The Sarlac pit
The spice must flow…
[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.
These airforce men are
Such manly men’s men. That’s why
It’s called a cockpit.
When flyboys hit on
You, here is a tip: disarm
them through alcohol.
Drink him under the
Table, girl. Octopus hands
Reproduction. Better than
Fucking a flyboy.
That’s how we computed it.
SOP. Beat ’em
Or thermite bomb ’em. They go
Up pretty easy.
Blamed. Quartermaster facing
Chiefs of Staff issue
New regulations about:
Medium shot. Awe.
No. It is not so
Much a super-carrot as
An above par-snip.
There’s only one way
To let a girl know you’re keen.
Show her how hot you
Are in bed. Torch the mattress
She’s hiding behind.
Carrington. New York
Jewish Commie Queer. And worse.
Trumped by homophonic
Play on Ark and arc.
From outer space it
Came. To steal arctic footwear.
Keep watching the skis!
It is difficult to express quite how disappointing chapter seven, ‘Queer Lodgings’, turned out to be.
If you’ve been following this, you might understand when I tell you that the only cave in this chapter is ‘a little cave (a wholesome one with a pebbly floor)’.
Sure, there’s the self-important Lord of the Eagles, who’s a little camp. (He will, we are told, become the King of All Birds. Quite how every avian species and society came to be governed by the dynasty Accipitridae remains unclear. I bet it was by bloody violence. It is always by bloody violence).
Beorn is a bit more interesting. He is a shapeshifter or skin-changer, and there is something queer in his were-bear duality; after all, he is the kind of bear who is ‘a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard’.
But there is something uncanny about him, too. Something a little unpleasant.
It’s not just that his grey dogs can walk around upright on their back legs, a detail that becomes all the creepier for the way Tolkien just throws it in without elaboration.
It is that Beorn keeps trophies from his kills. A goblin head stuck on something outside his gate. The flayed skin of a Warg nailed to a tree just beyond it.
No doubt, if there were buffalo roaming between the mountains and Mirkwood he would skin his humps.
Then Gandalf – as arbitrarily as an author just making stuff up – buggers off, leaving Bilbo and the dwarves to the perils of Mirkwood.
The perils of the arachnid monstrous-feminine, the archaic mother:
The entrance to the path [into Mirkwood] was like a sort of arch leading into a gloomy tunnel made by two great trees that leant together, too old and strangled with ivy and hung with lichen to bear more than a few blackened leaves.
Like Giger for kids. And with spiders. You know, evil female weavers, and that whole shtick about weaving supposedly originating in women, driven by phallic envy, plaiting their pubic hair.
There they wander, losing their way, slowly running out of supplies. Exhausted. Starving. Trolled by wood-elves. Who are basically dicks.
Bilbo, separated from the company, has ‘one of his most miserable moments’, but steadfastly refuses to let despair overwhelm him, and instead starts thinking ‘of his far-distant hobbit hole with its beautiful pantries’ and ‘of bacon and eggs and toast and butter’.
Is it still a truism of children’s literature studies that food, in its sensual excess, stands in for sex? That would explain what happens next: ‘he felt something touch him. Something like a strong sticky string against his left hand’
Bilbo finds where the dwarves are all hanging, tightly bound in spider threads. He puts the ring on and runs around for a while, with only his little sword visible – ‘I don’t suppose [the spiders] knew what it was’, Tolkien adds, but – like Bilbo – you might want to take a wild stab in the dark. Anyone? Anyone?
You want a clue?
When the spiders are distracted, Bilbo frees his companions, beginning with Fili, identifiable by ‘the tip of a long nose poking out of the winding threads’.
Having escaped the spiders, the dwarves are next captured by the wood-elves who, just a little mysteriously, do not live in the woods but in – you guessed it – caves. Invisibilbo rescues them. And they escape by nicking a trick from Derek Flint.
Okay, chronologically that makes no sense, but I remember feeling cheated when I first read the novel because I had already seen the awesome James Coburn use the same method to save his, er, lady friends. (It is nice though that the chapter in which this happens is called, it turns out, ‘Barrels out of Bond’.)
There is actually, in passing, a really bleak moment. Bilbo used his ring of invisibility to avoid capture, but finds himself hiding in the midst of the wood-elves for days and weeks (and possibly months, but I nodded off a little in the middle):
‘I am like a burglar that can’t get away, but must go on miserably burgling the same house day after day,’ he thought.
Nicely played, JRR. As unexpected as dogs on the hind legs waiting table.
It is entirely possible your mother has told you that Henry Rollins is no fun.
Do not trust her.
He Never Died (Krawczyk 2015) is a low-budget not-quite horror, not-quite crime thriller, that is never quite brilliant and never quite camp. Jack (Rollins), a grey-haired, middle-aged man, lives alone in a small apartment, oddly disconnected from the world. He does not have a job. He keeps odd hours. He eats at the same diner every day. Most days he goes to the local church to play bingo not with but near the old folks; they do not distract him, he explains.
He keeps himself to himself.
His interactions with people are oddly stilted. He offers nothing. He states the obvious. He doesn’t get them. He is Keaton-level deadpan. (His one loquacious moment is a flatly delivered, seemingly interminable list of the many jobs he has had. That bit is actually quite brilliant.)
Oh, and he’s an immortal cannibal. Just about holding it together by not eating meat and by drinking the blood he buys from a hospital intern. That way he doesn’t kill people. He has a very long history of killing people. In fact, he started it.
But now, in a Toronto that is shot as often as possible to look like an Edward Hopper painting to convince us it is somewhere in the US, someone with a grudge is coming for him.
They don’t know what he truly is.
But they get, rather bloodily, to find out.
All this, however, is beside the point. The film is about something else entirely.
It is about watching the ageing Rollins.
There is something geological about his body. Present. Weathered by time.
It is about his weary face, crumbling like granite.
It is about the slow dawning of mortality. And about carrying on.
And through all of this, Henry Rollins is no fun. (Except, of course, that he is.)