Jesse Bullington and I have (perhaps foolishly) decided to embark upon a quest: watching “classic” adventure movies that informed one or both of our childhoods. These columns will run every Wednesday on our blogs, excluding the last post of each month, which will appear over at Fantasy Magazine. This week we descend into the mind of H.P. Lovecraft filtered through the minds of Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli.
WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Direction by Stuart Gordon and Dennis Paoli, the team responsible for those other polarizing Lovecraft “adaptations” Re-Animator, Dagon, and The Dreams in the Witch-House. Produced by Brian Yuzna, who rounded out Gordon’s production team, and later filled in on directorial duties for Bride of Re-animator and Beyond Re-animator. Not-at-all-derivative soundtrack by Richard Band, he of Full Moon Entertainment infamy. Subtle-as-an-enlarged-pineal-gland-stalk-bursting-out-of-your-forehead performances by longtime Gordon collaborators Jeffrey Combs (Herbert West himself in the Re-animator films), Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, Castle Freak, and similarly classy films), and Gordon’s wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (Space Truckers), as well as Ted Sorel (Network, Basket Case 2) and Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead [both of them], The Devil’s Rejects) in a red posing pouch.
Quote: Doctor to dude eating brains: “Please don’t eat those.”
Dude eating brains: “Delicious!”
Doctor: “They can make you very sick.”
Alternate quote: “You may be a doctor, lady, but right now you’re talking like a junkie!”
First viewing by Molly: A couple of weeks ago.
First viewing by Jesse: Mid-high school.
Most recent viewing by both: A couple of weeks ago.
Impact on Molly’s childhood development: N/A
Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Reasonably high. Prior to watching I was already a huge fan of both Lovecraft and Gordon—and his contemporaries Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi—so my enjoying this was basically a forgone conclusion. Still, it rocked my socks even more than I expected, hitting the right balance of Lovecraftian weirdness with gore, sexuality, and Camp with a capital C. Some people really can’t stand Gordon’s fusion of those disparate elements but I’ve always found even the loosest literary adaptation can be salvaged by an imaginatively grotesque set piece or a be-bannana hammocked badass battling a gargantuan interdimensional worm-monster armed only with a kitchen knife. My ability to acknowledge that it is possible for a film to be awesome despite straying wildly from its source material I can trace rather directly to Gordon’s good-natured, tongue-in-various-places Lovecraft adaptations.
Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:
Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: I was excited. Our mutual friend and role-playing buddy David shamed Jesse for not showing me this film, as David knows well my sensibilities. Here’s what’s up: being too cool/nerdy (depending on who’s standard you’re using) to play Dungeons and Dragons, Jesse, David, and myself (as well as other sundry geeks) used to get up every week or so and play Warhammer, and not the bunk-ass tabletop version, either. We played the old-school pencil and paper game, which is sorta like D&D only the magic system makes sense and—you know what? It’s just better. I’ll leave it at that.
Returning (arguably) to relevancy, in the Warhammer system there are regular deities, and also Chaos deities, the Ruinous Powers that threaten the order of the world. One of them is the god Slaanesh, the hermaphrodite lord/lady of desire. Not just sexual desire, either—Slaanesh tempts the idle, bored hedonist who’s seen and done everything, of course, but Slaanesh is also the little voice in the back of the mind of, say, a doctor who just wants to know, and why should ethics get in the way of medicine that might one day help people? Even if you have to kill a man to dissect the body. . . don’t ends justify means? You get the idea.
So anyways, David claimed this movie was very Slaaneshi, and so I was game.
Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Mild shame at not showing this to Molly earlier, but she had always expressed a decided non-interest in horror films, which one might well mistake this for if they weren’t aware of the cinematic pedigree. (Molly says: OK, look. My aversion to horror films is those which would genuinely freak me out, such as Ringu or similar. While I will admit here on the internet that I had about a month’s worth of nightmares after I unwisely watched Cabin Fever, I did just fine with Re-animator, which was just silly, and countless other “horror” films which are only shelved in the horror section by virtue of containing, say, a dracula or something. So there.) From Beyond does admittedly function much like a horror film, but for me Gordon’s stuff is best approached as bizzaro satire/homage, and in this respect I’ve always found From Beyond a little more successful than it’s better known predecessor Re-animator. It had been five or six years since I had last watched this monstermash, and though I was anxious that it might not hold up I was still eager to revisit the priceless dialogue and creature effects. In terms of it being a suitable candidate for Films of High Adventure, I don’t really see it being a question—the adventure may not be quite as high as the camp, but what else do you call a desperate band of heroes standing against the forces of icky darkness?
Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: So, I built up the Warhammer thing, but to be clear: this movie is set in (then) modern times, and involves a mad scientist building a resonator (basically a bunch of tuning forks) that will stimulate the pineal gland. The resonator works, and this causes big problems for the characters. There are no broadswords or anything like that. Yet, at the same time. . . let me say this. Sometimes, when describing movies, David has been known to use “it’s like Warhammer” as code for “it’s fucking awesome.” That said, this movie was weirding me out because it actually was very Warhammer-like, and in a good way–not in the manner of certain films I’ve seen recently on Hulu that were very obviously a transcription of someone’s (awful, stereotypical) D&D campaign. Huzzah!
Like I said, it’s modern, but the monsters and villains were totally spot-on. What’s Slaanesh’s favorite color? Purple! What color are the odd cannibalistic, sex-obsessed monsters? Purple! Who’s getting mixed up with transdimentional slugs and stuff? Doctors who just want to know! Also, scientists who want to see more than the five senses can tell us! Fuckin’ rad, man. Not only that, but the mad scientist who built the resonator and subsequently gets his head bitten off like a ginger bread man is also into BDSM, and has a decently equipped if oddly cheery dungeon in his house. We learn he used to bring beautiful women to his house, eat delicious food, drink good wine. . . and then the screaming started. When poor Jeffery Combs succumbs and his pineal gland overloads it becomes a ridiculously phallic tentacle that bursts from a vagina in his forehead. This movie.
RP-nerdiness aside, the movie works even if you’ve never rolled dice for high adventure in the Old World. Jeffery Combs is awesome, the monster effects are decent if intensely silly, the plot is ridiculous but keeps moving and thus works. It gets a little gross at times for me (my characters who got mixed up with Slaanesh tended to be bored nobility interested in high jinks rather than doctor-types; also, medical stuff and hospitals freak me the fuck out), but I found this to be a seriously enjoyable film.
Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Ah, Stuart Gordon—you are one classy dude. Of course, credit is due to Paoli for his screenplay, and the cast and prop department, but ultimately we doff our hat to the director when a film really comes together, as this one does. The effects range from the good to the terrible but they are universally fun, and Gordon has no reservations against making this movie as weird and disgusting as he possibly can. Stacking it against your average mid-80s horror film, his flair, ambition, and willingness to break with convention is nothing short of moderately impressive. I know, I know, I claimed this wasn’t a horror movie, but hell, re-watching it, maybe it is—just because I think it’s high-larious doesn’t mean it won’t resonate (ho ho!) differently with someone else.
As I said, Gordon gets a lot of shit for straying so far from the source material, missing the point, blah blah blah, but fuck that noise—he makes a hilarious, gross-out spectacle like nobody’s business. And then there’s Jeffery Comb’s crazy ass, doing his bug-eyed doctor shtick with aplomb. Perhaps it was my youthful exposure to JC that gave me such a fondness, but he really is the lab coat equivalent to Bruce Campbell, and his performance as Crawford Tillinghast is a thing of epic silliness. If you’re looking for a carefully constructed tale of Lovecraftian horror than keep looking, but if you want the nineteen eighties stripped down to their man-panties and dry-humping the gentleman from providence’s coffin than this is your movie.
High Points: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, and Ken Foree’s chemistry as the world’s worst Arkham Horror team. The take-no-prisoners performances. The straight-faced script. The practical effects and creature design. The general manky atmosphere, which gives the impression that the script was written on soiled motel room bedsheets with a variety of ink substitutes. The part where Barbara Crampton gets gussied up in a leather corset and boots and tries to hump an unconscious, swollen-headed Jeffery Combs. The I-don’t-give-a-fuck-how-insane-this-is climax, only part of which is displayed below:
Final Verdict: Two slimy tentacles way up.
Next Week: Watership Down, which, if memory serves, is infinitely more terrifying than From Beyond.