an old horror movie whose playful ugliness masks a real one

On Thursdays at 9 p.m. I join my friends Pavel Klein (who’s also got a blog and writes as a member of the Florida Film Critic Circle) and Jay to watch movies online. We pretty much exclusively watch awful cliche-ridden hyper-violent action movies like Avengement (which is streaming on Netflix and absolutely fantastic), or Steven Seagal’s professional plateau Out for Justice (a work of such narcissistic splendor you kinda have to see it to believe it), but increasingly, as Pavel’s been inching out of a longstanding aversion to horror, we’ve been watching slasher movies, and over-the-top campy shit, like Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, respectively. 

It’s been fun.

This past Thursday we watched From Beyond, a schlocky Lovecraft adaptation, which is about as bizarre as it is familiar, as funny as it is horrific; and the reason it appeared on Pavel’s radar and he thought to suggest it is because we’d just watched Peter Jackson’s early horror movies Bad Taste, and then Dead Alive, back to back on two consecutive Thursdays, both of which are more than just violent–they’re gross. 

Snot-and-semen gross.

And they’re supposed to be! That’s part of the fun. It’s a more aggressive version of the innocent humor behind Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants

Monday morning at work, Pavel usually tells us some production trivia he researched about the movie we watched on Thursday. At some point in his research on the early Jackson movies he came across an article about fan-favorite gross-out horror movies and From Beyond was up there toward the top.

But I’m not so sure it belongs there. 

The violence in From Beyond is way different from the gimmicky repulsion of Bad Taste or the blood-bathing body horror of Evil Dead.

From Beyond is disturbing in a way that I don’t think the filmmaker intends.

If you’ve made it down here you’re probably a horror movie geek, and you know what I’m talking about, but I’ll try to make this clear even if you’re not familiar with this kinda nonsense:

The second of Peter Jackson’s two gross-out horror movies was made on a considerably higher budget than the first; as a result, I think it’s a lot less fun, but it’s definitely more interesting as a piece of art.

The nasty stuff in Bad Taste, tempered by a micro-budget, is gross by suggestion. When a long line of aliens vomit into a bowl, it doesn’t look like they’re actually vomiting. It’s just a nasty idea and you scrunch your nose at it and maybe shake your head.

The gross-out effects in Dead Alive, on the other hand, have a little more money behind them, which means they’re more believable, which means it’s a lot more likely to turn your stomach.

Not only that: there’s a strange sexual subtext to everything in this second movie, explicitly Freudian stuff about the protagonist’s mother, who gets bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey and, thus infected, starts to decay. She turns violent. Eventually she turns into a giant monstrous zombie thing who, if I’m remembering correctly, grows to be twenty feet tall and then stuffs the protagonist, her adult son, back into her uterus. 

Hence the psychosexual Freud stuff. 

From Beyond, on the other hand, is explicitly sexual, with a fair spattering of nudity and sadomasochism. It isn’t playful like Dead Alive is playful–but I think it’s pretending to be.

And therein resides its very-deep ugliness.

The premise of From Beyond suggests that there’s some kind of fourth dimension existing around us at all times, with ghostly monsters swimming about like fish through the air. The reason we can’t see or interact with these creatures–as explained by the movie’s remarkably persuasive pseudoscience–is because the pineal gland in our brains isn’t well-enough evolved. 

So the scientist-villain, Dr. Pretorious (named after the evil scientist in Bride of Frankenstein), creates a machine that engorges the gland in question. The gland gets engorged and then it elongates and pokes like an antennae (or penis) from a labial-looking split in the villain’s forehead. 

This gland, now engorged and exposed, ignites his awareness of that fourth dimension.

The suggestion is that his awareness makes for a kind of perpetual ecstasy. 

Lotsa blood gets shed in the process. Someone gets her brain sucked out through her eye socket and another guy gets chewed to nubs by the floating fourth-dimensional eels. It echoes Hellraiser, actually, with its themes of pleasure and pain overlapping, love and betrayal, sadism and masochism adopting more forms than just the leather outfit and cuffs.

From Beyond manages to feel artful because, for all its cheekiness, the movie is clearly a battleground for someone who’s trying to explore something intimate. A kind of warped overlap of sex and power in their own imagination; intelligence versus carnality; body over brain. 

There’s a lot going on.

The movie also feels really sinister, though, and not in the way you might normally suggest of a horror movie. It feels vulgar, too, but not in the way you’d say of a straightforward porno. Instead there seems to be a kind of relish here in the way that the filmmaker punishes his characters. In the way you might imagine some professional sadist dungeon master, a performer, to make an over-the-top show of degrading her subject, so does the director do that here with his characters–except instead of degradation, or mild forms of “punitive” pain like spanking, he’s stripping the skin off their bones, gouging their eyes out, slicing them open. 

It feels snuff-y. 

But maybe that’s part of it’s theme! Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to mirror the sado-masochistic dynamic: it’s repellant and titillating (the ‘80s-chic neon light, pink and purple, proves pretty hypnotic and beautiful after a while, even when bathing the monsters).

My impulse in writing this, frankly, was to explore something that’s making me uncomfortable about it and to suggest that From Beyond is maybe advertising itself as something fun and schlocky and gross, along the lines of Peter Jackson’s early horror, but it’s actually something way more perverse, the playful violence working as a kind of Trojan horse for introducing something genuinely sinister. 

And yet, much as that might be the case, I’m thinking now that I don’t often watch a movie that stays with me at all. Whether because it’s good or funny or troubling or whatever.  And if that’s the case, I think it’s at least interesting.

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