The Film: 4/5
Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) and his assistant Dr. Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) have invented the Resonator, a device that stimulates the pineal gland of the human brain into allowing a person to look beyond the boundaries of everyday reality. During an experiment Pretorius' head is bitten off by something brought into our world by the machine but Crawford is arrested for the murder and confined to a mental institution. His case attracts the attention of Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton), a psychiatrist with a vested interest in curing the schizophrenia Crawford is accused of having despite his best efforts to convince the police and the suspicious institution head Dr. Bloch (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) of what really happened to Pretorius. Dr. McMichaels convinces Bloch and the district attorney to release Crawford into her custody so they can retrace the events that led up to Pretorius' death and see if he is really telling the truth. Accompanied by local cop Sgt. Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree), Katherine and a frightened Crawford return to Pretorius' house and reactivate the Resonator. What they see while within the device's reach are pink snake-like creatures floating above their heads, but most surprisingly is when Pretorius himself returns as a different being that mutates into more hideous forms every time the Resonator is running. The more the machine is used the more Katherine becomes obsessed with it and Pretorius' professional and personal activities until she begins to endanger not only her life but those of Crawford and Bubba. Making matters even worse, Pretorius has figured out a way to operate the Resonator without the help of anyone in the human realm and he fully intends to cross over his new world with ours and unleash unspeakable horrors. Only Katherine, Crawford, and Bubba stand in his way and they must stop Pretorius' diabolical plans even if it costs them their sanity, if not their lives.
I have long thought of Stuart Gordon's adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft short story From Beyond to be the real Bride of Re-Animator, despite the presence of an actual sequel released in 1990 by that name. Allow me to put my theory into perspective: four years after his blockbuster screen version of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein was released to great fanfare and grossed (in 2012 dollars) $12 million at the U.S. box office from a budget of less than $300,000 as the country was in the cold and unforgiving grip of the Great Depression, director James Whale was allowed to take Shelley’s haunting tale in bold and unprecedented new directions for the now inevitable follow-up. In 1935 Bride of Frankenstein became the rare sequel that not only matched the creative and financial success of its predecessor but easily surpassed it. Five decades later, Gordon - like James Whale a renowned theater director looking to break into filmmaking - made his feature directorial debut with a horror film based on the work of another giant of genre literature, H.P. Lovecraft. The independently-financed Re-Animator had many parallels to the Frankenstein story, most notably the theme of mankind using science in a vain attempt to conquer death and the horrible consequences that the characters faced as a result, and the final product was picked up for release by Charles Band’s now-defunct Empire Pictures. More than a quarter-century after its theatrical release the film is regarded as one of the most terrifying works of horror cinema ever made. Critics as notoriously prickly as Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert had nothing but praise for Gordon’s movie, with special accolades going to wiry, quietly intense lead actor Jeffrey Combs as the off-kilter scientific genius of the title, Herbert West.
Although Re-Animator did very well at the box office despite being released unrated it found even greater popularity outside of the theaters thanks to two groundbreaking home entertainment technologies steadily gaining prominence in the industry: cable television and video cassette recorders. Following Re-Animator’s positive reception Gordon signed on to make more Lovecraft adaptations with Empire and had originally intended for his next project to be a film based on the author’s novella “The Shadow Over Innsmouth“, which oddly enough had been written at the same time the original Frankenstein was released to theaters.
Unfortunately Empire balked at the “Innsmouth” project - which Gordon would finally realize more than a decade later as Dagon - and preferred for Gordon to make what amounted to a Re-Animator retread. They offered the filmmaker another Lovecraft work, the 1920 short story “From Beyond”, as his next film. First published in the June 1934 issue of the Fantasy Fan magazine, Lovecraft’s story was told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who worked with the scientist Crawford Tillinghast, the inventor of an electronic device that when activated stimulates the pineal gland within the brain, allowing the affected to see into other planes of existence beyond our own perceived reality. The device also allows for whatever beings that reside in those alternate dimensions to interact with us as much as we can with them, a development that results in the inevitable horrific mayhem. The story ends with the machine destroyed and Tillinghast dead, another casualty of man fooling with powers and life forms beyond their comprehension and control.
“From Beyond” the short story makes for a riveting read, but its positive attributes hardly made it ideal for a film adaptation. Tempted to the helm with a budget more than four times what he had to work with on Re-Animator director Gordon accepted the assignment. While developing the script Gordon and his co-writers (not to mention two of the primary driving forces behind Gordon’s debut feature) Dennis Paoli and Brian Yuzna decided to use the story as the basis for the film’s opening scene, with a few changes naturally. The character of Crawford Tillinghast became the hero of the story while the inventor of the device - now called the Resonator - became Dr. Edward Pretorius. To call that an explicit nod to Bride of Frankenstein would be generous; one of the integral characters of Whale’s film was an evil scientist attempting to corrupt the minds, bodies, and souls of anyone he could use to further his own nefarious ends. His name? Dr. Pretorius. Gordon's film of From Beyond shares many traits with Re-Animator, both in the story and execution. Both films are very small in scale - not at all a shock given their miniscule budgets - and most of the action takes place on a handful of confined but meticulously crafted sets that take full advantage of their available space. Re-Animator's visual palette was bathed in sickly, cold green and black lighting, while From Beyond is more vibrant in its color scheme with a dazzling array of bright pink, green, and purple hues. This creates a disorienting effect akin to reading an E.C. Comics title like Vault of Horror or Tales from the Crypt while on an acid trip, which is not coincidentally the best way to enjoy a disturbing but delicious confection like From Beyond. The late Mac Ahlberg provided the cinematography for both movies and they were some of the best work of his great career in cinema.
Cast in the lead role of Tillinghast once again was Jeffrey Combs, playing a character almost the complete opposite of the Herbert West part that would come to define his career. Also ported over from the Re-Animator cast was Barbara Crampton, playing Dr. Katherine McMichaels, the hotshot psychologist whose inquisitive nature becomes a full blown obsession that ties her own state of mind to that of the maniacal Pretorius and sets the events of the film in motion, and Gordon's wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon as unsmiling and unsympathetic supreme bitch of the universe Dr. Bloch. Combs has gone on record countless times saying that he always felt that Bruce Abbott, the handsome romantic lead of Re-Animator, should have gotten the part of Crawford as it felt like something more suited to his straight-laced acting style. He might say that because the Crawford role did not provide the ample acting opportunities that playing Herbert West did, but Combs is just as good playing a more sympathetic and reactive character as he is as the morally ambiguous anti-hero. It takes a special kind of performer to be able to look directly into the camera and say "It bit his head off....LIKE A GINGERBREAD MAN" with complete conviction and without winking at the camera and letting the viewers in on the fun he and his fellow cast mates are doubtlessly having between takes. While Crawford Tillinghast may not be one of the most memorable performances he has ever given Combs is typically excellent as a character who could easily have been written off as useless and annoying.
The beautiful Crampton made a lot of waves in the horror community for her performance in Re-Animator, but that was likely due to her amazing banshee wail of a scream and being able to look fantastic in the nude even as the severed head of the movie's villain is about to dine on her nether parts. The part of Dr. McMichaels is a decidedly different one than the blonde ingénue (re: bimbo) roles she had been getting up until that time. Crampton unsurprisingly does not make it to the end of From Beyond without doffing her top at least once and one of the movie's enduring images is the actress decked out in full bondage gear. But still she is able to give a very solid performance as the obsessive scientist who starts out wanting to help Crawford and figure out what happened to Pretorius but along the way nearly succumbs to her own twisted, innate desires. Crampton has the sexy doctor down pat and a story she relates to Crawford about the schizophrenia that destroyed the mind of her own father gives her quest to unlock the secrets of the Resonator a genuine motivation. One of my least favorite performances in From Beyond is that of the one person who never once makes an effort during the movie to look like they belong there, and that would be Ken Foree. Despite being revered by fans of blood and gore cinema for his iconic turn as badass SWAT trooper and efficient zombie killer Peter Washington in George Romero's classic horror sequel Dawn of the Dead Foree constantly feels like an impediment to the narrative of From Beyond rather than an active participant. He is clearly playing a traditional hero-cum-audience surrogate in an untraditional monster movie that hardly required either; in the 1950's and 60's his role would have gone to John Agar or even Jim Hutton. Having to spout some truly atrocious dialogue and often act as the comic relief feels like a step back in Foree's career, but for what it's worth he commits to the role and turns in some pretty competent acting. Now that I think of it, maybe this is the role Combs was thinking Abbott would have been ideal for. Who knows?
Purdy-Gordon, who reminds me of so many hateful relatives in my own family that I get chills just looking at her, makes a fantastic human villain, the same kind of irrational monster as Pretorius who McMichaels could become had she chosen a different path in life. You know she's bound to have a disgusting run-in with the dark forces unleashed by the Resonator and when she does it provides one of the more satisfying moments in Stuart Gordon's filmography. The actor cast as the district attorney is monumentally atrocious and he recites his every line of dialogue like he's reading them phonetically off of cue cards. At least that dude has very little screen time. Ted Sorel reigns over the rest of the cast as the evil Pretorius. The character was already a perverted creep in the beginning, but Sorel's performance is that rarest of beasts in horror cinema: the one that improves even as the actor gets buried under mounds of special effects make-up and prosthetics. As Pretorius unleashes his true form carefully with each activation of the Resonator Sorel digs deeper in the cosmic depravity that has seized the scientist's mind and soul and delivers a stellar performance that swings for the fences and scores.
As much as I loved Richard Band’s Hermann-influenced music score for Re-Animator his work for From Beyond is a huge improvement. This is a much grander score, both in terms of scale and emotion. Band infuses every note of the soundtrack with a palpable combination of doom, degeneracy, and a fear of the unknown that evolves into a agonized respect by the finale. The composer’s work all too often reminded me of similar work done by James Horner for a slew of classic sci-fi films released throughout the 1980’s, from Star Trek II to Aliens, but that is a very good thing. From Beyond was one of the decade’s unsung achievement in old fashioned practical effects. Translucent pink slime and effluvia drip from every inch of the film’s landscape and there is gore aplenty - most of it cut from the original theatrical release but painstakingly restored seven years ago - but the crowning achievement of effects geniuses John Carl Buechler, Mark Shostrom, William Butler, and two of the future founds of KNB EFX (Robert Kurtzman and Greg Nicotero) among others are the various forms of the hideous Pretorius monster. Combining some marvelous prosthetics with mechanical effects for wider shots and Sorel’s scenery-chewing mastery, the crew behind the film’s nightmarish imagery supply some of their finest work to date. In the days before CGI came in and forever dominated the visual effects industry From Beyond was one of the finest achievements any artist in the field could ever hope to accomplish. Over a quarter of a century later and the effects of From Beyond hold up very well, which is as much a testament to the overall quality of the movie as it is the imaginative in-camera wizardry provided by one talented technical team.
Second Sight presents From Beyond in a brand new 1080p high-definition widescreen transfer in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio and encoded in MPEG-4 AVC. Sourced from MGM’s HD print of the 2006 restored director’s cut, this transfer is highly comparable to the Scream Factory Blu and at times even outclasses the competition. The rich and luminous color scheme is given its strongest visual boost in years and the quietly menacing cinematography is fine-tuned to make each scene all the more chilling. Grain content is very low but not so that the picture looks like it had all the life spit-shined and scrubbed away with steel wool. Complimenting the main feature are English 4.0 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 LPCM stereo audio tracks. Whatever your home viewing options are, the 4.0 track is easily the way to go. Though the 2.0 sounds just fine the 4.0 is much stronger and the overall sound mix will melt your brain. Volume control for all levels of the mix are nicely balanced for maximum effect. Music never overwhelms the dialogue and the lurid sound effects are the best they have been for all video incarnations of From Beyond. English subtitles are also included.
“Stuart Gordon on From Beyond” (20 minutes) accomplishes exactly what its title implies. The director gives us a brief overview of his career prior to making From Beyond, from his days directing experimental theater in Chicago to making his feature directorial debut on Re-Animator, and his fascination with the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. He talks a lot about the making of the movie, shooting it in the unfamiliar terrain of Italy, and the hassles he encountered in his dealings with the Motion Picture Association of America. Despite some occasional overlap with other supplements on this disc Gordon has many noteworthy stories to share and is always a fascinating interview subject.
Next up is “Gothic Adaptation” (16 minutes), an interview with screenwriter Dennis Paoli. He talks about the arduous task of expanding the original Lovecraft short story into a feature film, his working relationship with Stuart Gordon, and his thoughts on the movie today. On the whole this is a much better way to get Paoli’s perspective on the making of From Beyond than the writer’s recent solo audio commentary on the Scream Factory Blu-ray.
Leading lady Barbara Crampton, still as lovely and lively as ever, is interviewed for “The Doctor Is In” (14 minutes), and she is very candid and energetic in the sharing of her memories working on From Beyond. Most of the insights she shares here can also be found on her interview for the Scream Factory Blu-ray but Crampton is always a fun interviewee whose love for the movie is infectious and makes this featurette a valuable addition to Second Sight’s disc.
The fourth and final of the U.K.-exclusive bonus features is “Monsters & Slime: The FX of From Beyond” (21 minutes), which features fresh new interviews with visual effects crew members John Naulin, Anthony Doublin, and Gabe Bartalos. As you would expect this documents the exhaustive work that went into the creation of the movie’s memorable practical effects sequences and horrific beasties, from the conceptual art stage to their final on-camera execution. Frankly this documentary isn’t long enough and practical effects enthusiasts such as myself will get a kick out of watching this and pining for the days when digital effects had precious little chance to become the dominating force in the industry.
You can toss out your old copy of the MGM DVD (I sure did) because all of the supplements from that release have been ported over for this edition, as they were for the recent Scream Factory Blu-ray. The best of the extras is an audio commentary with Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna, and stars Crampton and Jeffrey Combs. Since all four participants were recorded at the same time in the same studio and have been great friends for nearly three decades their commentary is funny, animated, and intelligent. Most of the information heard here is repeated in various other bonus features on this disc but regardless the commentary makes for a wonderful and engaging listen.
We also get a much shorter interview with Gordon in “Director’s Perspective” (9 minutes). On the 2007 DVD this feature was indispensable, but between the commentary and the longer U.K. exclusive interview its presence here becomes monotonous even though Gordon is still his old blunt honest and entertaining self when discussing the movie’s production.
Much better is “The Editing Room: Lost and Found” (5 minutes), a featurette that documents the restoration of footage originally cut from the movie to get an R rating for the unrated version that premiered in the summer of 2006 on the now-defunct Monsters HD channel and was subsequently released on DVD for the first time the following year. Gordon and members of the restoration team talk about the scenes that were cut and cleaning them up as best as possible from the surviving film elements available. Particularly of interest is the director’s recollections of being dressed down by the MPAA for the tone of the movie and its insane effects sequences like a little kid called before the school principal. I only wish this feature had been longer.
Composer Richard Band is interviewed about his scoring work for From Beyond (4 minutes), and a 5-minute montage of production stills from the movie and a brief comparison of storyboards to the final film hosted by Gordon (1 minute) round out the extras.
Second Sight’s Blu-ray also features beautiful new cover artwork by Graham Humphreys, renowned for his original art designs for Arrow Video’s releases, that trumps the new art on Scream Factory’s Blu-ray.
Long seen as a lesser companion piece to the classic Re-Animator, Stuart Gordon’s adaptation of From Beyond has proven over the years to have many unique virtues and to this day exists in a class of its own. One of the most underrated sci-fi horror films of the past 50 years, From Beyond is a ballsy and entertaining genre flick that offers up much decadent pleasure and even a little food for thought, or vice versa in the case of the latter, and Second Sight’s fantastic new Blu-ray gives it the HD release and bells-and-whistles supplement selection it richly deserves.