Saturday, September 12, 2009

Review of The Beyond

The Beyond (1981)
Directed by: Lucio Fulci
Starring: Catriona MacColl, David Warbeck, Cinzia Monreale, Antoine Saint-John, Veronica Lazar
9 out of 10 stars.

     Italian director Lucio Fulci, who passed away in March of 1996, had a career that spanned nearly forty years, and across many different genres of film.  Yet, the man is by far most famous for a series of over-the-top and extremely gory horror films in the late-70’s and early-80’s.  Fright fans have long lauded Fulci’s unrelenting, apocalyptic epics of eye-gouging, throat-ripping, and murderous rotting corpses, and 1981’s The Beyond is considered to be the filmmaker’s masterpiece.  However, The Beyond (as well as the other Fulci films of this period) have been universally lambasted by mainstream critics, who condemn the picture as completely laughable in its absence of story, plot, and character development.  So who is right and who is wrong?  While I believe both factions are rightfully entitled to their opinions, I have to tip the scale over to the side of the legions of the Fulci faithful by declaring The Beyond the ultimate gothic nightmare.

     The second in an unofficial trilogy (which started with City of the Living Dead and concluded with The House by the Cemetery) begins in the Seven Doors Hotel in 1927 Louisiana, where an angry mob comes to lynch a painter named Schwieck, who they suspect to be “ungodly warlock”.  Schwieck warns them that the hotel is located on one of the Seven Gateways to Hell, and that he‘s the only one who could help them. But in their blinded fear they drag him down to the basement.  Already, Fulci hits the ground running as the mob whip the flesh off his body with chains and crucify him to the wall with steel nails before dousing him with quicklime.  Cut to 1981, and New Yorker Liza (Fulci regular Catriona MacColl) has inherited the now dilapidated hotel, and is working diligently to repair it for re-opening.  In no time at all, strange things are afoot.  First, the housepainter mysteriously falls off a scaffold, prompting local doctor John McCabe (David Warbeck) to come and take him to the hospital.  Liza then runs into a blind woman named Emily (Sarah Keller), who begs her to leave the hotel.  Meanwhile, a plumber named Joe comes to examine the flooded labyrinthine basement, unwittingly re-discovers the portal after it had been walled over, and pays for it big time!  Even after all the accidents, her distrust in the employees who “came with the hotel”, and the constant visits and doom prophecies of Emily, Liza is still determined to stay.  But the occurrences get more frightening and the evisceration escalates to jaw-dropping levels, forcing Liza and the self-assured McCabe to try and uncover the truth about the hotel, or at least a version of it that will satisfy their sense of rationality.  The whole thing climaxes in a shoot-out with the undead in a deserted hospital, which leads to one of the more bizarre, not mention more subdued, endings in horror movies.

     The Beyond never got a proper theatrical release in the U.S. when it was produced.  Instead, it was relegated to home video in the States as (the heavily-censored) Seven Doors of Death in 1983.  It wasn’t until 1998 that Quentin Tarantino and Grindhouse Releasing (founded by Sage Stallone and film editor Bob Murawski) re-mastered the film and gave it a real American debut on the midnight movie circuit.  The critics who viewed The Beyond weren’t just dismissive of it, they were merciless.  A very famous critic from the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “The plot involves … excuse me for a moment while I laugh uncontrollably at having written the words ’the plot involves’”.  One reviewer  called The Beyond’s plot “annoyingly threadbare”, while another from the San Francisco Chronicle writes, “Hell is worse than this?”   They were also universal in their disdain for the dialogue.  To be honest, they’re right; the plot is riddled with inconsistencies, making the story incoherent, and The Beyond is loaded with memorably bad lines like “The eyes!  The eyes!” and “You have carte blanche, but not a blank check, okay?!”  They do prove to be distractions at times.  However, what the mainstream critics failed to see- or rather chose to ignore- is the intention of The Beyond and, in turn more importantly, it’s execution.  Even though the story, plot, and characters have been short-changed, it’s everything else about the film, brought together by the gruesomely expert vision of Lucio Fulci, that makes it an absolute winner.

     This isn’t like most of the American slasher films that followed throughout the rest of the Eighties, whose sacrifice of storytelling in sole favor of gore is clearly out of laziness.  With The Beyond, Fulci wanted to make a purely visual gothic horror piece, and he successfully puts a tremendous amount of effort into it.  From the cinematography to the art direction to Fabio Frizzi’s score to the lighting, it’s a vision that never falters.  More than anything else, The Beyond, even after nearly thirty years, never fails to shock as it delivers some of the most spectacularly gory moments ever put on screen (courtesy of FX artist Giannetto De Rossi).  While a few shots are noticeably fake, the audacity- and maybe a little viciousness on Fulci’s part- behind the set pieces is why the film continues to pack a gross-out punch!  Gorehounds will not be disappointed!  While it’s not always successful, The Beyond walks a really weird line between a traditional narrative film and avant-garde cinema.  Whether or not popular film critics will ever give the movie kudos for trying- or even acknowledge such notion, period- doesn’t, or shouldn’t, matter.  Horror fans will savor and appreciate what Fulci delivers with this film.  The Beyond serves as a worthwhile ride into ultimate, surrealistic gore, and as the perfect introduction to Lucio Fulci and Italian horror cinema.

~Doctor Splatter

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