Giovanni De Nava
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The Beyond (1981)
6th Oct 11
Congratulations, long lost relation, you have inherited a hotel! A few key points to run through: there’s a batshit-weird couple living there called Arthur and Martha, the plumbing needs a good once-over, interiors could use some sprucing up and, oh yes, almost forgot, it was built over one of the seven gateways to Hell. Keep your chin up, though, wont ya?
Lucio Fulci fans will all have their favourite (there’s probably some perverted souls out there that even covet Aenigma) but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t agree that The Beyond represented the filmmaker at the peak of his powers. In the golden age of Italian splatter, Fulci made a quintet of movies, starting with Zombie Flesh Eaters destined to be imprinted on the minds of any impressionable genre-loving youth lucky enough to catch them in those halcyon days of Thatcher’s Britain. Even if you watched The Beyondin its BBFC-truncated “Elephant Video” release version wondering why the movie looked like it was edited by a child and tended to abruptly cut from a heavily built-up gore scene to a shot of a guy smoking a pipe, it couldn’t fail to make an impression.
Hard to believe this movie is now 30 years old, but, if anything, it holds up today better than ever. Fulci was rarely able to pack so many memorable and brilliantly visceral set pieces into a single narrative. As with City Of The Living Dead, said narrative is just a thin thread upon which to hang tonnes of mayhem, but the mayhem here is outstanding. Certainly, the wonderfully retro prologue is among the greatest sequences in Fulci’s entire career: a striking sepia-toned combination of Universal Studios horror and Herschell Gordon Lewis as a gaunt warlock is brutalised to an extreme by a chain-whipping, torch-wielding lynch mob. Cinematographer Sergio Salvati’s work here is a career highlight and if you’re a fan of this stuff, few things will get those neck hairs standing to attention as much as the way that flaming book and Fabio Frizzi’s gorgeous main theme herald the opening titles.
Of course, the movie’s clunkiness in between gory greatness is all part of its uniquely Italian, Fulci-helmed charm. While the “plot” – Catriona MacColl inherits a hotel built upon a gateway to Hell, doctor David Warbeck helps her to fend off the ultimate evil with a handgun – doesn’t try to hide its rudimentary nature, Fulci throws in a characteristically bizarre bunch of random supporting characters to fill in the gaps when no one is losing their eyeballs. The tone is set by the sequence in which a guy pulls up in a van adorned with the words “Joe’s Plumbing”; in case we were in any doubt, Fulci cuts to MacColl asking “You’re the plumber? Joe right?” to which Joe the Plumber nods. (Plumber or not, the poor sap has had his eyeball yanked out in close-up before he’s had much of a chance to fix anything).
Once seen, it’s also hard to shake off the abiding memory of short-lived odd-balls like the ridiculous Martha and Arthur who, in MacColl’s words “are more of a hindrance…they came with the hotel!”. Arthur, a sweaty pantie-sniffer if ever there was one and a guy who permanently looks like he’s just been caught masturbating, has a screen presence matched only by Martha, the sort of woman who can make “Don’t worry” sound more like “You’re so fucked”. Both of them probably get more dates than the off-the-wall book seller who chuckles inexplicably to himself while flogging convenient copies of the Book Of Eibon (“It’s verra verra interestin’”), the hefty old tome that somehow holds the key to – err something. And Martha has the last laugh anyway since she’s at the centre of a show-stopping reworking of the legendary eyeball-impaling from Zombie Flesh Eaters, this time involving the eyeball-popping effects of having your head shoved backwards onto a well-positioned nail.
In truth, this moment is just one of many jaw-dropping, show-stopping scenes in the picture. Some are significantly subtler than others : the extraordinary scene involving MacColl’s first meeting with the enigmatic blind Emily (Sarah Keller) in the middle of an oddly deserted highway generates a palpable sense of unease maintained by the subsequent scenes of this peculiar prophet of doom (“Leave this place”) tinkling away to Frizzi’s eerie melodies on the piano. Fulci can unsettle without always having to fall back on extreme content : there’s a marvellously disturbing yet non-gory moment involving an excruciatingly squeaky hospital gurney pushed by an orderly while a little, pigtailed girl awaits outside a room in which her mum is attending to her freshly deceased dad (that’s Joe the Plumber, folks). This sequence culminates with a typically sadistic Fulci flourish as the girl successfully flees from a moving, Blob style pool of blood and acid encroaching ever faster, only to be confronted by a putty-faced zombie on the other side of what was assumed to be The Door To Safety.
The movie’s celebrated, once censored gore highlights are exactly as you remember them. The legendarily rubbish joke-shop spiders (plus a couple of horrifying real ones) look as silly as they ever did though they form part of an extended town hall library sequence in which Gino De Rossi’s graphic tearing apart of a guy’s face goes on so long that it becomes genuinely sickening. Dickie the Guide Dog, who has apparently watched Suspiriafor inspiration, savages Emily in throat-tearing glory. And that pigtailed little girl is the subject for what still stands, in HD and on repeat viewings, as one of cinema history’s most extraordinary exploding head moments.
Given all the lengthy gore set-ups and the fact that Fulci is prone to spending several minutes observing a hapless schmuck being torn apart, there isn’t much for charismatic British stars MacColl and Warbeck to do: the movie pauses just long enough to let them talk to each other for one short dialogue scene that you probably fast-forwarded when you were ten to get to more eyeball-abuse. En-route to one of horror’s most haunting endings, Warbeck proves to be the slowest guy in the world to catch on to the “shoot em in the head” zombie-killing mantra.
As for that finale, the closing ten minutes of The Beyond are among Fulci’s finest work. The very last, apocalyptic sequence is still remarkable, though before then the director pulls off an even creepier moment of impending doom. Our heroes have fled the hotel and drive through the deserted streets while Fulci lingers long enough on an external shot of the hotel to reveal numerous shadowy undead figures moving around and walking past every room of the accursed building. (Shudder)
Versions Arrow’s Blu-ray release arguably makes this fine-looking movie look as good as it ever has on home video. The main feature is accompanied by two commentaries, the best of which is imported from earlier releases and features MacColl and the very funny, late Warbeck having huge fun revisiting a movie which they once treated as an embarrassment and now welcome as an enduring phenomenon. Disc 2 has multiple featurettes in which various behind the scenes personnel reflect on working with Fulci, an American distributor rather obnoxiously talks about the hatchet job he performed to turn the movie into the Americanised 7 Doors Of Deathfor mainstream U.S. release, and the fabulous Gino De Rossi discusses his remarkable contributions to the Italian gore cycle starting with Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue.