Saturday, May 10, 2008
#36: From Beyond (Stuart Gordon, 1986)
The summer I turned 11, I scored the then-unbelievable sum of 100 dollars from various relatives. For my first birthday loot spending spree, I rode my bike to the convenience store, bought a can of Frito-Lay jalapeno cheese dip, and rented From Beyond. I was able to rent this R-rated film because my family was gone for the day, 40 miles away in Scottsbluff doing some shopping, running errands, and getting some lunch. My mother was a laid-back, open-minded parent who let me read whatever I wanted by the time I turned nine, but she was unusually strict about movies and music. I never understood the distinction, but movies and song lyrics high in violence, misogny, sexual content, and excessive profanity were off limits until I started high school. My friends' parents were almost the exact opposite, with rules and regulations up the wazoo but a laissez-faire attitude about entertainment choices. I'll never forget my stunned reaction to a friend's father telling him to put the porno videos back in his closet when he was done with them so his six-year-old brother didn't watch them. I was twelve, and my jaw didn't leave the floor for the rest of the afternoon. Of course, as soon as my mom and dad were gone, I rented every off-limits movie and purchased every banned cassette tape. Every decapitation, bared breast, and utterance of the word "fuck" filled my heart with joy. I was rebelling against what I perceived as the world's most unfair edict, especially considering how reasonable my mother was about everything else. That was a good summer day. The cashiers at the convenience store had no qualms about renting a movie high in violence and sexual content to an 11-year-old boy, and I thank them for it. I ate my nachos and watched From Beyond happily. "What in the world is this?" I remember thinking.
I've seen From Beyond three more times since that summer. Each time I prepared to re-watch it, I could never recall what the hell it was about. I think I can finally summarize it. Loosely based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story, the film zooms through its source material in the prologue and takes off from there. The physicists Dr. Pretorious and Dr. Tillinghast are conducting experiments on the pineal gland. Dr. Pretorious, an impotent gigolo with a serious S&M kink, believes that the pineal gland is a dormant sixth sense that can be stimulated -- with science! -- to open gateways to heretofore uncharted sensual pleasures. The more traditional Tillinghast is interested in the experiment from a purely scientific perspective. Pretorious has invented a resonator that stimulates the pineal gland. When they reach a breakthrough in their research, a crazy portal to another dimension is opened and flying eel-like creatures appear and attack. Then SOMETHING ELSE comes for a visit and all hell breaks loose. No one believes Tillinghast, and he's locked up in a mental ward for schizophrenics. The famous psychologist Dr. McMichaels checks him out and runs a CAT scan on him. Turns out, his pineal gland is growing! Yowzah! She is awarded custody of him to recreate the experiment, and a law enforcement officer (Dawn of the Dead's Ken Foree) comes along to make sure Tillinghast doesn't try to escape. Crazy, crazy stuff happens after that. None of it makes sense, all of it is awesome.
From Beyond was directed by Stuart Gordon, the man responsible for Re-Animator, Dolls, and Castle Freak, and the first theater director to stage a David Mamet play. He piles on the weirdness, gore, black humor, and sexual kinks, and I salute him for it. The movie reminds me of an EC comics version of an early David Cronenberg film, particularly the weird body evolutions that begin once the pineal gland starts growing -- the vaginal opening in the forehead where a penis-like third eye comes out -- and the freaky sexuality. The film also contains elements of hammy 1930s mad scientist movies. Re-Animator veterans Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton return as well, playing Tillinghast and McMichaels, respectively. See it four times. It's short.
(From Beyond finally came out on DVD recently in an unrated edition that puts back the 60 seconds of gore that the MPAA made Gordon trim to get an R-rating.)