power and creativity that was on display during these times in the effects business.
From Beyond is another in a long line of Stuart Gordon directed adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft stories, and similarly to his popular Re-animator film, it stars Jeffrey Combs as an unhinged scientist who knows what man was not meant to know. Gordon’s approach to translating Lovecraftian horror to screen is hit and miss, on the one hand his over the top pulp sensibilities don’t work well to translate the cerebral aspect of the horror. But on the other hand he does quite a good job of modernizing the intellectual characters, setting and themes, using the sleek ‘modern’ atmosphere of modern hospitals and white lab coats as an appropriate progression of Lovecraft’s own intellectual protagonists.
You may have noticed that it has taken me some time to get to the actual story of this film and that is because the story is rather secondary to the other elements. The source material is quite light on content, boiling down to the classic Lovecraft theme of man viewing a greater level of reality than his mind can comprehend. Essentially a pair of scientists invent a machine that allows human beings to view reality with greater sensitivity by stimulating the pineal gland but of course there are monsters which we normally don’t see and once we do they become aware of us. The film goes further than this by having the main plot follow the first use of the machine. The surviving scientist of the first attempt played by Jeffrey Combs is enlisted by an overly ambitious psychiatrist played by Barbara Crampton and a police officer played by the underrated Ken Foree to recreate the experiment so they can solve the ‘murder’ of the other original scientist.
While the cast have great chemistry, the script is rather bland outside of a few notable quotes. There is just too much hammy exposition which makes the characters seem dopey and unobservant. But it is well paced with plenty of eye candy from the awe inspiring effects work. The film flows from one big set piece scare to the next while establishing a strong, over the top atmosphere and when things really get going it is really quite insane. There is plenty of grotesque body horror to serve as a vehicle for incredibly creative design work and it is solid in expressing this horror.
The film also manages to fit in some social satire of our treatment of the mentally ill, but this only comes into the film in the first and final act. It does mine some of the great horror inherent in asylum incarceration and it is balanced well with the more gross-out scares. It is one of those great adaptations that manages to add instead of subtract from the source material and while it does not perfectly capture the totality of Lovecraft’s cosmic style, it does modernize and expand this one tale effectively. The great cast and practical effects should be more than enough for any non-squeamish viewer to enjoy themselves and the film has an infectiously fun vibe along with some wonderfully effective scares. 4/5