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.

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


Re-reading Tolkien 1: why?

tolkein2When I sat down to start thinking through the new second-year undergraduate module – called Genre and the Fantastic – I will be teaching next academic year, I realised that it was more than two-thirds of my life ago that I last read The Lord of the Rings. So even though I will not be teaching it, I figure I should probably give it another go. (I was bored stiff by the films – the only aspect of them I could admire was Sean Bean having the good sense to get out of them two films before I did – and just cannot bring myself to watch The Hobbit movies.)

My introduction to Tolkien came aged 11. We moved to Plymouth right at the start of 1980, when I had just two terms of junior school left to go. At my new school, Hyde Park Juniors,  my teacher – Mr Willis, I think his name was – was already partway through reading The Hobbit aloud to the class, a little bit every day (memory tells me it was just before lunchtime, though I am sure there was a wider convention of reading aloud just before home time). I was immediately gripped, even though I had no idea who all those bleeding dwarfs were, and promptly got a copy from the small local library at Pounds House and read it in a couple of days.

Then – this was the real triumph – I persuaded the main librarian (who was an sf and fantasy fan, to judge by the stock) to let me take out all three hardback volumes of LotR (the white ones, with the fold-out bible-paper maps intact). These were the first books I ever took out from the adult section of a library. I had them for four weeks, and it took me until the last day to finish the last of the appendices (well before Mr Lewis had finished reading The Hobbit to the class).

I persuaded my new best friend, Stuart, that he should read them.  This was a foolish thing to do as he did not read as quickly as me, and so I had to wait forever to borrow them again. (Actually, it was not quite that bad as I bullied him into returning each volume with me once he had finished it and took it back out myself.) I managed to read library copies three times that year, but only because I persuaded my mum to let me join the central library too. There was a fight with the main librarian there as to whether I was old enough to take them out, which I won by persuading my mum that Tolkien was a friend of CS Lewis (my parents approved of him because Aslan was Jesus) and so she came with me to convince the librarian.

(Later that year, I lost the battle with parents over seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark or reading Campbell Black’s novelisation because they were obviously blasphemous. Fortunately, Stuart had a copy of the book I could borrow – and my parents had no qualms a couple of years later with me going to see the even more horrendously racist and notoriously violent Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which had required a whole new cinema certificate in the UK.)

I read The Hobbit three or four times in 1980 as well but right away began to find it too childish. I have not read it since 1981. I read LotR maybe once or twice a year for three years, but probably as early as 1981 I was beginning to find the opening chapters – until the Tom Bombadil nonsense is done with – childish and twee and tiresome. I also got through The Silmarillion a couple of times, only really enjoying any of it on the second go, and the first volume of The Book of Lost Tales.

When I tried to read LotR near the end of 1983, I had grown to hate it.

I was fifteen. Already a sophisticated man of the world.

So anyway, over the next couple of months, I will be re-reading The Hobbit (in fact, I just finished the first chapter, which is hilarious) and The Lord of the Rings (I just got through all the various notes on the text and Tolkien’s foreword to the second edition yesterday when I figured I should probably read The Hobbit first), and I will post about the experience occasionally as I go.

The Tookish part of me is curious about undertaking such an adventure through dimly remembered lands; the Baggins part knows I will probably regret it.

Re-reading Tolkien 2