Once upon a time, in contemporary Denmark, there were two middle-aged, infertile half-brothers, each of whom lost his mother in childbirth.
Gabriel is younger, more responsible, more conventional. Multiple surgical reconstructions have failed to eradicate his cleft lip, and when nervous or upset he suffers from uncontrollable gagging.
Elias, a disastrous lothario, hides his cleft lip behind a scruffy moustache. He cannot resist picking arguments, however foolish or futile, and must masturbate at regular intervals to relieve the priapism from which he suffers. He scours dating websites in search of female psychotherapists so that instead of paying consultation fees he can ask them over dinner to explain his recurring nightmare. (The meaning of the gothic dream’s imagery – full of sibling rivalry, separation anxiety, sex and violence – is obvious, yet utterly beyond him.)
When their father dies, they discover that he had adopted them. Gabriel, keen to break free of Elias, decides to go in search of their biological father, the long-disgraced doctor and geneticist Evelio Thanatos. Elias, desperate not to lose the closest thing he has to a friend, insists on accompanying his reluctant not-exactly-brother.
And, on the distant island of Ork, in Thanatos’s now derelict and otherwise abandoned sanatorium, they discover three more (infertile) half-brothers, each of whom has his own deformities and peculiarities, and each of whom lost his mother in childbirth.
Writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen – who is currently scripting, of all things, the Dark Tower adaptation – is probably best known for his deadpan, heart-breakingly sad and yet really quite beautiful cannibalism comedy De grønne slagtere/The Green Butchers (2003). He returns with many of the same cast (including Mads Mikkelsen and Nordic noir regulars Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Nicolas Bro, Ole Thestrup and Bodil Jørgensen) to once more scale the heights of absurdist gothic Jutland grotesque – a genre I just made up while writing this sentence. It consists, as far as I know, of Jensen’s two films and maybe Henrik Ruben Genz’s Frygtelig lykkelig/Terribly Happy (2008).
In Men & Chicken, Jensen introduces another gallery of adorable yet pathetic misfits, all of them broken and disconnected and abandoned by the world, full of pettiness and desperation, and driven by violent impulses and mundane yet still unattainable desires. And this time he replaces butchery with bestiality. And abasiophilia. And chronophilia or anililagnia or gerontophilia, depending on how you interpret events. And arguably morphophilia or, if you even more mean-spirited, teratophilia. And turophilia. And even a science-fictional twist or two.
Suffice it to say, Evelios Thanatos is a Baltic Moreau.
And are his children not men? Are they not capable of building a utopia in the ruins of their father’s legacy?
‘I may not be normal’, Elias ultimately confesses, to which Gabriel replies, ‘None of us really are’.
The film ends moments later with a golden-lit vision of community, of extended family as a metaphor for the triumph of affiliation and conviviality over a normalcy of marginalisation and exclusion. It is genuinely moving.
And so absurdly golden that Jensen clearly doesn’t mean a word of it, while simultaneously wanting it to be true.
[The last of the pieces written for that book on sf adaptations that never appeared]
Written in 1920, ‘From Beyond’ is an early, minor Lovecraft story. Crawford Tillinghast’s new invention stimulates the ‘unrecognized sense-organs that exist in us as atrophied or rudimentary vestiges’, enabling him to perceive the ‘strange, inaccessible worlds … at our very elbows’ (90). The narrator, summoned by Tillinghast, finds his previously stout, clean-shaven friend a dishevelled, muttering, yellow-skinned shadow of his former self. After switching on the machine, Tillinghast warns the narrator not to move, because the rays that enable them to see beyond also make them visible to whatever exists there. As the narrator’s ‘augmented sight’ (95) develops, he perceives roiling clouds, a temple, the cosmos, ‘huge animate things brushing past … and occasionally walking or drifting through my supposedly solid body’ (94–95), another realm ‘superimposed upon the terrestrial scene much as a cinema view may be thrown upon the painted curtain of a theatre’ (95). The laboratory fills with ‘indescribable shapes both alive and otherwise’, with ‘inky, jellyfish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony’ with the machine’s vibrations (95). The ecstatic Tillinghast has ‘seen beyond the bounds of infinity’, ‘drawn down daemons from the stars’, and ‘harnessed the shadows that stride from world to world to sow death and madness’ (96). The things pursuing Tillinghast come for the narrator, who shoots the machine. He passes out and Tillinghast suffers a fatal apoplexy. The narrator can never forget the teeming, invisible world around him, or shake the feeling that something hunts him still.
Following the success of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985), adapted from Lovecraft’s ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ (1922), Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, its US distributor, offered Gordon a three-film deal. Gordon pitched an adaptation of Lovecraft’s ‘Dagon’ (1919) but Band preferred one of his alternative suggestions, ‘From Beyond’ (Gordon would eventually make Dagon in 2001). Since Lovecraft’s story is little more than a single scene – and one that would be prohibitively expensive to film – Gordon, screenwriter Dennis Paoli and producer Brian Yuzna adapted it as the opening sequence: Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) switches on the Resonator for the first time, and a piscine creature, swimming through the air, attaches to his face like some monstrous leech, tearing open his cheek; when his boss, Dr Pretorius (Ted Sorel) – named after Ernest Thesiger’s wonderfully queer mad scientist in Bride of Frankenstein (Whale 1935) – activates the Resonator, something tears his head off. We are not shown Pretorius’s demise. It is the last time the film will show such restraint.
Lovecraft’s unseen realm, populated by fragmentary teratalogical wonders, can be interpreted as figuring all that is excluded from what Jacques Lacan calls the symbolic order; and weird intrusions from there can be understood in terms of what Julia Kristeva describes as the abject – things that are neither subject nor object, neither living nor dead, and which are often associated with female bodies and queer sexualities. Although From Beyond now seems quite innocent, twenty-five years ago its escalating and increasingly elaborate special effects sequences looked like a handbook of post-structuralist psychoanalytic theory.
Tillinghast is committed to an asylum run by the draconian Dr Bloch (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), named after Lovecraft’s friend and protégé, Robert Bloch. The police hire ‘girl wonder’ psychiatrist, Dr Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton), to determine whether Tillinghast can stand trial. Along with the cop Buford ‘Bubba’ Brownlee (Ken Foree), she takes him back to the house, where she discovers evidence of Pretorius’s BDSM predilections and reconstructs the experiment that, according to Tillinghast, released whatever killed his mentor. A toothed, tentacled creature attacks Bubba, and Pretorius returns, monstrously transformed, before Tillinghast can switch off the machine. McMichaels, sexually aroused by the Resonator’s stimulation of her pineal gland, is compelled to turn it back on. Pretorius returns in even more hideous form. The enormous slug-like creature that sucked his head from his shoulders fastens on to Tillinghast, tearing of his hair before the Resonator is again switched off. McMichaels, fascinated by the BDSM clothes and equipment in Pretorius’s room, dresses up in dominatrix gear and attempts to have sex with the unconscious Tillinghast and with Bubba. Her sexual energy reactivates the Resonator, unleashing locusts that strip Bubba’s flesh to the bone. Returned to the asylum, the mutating Tillinghast becomes hungry for human brains. He sucks out one of Bloch’s eyes and eats her brain through the socket. McMichaels and Tillinghast return to Pretorius’s house for another extravagant display of sexual apparatuses and gloopy special effects before the Resonator is destroyed.
From Beyond never quite achieves the gleeful excesses of Re-animator, although that did not prevent the MPAA refusing it an R certificate three times before finally approving a cut. Nor did it enjoy the same critical and financial success or cult afterlife. Its prosthetic and make-up effects were soon surpassed – not least by Screaming Mad George’s work on Yuzna’s Society (1989) three years later – and its use of lurid purples and greens whenever the Resonator is switched on now seems like some archaic VHS aesthetic.
Although the original story lacks the adjectival proliferation associated with Lovecraft’s relentlessly failing specificity of otherness, the film’s comic tone detracts from the special effects’ ability to convey the gross materiality that Lovecraft strove to catalogue. Gordon is not concerned to replicate the critical seriousness of Videodrome (Cronenberg 1983), but his slapstick humour is not as well developed or focused as that of the young Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. From Beyond’s more salacious content lacks the shock-value of Re-animator’s notorious cunnilingus scene, while its elaboration of Lovecraft’s sexual undercurrents pales in comparison to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). But it is still worth watching, if only for Combs’ remarkable performance. He is adept at conveying with just his eyes the eagerness, hope, anxiety and inarticulate regret of a young man a long way out of his depth. The intensity he brings to the role contrasts with the blandness of everyone else in the cast. It is as if he really has seen beyond and knows more than he should.
H.P. Lovecraft, ‘From Beyond’, in H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. London: HarperCollins, 1994. 89-97.