My sharehouse years were a golden time for watching horror movies. A good mate of mine was big on Italian horror in particular, so together we worked our way through such dubious classics as Zombie Flesh Eaters, Cannibal Holocaust, Dr Butcher M.D. (or Zombie Holocaust as we call it here Down Under) and Burial Grounds: The Nights of Terror. And one day, The Beyond showed up at his house.
I sat and watched it in a darkened room, late one afternoon. I didn’t really know what to expect, other than that it was probably going to be pretty gory, since it was from Lucio Fulci – the same director as the aforementioned Zombie Flesh Eaters. And it certainly was, but to characterise it as just another gore film would be quite inaccurate. Rather, the film struck a chord with me – the dubbed voices, the eerie soundtrack, the graphic (yet often incredibly cheap) violence, Lovecraftian references, general incoherence and the bizarre, seemingly arbitrary ending all formed a concoction that unnerved me for a long time afterwards – something that was pretty difficult for horror films to do at that time in my life.
Our heroine Liza – played with admirable conviction by Catriona MacColl – inherits a hotel in Louisiana, and sets about restoring it, with the aim of turning it into a profitable business. But naturally there’s a catch; some decades before, a young artist was murdered in the hotel by a group of local yokels, who believed his disturbing artwork to be a sign that he was some kind of warlock.
It seems his murder opened up some kind of gate to Hell, a place where the dead can re-enter the world of the living. Workmen on the hotel start turning up dead pretty quickly, falling victim to the artist’s undead form. A mysterious blind woman then shows up, who serves as both exposition and enigma – is she the lover of the artist we saw earlier? If so, what’s she been doing for the last several decades? Is she even real, or just a hallucination that Liza’s having?
Beyond (ha!) this, the plot mostly serves as tenuous setups for the violent deaths of the supporting characters. And indeed, that’s a big drawcard for plenty of fans. The special effects are a mixed bag, with the Venn diagram between “disturbing” and “totally crap” overlapping quite often. Unsurprisingly, plenty of initial releases around the world were heavily censored, which I imagine probably rendered it even more unsettling and incomprehensible.*
Few scenes exemplify the weird disturbing/laughable aesthetic of the film’s gore as the part where a group of spiders eat a guy’s face. Especially now – not every film was meant to be watched on Blu-Ray and this is definitely one of them. I’m sure it’s probably best enjoyed as a VHS on a CRT TV, but that may be difficult to come by these days. So split the difference and opt for DVD if you have the option.
But the most controversial part – aside from all the violence, I guess – is the ending. I won’t outline it here, but suffice to say it makes very little sense, even in light of the film itself being fairly internally inconsistent. I guess there’s some kind of alternate dimension/end of the world thing happening, but to describe it as ambiguous would be to understate things thoroughly.
Of course, some of the film’s disjointed nature can be better understood in light of the film’s production. Fulci was originally planning to make a non-linear haunted house film – so to be fair, this movie was never going to spell things out for audiences. But his investors weren’t happy with this – zombies, they suggested, were much more profitable. Not surprising, given the then-recent success of Dawn of the Dead and Fulci’s own Zombie Flesh Eaters. So Fulci reworked his script to incorporate the undead, including a big scene near the end where a large group of zombies stalk our heroes through a hospital.**
There’s quite a lot of backstory the film could have capitalised on – a few include the Necronomicon-esque book Eibon, the exact nature of the blind girl, and why the artist has waited decades to resurrect – but Fulci seems pretty content to throw away seemingly important plot points in favour of simply having more gore. This can make it a little irritating to watch at times, but it does kind of fit with its Lovecraftian tone; namely, that bad, supernatural stuff happens and the mere mortals involved aren’t really clear on why. They’re just caught up in the ride, whether they like it or not. At least viewers have the option of switching it off it doesn’t appeal to them.
Watching it again in 2016, it doesn’t quite push the same buttons that it did on that first viewing back in 2007. But make no mistake, The Beyond is an oddity. The violence and eerie atmosphere will put off many more casual thriller/horror fans on its own merits, and there will be others who understandably dismiss it for its cruder features – the poor dubbing, or the questionable plot. But for the more seasoned horror fan, it’s worth watching at least once. Irrespective of how much you enjoy it, you’re still likely to agree that there are few other horror experiences like it.
Tom reviews action figures, Lego, Funko POPs and the occasional album or comic over at The Lupine Book Club.
* Elvira apparently refused to host it when a censored version was released under her “ThrillerVideo” series as Seven Doors of Death in the mid-1980s.
** Though he sort of got to make his haunted house film a few years later, with the far inferior House By The Cemetery, which also features Catriona MacColl as the female lead. It’s got a few good scenes, but it’s vastly more incoherent and – more inexcusably – deeply tedious.