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Stuart Gordon’s ‘From Beyond’ (1986): Gooey Lovecraftian Fun

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'From Beyond' (1986): Gooey Lovecraftian Fun

For a guy who died 83 years ago, H.P. Lovecraft is having a pretty good year! Filmmaker Richard Stanley made his return to mainstream cinema in January with Color Out of Space. The film was an adaptation of the Lovecraft story of the same name, and starred Nicolas Cage as a hapless dad trying to shield his family from the alien horrors of a meteorite in their front yard.

In addition to Color Out of Space, 2020 has seen the debut of “Lovecraft Country”, a new drama horror television series released on the HBO network. It’s an adaptation of a 2016 Matt Ruff novel brought to the screen by Jordan Peele’s Monkey Paw Productions and JJ Abram’s company, Bad Robot. While it’s still unclear just how much the show will have in common with Lovecraft’s stories, the marketing surrounding the series’ release shows that the author will influence more than just the title alone.

This is also a great time to reflect on some of the acclaimed author’s virulent racism. In both his beliefs and practices, H.P. Lovecraft even stood out in his own time as an awful bigot. It’s not the passage of time that revealed Lovecraft’s white supremacism, as his personal life was discordant with then-contemporary politics as well. For someone whose imagination stretched to and wrote of the outer limits of perception, Lovecraft could not be bothered to imagine a world where everyone is treated equally.

Color Out of Space Image 1

Now, as we reevaluate some of H.P. Lovecraft’s place in the canon of horror writers, we can also take the chance to celebrate many of the works his writing inspired. By adapting H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, writers and filmmakers have the decency to take what is special about Lovecraftian horror, and elevate it past those dangerous prejudices.

A great example is From Beyond, from 1986. The movie reunites director Stuart Gordon with his lead actors from Re-Animator, Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton. Just like that movie, Gordon’s debut as a director, From Beyond takes some inspiration from the title Lovecraft tale, but diverges from the source material in unexpected and entertaining ways. Combs stars as Dr. Crawford Tillenghast, a scientist and assistant to the nefarious Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel). Just like his namesake character in Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius provokes the younger doctor, pushing Tillenghast past his moral and scientific boundaries. What results is the Resonator, a diabolical invention that emits frequencies which massage and stimulate the pineal gland. In doing so, Dr. Pretorius intends to open the human mind to more than what its five senses have previously been able to perceive. Within the first five minutes of the movie, Dr. Pretorius falls prey to his success, as the Resonator opens portals through which inconceivable monstrosities can enter our world. Ultimately, he is decapitated by the monsters his machine invites.

Immediately, we see just how far removed From Beyond is from its source material. In the original story, Dr. Tillenghast propagates the inciting action. He is the scientist whose Resonator invention eventually leads to his doom. Here, in the movie, Jeffrey Combs’ Tillenghast merely a victim of the egomaniacal Dr. Pretorious. It is Pretorious’ ambitions that are Tillenghast’s undoing, and the ensuing violence leads to Tillenghast’s arrest and institutionalization.

From Beyond 1986 Jeffrey Combs

While under the custody of a psychiatric ward, Tillenghast meets Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Crampton), a physician studying schizophrenia, whose ambitions rival those of the late Dr. Pretorius. Tillenghast is released into the care of Dr. McMichaels, who soon pressures him back to Pretorius’ lab to recreate the doctor’s work. Having returned to the scene of the crime, Tillenghast is seduced by the promises of the Resonator, and soon, the machine is back to full-functionality. However, in making the Resonator operational again, Tillenghast exposes himself and McMichaels to another world of danger, and leads to the reappearance of the newly-mutated and fully evil Dr. Pretorius.

So, why this movie, why right now? Well, in addition to Lovecraft’s recent resurgence in the public consciousness through Color Out of Space and Lovecraft Country, this is a perfect time to watch From Beyond because of how different it is from most contemporary horror movies. In 2020, we seem to be at the apex of what has been dubbed “prestige horror,” with lots of character-driven, “elevated” genre pictures released each month. This all comes in the wake of movies like The Witch, Midsommar, and A Quiet Place. These are all films that trade thrills for atmosphere, quietly building dread over the course of their runtime, rather than overly-relying on jumpscares. While these films are remarkably well-crafted and deserving of all the praise they’ve received, we, the viewing public, are now missing out on a lot of the fun, exciting scares of yesteryear.

Viewing From Beyond in 2020, it feels like a beautifully gross anomaly. The movie’s practical effects have such a palpable feel to them; there are constantly gooey, tangible things on screen to be grossed-out by. You so rarely see special effects like these today, ones that are so obviously NOT computer generated. Three years after From Beyond, the movie’s producer, Brian Yuzna, would go on to make Society, one of the most over-the-top gross-out practical effects body-horror movies of all time. Here, with From Beyond, you can already see Yuzna’s adeptness at assembling an effects team to create some truly nasty designs. Even the lighting feels so different from the cinematography practices in use today. The way that Gordon lights the scenes, to try to capture some of the indescribable, other-realm extra-sensory phenomena, is so discordant with the photo-realism utilised by many of today’s horror filmmakers.

From Beyond 1986 Image 2

Supplementing its value as pure entertainment, I’d argue that From Beyond is a worthwhile movie because it subverts some of H.P. Lovecraft’s inherent racism. Stuart Gordon casted Ken Foree (known to genre fans as Peter from Dawn of the Dead), as the closest thing this movie has to a hero. In addition to being an incredible actor who adds believability to his character and grounds the whole movie, Ken Foree is a black man in an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. Not only does Foree’s character bring some much-needed humanity to an otherwise cold and clinical set of main characters, but he is also the only character who rises above the corrupting pull of the Resonator. This is a radical addition to the original story, which only includes the character of Dr. Tillenghast and an unnamed observer. What makes it all the more revolutionary is the fact that this character, the strongest both physically and of spirit, is a black man. The creators of From Beyond took its story and reclaimed it from its racist author, and the tale is all the more exciting for Foree’s character’s inclusion.

From Beyond, which is available to rent on Amazon Prime, is an incredible example of taking a decent story, stripping it of its xenophobic associations, and recontextualizing it as a far more entertaining work of art.

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