From Beyond (Stuart Gordon 1986), adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘From Beyond’ (1934)

frombeyondposter4[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 from-beyond2wonder’ 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.

References
H.P. Lovecraft, ‘From Beyond’, in H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. London: HarperCollins, 1994. 89-97.

 

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The Mad Maxathon, part four: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-lovely-day

Part one, part two, part three

Let there be no doubt. Mad Max: Fury Road is without question the very best film I saw yesterday (the other one was La momia azteca contra el robot humano (1958)).

It is also the very best Mad Max movie since Road Warrior. And like Road Warrior, it needs to be seen on the big screen (albeit for slightly different reasons, which I will get into below).

I can see George Miller’s pitch even now: Ice Cold in Alex (1958) meets Pumzi (2009), but faster. And we’re gonna steal all that crazy shit about pregnant women and bags of seed from The Ultimate Warrior (1975). And just one more thing from Island of Lost Souls (1932). And Dune (1984) was set on a desert planet, too, so we’ll throw in some of the unsavouriness of the Harkonnens, but without the obvious homophobia.

And, the executives asked, will there be an unexpected homage to Duran Duran and fellow ozploitation alumnus Russell Mulcahy?

You betcha, said George.

But even more unexpected than that there will be, when Max comes to desert after the big sandstorm scene, a tribute to Derek Zoolander’s friends who died in a freak gasoline-fight accident.

Except with supermodels.

Pregnant supermodels.

And water, not guzzle-een. We’ll save the tanks of wet-nurse milk for later. When Max has to wash blood off his face.

But don’t worry, it’s not his blood.

There has been a lot of commentary about how Fury Road gets it right by mostly eschewing CGI in favour of actually staging the action with real vehicles and actual stuntmen. Which is both true and a little misleading. There is quite a bit of CGI, albeit more judiciously deployed than one would expect in a $150 million movie, and there is an awful lot of compositing and post-production digital enhancement. (This is why you need the big screen – not so much for the profilmic car-crunching of Mad Max and Road Warrior, but for the setting of similar action in massively spectacular landscapes.)

There is also – and this is what most people seem to be missing – a lot of attention paid to classical conventions of spatial construction. Unlike in a Christopher Nolan movie, spaces actually make coherent sense, and thanks to John Seale’s camera being held that little bit further from the action and Margaret Sixel’s less-rapid editing you can, unlike in a Michael Bay movies, always tell who is doing what to whom and where they are in relation to each other and their setting.

75Don’t get me wrong, this coherence does not necessarily lead to suspense – Fury Road is no Wages of Fear (1953) or Hell Drivers (1957) or even, though it pains me to say it, Duel (1971) – but it is able to produce an awful lot of tense moments. And this tension stems from the careful thinking-through of the action sequences, from the small scale stuff (Max fighting Furiosa, while he is chained to both a broken-off car door and the unconscious Nux and suffering from the interference of the pregnant supermodels) upwards.

maxresdefaultIs it one long chase sequence? Not exactly. There are moments of pause, moments when the audience can catch their breath, but Miller does something inspired with them. They are character scenes, but so perfunctory – so hilariously badly written, so utterly lacking in the cheesy charm of the Fast and Furious movies – that you are happy for these layovers to be shortened and the chase to start back up again.

The only thing missing is Jerry Reed singing ‘East Bound and Down‘.

Is it the feminist movie those “Men’s Rights” folks seemed so terrified of? (Assuming all that bullshit wasn’t an ingenious piece of viral marketing.)

The answer really depends on how you define feminism. I think it passes the Bechdel test, but there is so little conversation in the movie it is hard to tell. 75.0Charlize Theron, an actress who normally makes me go meh, is implacable as Furiosa and handles a big share of the action every bit as well as the always adorable Tom Hardy. The pregnancy/supermodel/ lactation/seeds conjunction recalls something of that old school hippy female-essentialist feminism. The ageing desert warrior women are just plain brilliant – not exactly 70s lesbian separatists but, in a future where all the men are such dicks, who wouldn’t be in favour of a little wimminz separatism? There is also at times a curious overlaying of female voices, often too quiet to make out many of the words, which made me think of the Kristevan chora –‘Although the chora can be designated and regulated, it can never be definively posited: as a result, one can situate the chora and, if necessary, lend it a topology, but one can never give it axiomatic form’ – which seemed to be pointing towards something interesting to do with desert spaces and, in this company of women, the pre-symbolic (and to pick up on Max’s traumatic flashback instants to events similar, but not identical, to things that happened in the trilogy).

Do these things make it feminist?

Frankly, you’re having a laugh. It is just less intolerant of women than many other movies made on this scale.

But they do give the movie some powerful and intriguing cross-currents and textures. I will have to see it a few more times to even begin to figure it out.

Does Max have a mullet? That would be spoilers.

Is it worth seeing? Absolutely.

Especially if you can dodge the inflation of ticket prices by distributors/exhibitors manipulating 2D and 3D screenings. My local cinema only had the 3D version at £15+ a ticket. The big-ass fancypants cinema in town was charging less for 3D, but had put the 2D version in the “director’s hall”, which made tickets even more expensive than the local 3D. Fortunately, the third-rate cinema in town was showing the 2D at a price which meant two of us could see it for a fraction more than one of us could have seen the local 3D or the fancypants 2D. It is like a temporally-compacted version of classical Hollywood’s system of ‘runs’ is being reintroduced.

And sadly the cinema we saw it in was just a sanitised pathetic relic of its former self, rather than the grunge pit in which ozploitation, however gussied up, should be seen.