John Charet’s Take On: From Beyond (1986)

A year after he made his rollicking directorial debut with Re-Animator, independent filmmaker Stuart Gordon decided to quickly, but effectively follow it up with another H.P. Lovecraft adaptation using most (If not all) of that previous film’s cast and crew. Instead of trying to exceed his expectations though, Gordon has wisely chosen to limit (or lower) them considerably by focusing more on making the most of his capabilities as a filmmaker. Luckily enough for Gordon, From Beyond has turned out to be another delightfully gruesome rollercoaster ride of a horror movie.

Mad scientist Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) and his lab assistant Dr. Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) create a radical invention called The Resonator, a machine that stimulate’s the pineal gland of anybody who comes into close contact with it. While testing out The Resonator, Pretorius becomes dangerously obsessed with it leading to his mysterious decapitation. When his body is discovered by the police, Tillinghast is arrested for murder and (soon enough) is committed to a psychiatric ward.

Unlike the rest of the staff at the hospital, female psychiatrist Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) sincerely believes that Tillinghast is innocent especially after he undergoes a brain scan revealing a grown pineal gland. The doctors release Tillinghast (albeit reluctantly) into McMichaels custody so he can show her and accompanying detective Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree) how the machine works.

Not long after coming back to the house, a hesitant Tillinghast reactivates The Resonator so McMichaels and Brownlee can see what it is all about. During the process however, a now grotesque looking Prestorius physically appears and reveals that his stimulated pineal gland allowed him to experience a parallel universe (one involving monsters in this case) beyond the normal one the three of them are currently living in. Before he can viciously prey upon them, Tillinghast angrily shuts off the power and advises McMichaels and Brownlee to keep it that way. Sooner or later though, things get so out of control that the option of destroying the rapidly mutating Pretorius and his machine becomes inevitable.

Since most (If not all) of the action is confined to that of Dr. Pretorius creepy house/laboratory, it is only fitting that director Stuart Gordon would cleverly treat From Beyond as If it were the cinematic equivalent of a funhouse. As he did with Re-Animator, Gordon puts on a wonderfully gory show full of all sorts of tricks and treats. The highlights here include a man getting completely devoured by flying insect-like things, the eating of a human brain, a pineal gland bursting from a man’s forehead and the rapidly mutating body of an already deformed Dr. Pretorius. In addition to all of that, we get some pretty awesome special effects in the form of a giant worm monster and the previously mentioned nasty flying creatures that feast upon human flesh. To top it all off, Gordon throws in a considerable amount of S&M (i.e. sadomasochism) as a much-needed bonus.

Last, but not least, part of what makes From Beyond such a satisfying experience comes from its two lead actors, who complement each other here. In this case, we have Jeffrey Combs eccentric Dr. Crawford Tillinghast serving as the perfect anti-hero to Dr. Katherine McMichaels damsel in distress/anti-heroine, who is played with relish here by the great Barbara Crampton. Her McMichaels character is not only beautiful and intelligent, but likable as well. At the same time though, she comes off as ambitious and tragic. Unlike Tillinghast, she feels that The Resonator has the potential to do a lot of good like curing schizophrenia. Speaking of which, she reveals in one heartbreaking scene that her father was committed to a psychiatric ward due to suffering from that and lived there until he died. This background story of hers not only makes us sympathize with her as a human being and a doctor, but it also makes us root for her every step of the way as well. Similar to Tillinghast, McMichaels becomes emotionally damaged and occasionally turned on by the machine and one of the examples of the latter involves a brief flirtation with S&M. In the case of the former, I can only say that by the last scene before the end credits roll, it becomes abundantly clear just how traumatized she has become after all of these events. Aside from looking sexy in a leather and bondage outfit, Crampton also looks cute in a lab coat, a hospital gown, a long-sleeved nightgown and all in all, anything in general. As much as I adored her acting work in Re-Animator, Castle Freak and We Are Still Here, her characterization here of Dr. Katherine McMichaels still ranks as my personal favorite of her performances within the horror genre. As I said in my review of Re-Animator (read here), this gorgeous blonde ranks as my number one favorite scream queen of all-time. Ken Foree lends welcome support as Detective Bubba Brownlee and unlike Tillinghast and McMichaels, he is quite possibly the only one who does not break the rules. Ted Sorell is convincing as the villainous Dr. Edward Pretorius and yes, he is every bit as perverted as David Gale’s Dr. Carl Hill from Re-Animator. Interesting bit of trivia, the film’s tagline of “humans are such easy prey” is also said by him in the film.

When all is said and done, From Beyond ultimately works as a worthy companion piece to Re-Animator thanks in large part to director Stuart Gordon’s avoidance of trying to surpass it and as a result, ends up equaling it instead. At its heart though, From Beyond is really just a deeply satisfying horror film that’s also a lot of fun.

-(Star Rating)-
* * * * (Out of * * * *)

John Charet’s Take On: Re-Animator (1985)

Organic Theater Company co-founder Stuart Gordon officially began his filmmaking career in 1985 with successful results in the form of Re-Animator, a deliciously gory and wildly funny treat of a horror movie worthy of its reputation as a cult classic. Re-Animator was also the first of Gordon’s unofficial cycle of five films that were adapted (loosely or not) from stories (short or otherwise) written by literary horror author H.P. Lovecraft. As much as I adore From Beyond, Castle Freak and Dreams in the Witch-House and DagonRe-Animator stands out for me as the quintessential film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft property.

During his time as a student studying medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) initially succeeds at bringing Dr. Hans Gruber (his dead professor) back to life, but because he injected him with such a high dosage of his own special solution, Gruber dies again and this time, it literally results in a bloody mess. Forced to find opportunities elsewhere for his medical research, West travels to America and finds one in the form of Miskatonic University, a prestigious college located in the town of Arkham in Essex County, Massachusetts. In searching for the perfect place to stay and continue his studies in his spare time, he rents a room from a medical student named Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), who quickly becomes a loyal assistant to him.

In the first in a series of many attempts, West reanimates (i.e. brings back to life) Cain’s dead cat Rufus by injecting him with a glowing green reagent that gives life to the still dismembered feline. Though a little freaked out at first, Cain becomes impressed by West’s ability to revive the dead. On the other hand, Cain’s fiancee Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton) is horrified by West’s experimentation on the deceased animal and does not want any involvement in his radical activities. Subsequently, West and Cain are kicked out of the University for trying to convince the dean (and Megan’s father) Dr. Alan Halsey (Robert Sampson) that the aforementioned incident took place, which he finds preposterous. Nevertheless, this does not stop the two of them from visiting a morgue and using the glowing green formula to reanimate other corpses. One of them is brought back to life (unintentionally) as a zombie and ends up killing Dr. Alan Halsey and though West reanimates him, he inevitably returns as a zombie. West’s nemesis Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) ends up discovering that Dr. Alan Halsey is now a reanimated corpse, which gives him the opportunity to find West and murder him so he can steal his work and claim it as his own. Not to spoil anything, but West gains the upper hand and kills Hill by decapitating him with a shovel and (later on) out of curiosity, he reanimates him and Hill’s head orders his own body to knock West unconscious leading to all sorts of chaos from here on out.

Director Stuart Gordon does for H.P. Lovecraft what legendary B-filmmaking extraordinaire Roger Corman did for Edgar Allan Poe. To put it in other words, no other directors besides those two, have adapted their material (faithfully or not) with such a high level of enthusiasm. I consider myself not only an aficionado of the horror genre as a whole (within the realm of cinema, cable/television, literature etc.), but like Gordon and Corman, I am also a huge fan of the works of both Lovecraft (like the former) and Poe (like the latter). In my opinion, Gordon has also proven to be every bit as successful in adapting Poe (the Masters of Horror episode The Black Cat and the 1991 version of The Pit and the Pendulum) as he has with Lovecraft. On the contrary, Corman’s The Haunted Palace (titled after a Poe poem, but based on a Lovecraft entry entitled The Case of Charles Dexter Ward) was admirable, but it can’s hold a candle to Gordon’s cycle of Lovecraft films. Out of Gordon’s five Lovecraft adaptations, all five of them are classics (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Castle Freak, Dagon and Dreams in the Witch-House). As much as I love the succeeding four films within that first group, neither of them can surpass the preceding Re-Animator’s unique blend of madcap comedy and gruesome horror, which is what makes this one special.

Though it might not look like it on the surface, Re-Animator is not so much a homage/spoof in the mold of Young Frankenstein as it is a genuine Lovecraftian horror film with a sharp sense of humor. Aside from referencing Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo with the Saul Bass-like title sequence, director Stuart Gordon also references Bernard Herrrmann’s iconic music score for Psycho (another Hitchcock film), which plays in the background during the aforementioned opening credits. Composer Richard Band intentionally rips it off by cleverly making the overall tone of the score sound tongue-in-cheek as opposed to suspenseful and taking into account the film’s dark comedic mayhem, this mood comes off as a rather fitting one.

Since it has been cited from a few sources on one website that Stuart Gordon’s experimentation with shock value began as far back as the late 1960’s at the University of Wisconsin (read here), it only made perfect sense that Gordon would tackle the horror genre for his directorial debut. One of the many things I love about these kinds of horror movies lies in their emphasis on blood and gore and Re-Animator happily fulfills that requirement. Regardless of who commits the killing (the living humans or the reanimated corpses), each of them gets murdered with spectacularly gory results. All of it plays out in such a wonderfully over-the-top way, that viewers can’t help but laugh along at the same time.

While Stuart Gordon and his co-writers William J. Norris and Dennis Paoli most certainly deserve acknowledgement for writing Re-Animator’s humorous dialogue, I honestly feel that a significant portion of it belongs to its cast (most particularly Jeffrey Combs). Speaking of which, Combs Herbert West gets some of the best lines. Here are a few memorable samples:  “who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow” and “I must say, Dr. Hill, I’m very disappointed in you. You steal the secret of life and death, and here you are trysting with a bubble-headed coed. You’re not even a second-rate scientist!” Other times, they come in his interactions with other characters like “I was busy pushing bodies around as you well know and what would a note say, Dan? “Cat dead, details later?” or when asked by Dan about what kind of medicine he specializes in, West’s response is “death.” Some of his other quoted gems come when he is accused of killing his professor near the beginning and West’s response is “No, I did not. I gave him life” and while reanimating Dan’s dead cat, West makes a comment along the lines of “don’t expect it to tango; it has a broken back.” Every single line Combs delivers is just impeccably timed. In the role of Dan Cain (West’s lab assistant and only friend), Bruce Abbott convincingly portrays him as an everyman that we root for every step of the way.  Although she would go on to give an even better performance a year later in Gordon’s From Beyond (another Lovecraft adaptation), Barbara Crampton is still perfect in the meaty supporting role of Cain’s love interest Megan Halsey. Attractive on the outside and sweet on the inside, she perfectly defines every quality that personifies the typical girl next door type. This beautiful blonde ranks as my number one favorite scream queen of all-time. Last, but not least, the late David Gale is believable as Dr. Carl Hill, the perverted villain of the piece. I will not go into deep detail about this, but shortly after his character gets decapitated in the film, he goes on to do something sexually deviant with his own severed head.

Along with Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and his sequel Evil Dead II, Re-Animator is one of the three wildly original horror films of the 1980’s, which like any other decade, produced a lot of great ones within that genre. I know I have said it countless times before in this review, but as satisfying as From Beyond, Castle Freak, Dagon and Dreams in the Witch-House are, Re-Animator is director Stuart Gordon’s only H.P. Lovecraft adaptation that not only leaves you satisfied, but energized as well.

-Star Rating-
* * * * (Out of * * * *)