Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond will be an impossible film to defend for some, but that doesn’t matter to the legions of faithful gorehounds who rank the quality of an auteur by how many creative ways they can show an eye-gouging. I am not, nor have I ever been, a gorehound, and I do not guarantee that I will always appreciate a scene devoted to flesh-eating tarantulas tearing the flesh-colored latex off a man’s face. I suppose that I therefore cannot defend The Beyond so much as I can vouch for it as the best of the Italian splatters that I have ever seen—the most devoted to doing exactly what its audience expects from it on the most whimsically daring level possible. This is the absolute paramount of the cheap, sleazy exploitation films made by pragmatic Europeans who wanted to cash in on the 1970s/80s splatter craze, but considering Fulci’s competition (try sitting through a film by Bruno Mattei sometime), this fact might not count for much. What counts is that Fulci transcends the disgusting goods, but not before he fulfills them entirely, in all their bleeding, gooey glory. You can take it or leave it.
I prefer to take it, even as someone who is not normally into this type of fare, because I instinctually recognize that when I force myself to stomach The Beyond’s vulgar, disgusting, and altogether silly schlock—and make no mistake, the gore is startlingly effective in its cheesiness—then I begin to realize that Lucio Fulci has tremendous style and imagination beyond his producers’ requirement to gross us out. I wrote what I consider to be my definitive statement of Fulci’s technique in my essay on House by the Cemetery, so I shall repeat it here: “He is a craftsman working within film’s most demonic visual abilities, creating surreal, picaresque images meant to disturb our senses and feed our eyes with unspeakable, dreamlike pictures that seem directly ripped out of our most feverish of nightmares. One wonders if Fulci should have been a painter instead of a filmmaker, capturing stills that provoke his type of revulsion instead of working within the context of an established storytelling format that would seem to play against his strengths. Regardless, he was inescapably a filmmaker capable of delivering macabre images that long stay in the corners of our reluctant minds.” With this observation still informing my thoughts, I’ll explicitly state that The Beyond is Fulci’s masterpiece for its ingenious fusion of dreamlike gore and macabre images; that might not necessarily be a good thing, but it is at least a very skillful thing.
If you have never seen another film by this controversial director, this is not a bad one to begin what will be a disturbingly engaging odyssey (I started with Zombie, which was a near terminal mistake). The first rule of thumb for approaching any Fulci picture is to relinquish narrative as a priority. As in all of his horrors, the plot of The Beyond continuously shifts illogically from one scene to the next, apparently at the impulse of the director’s artistic inspirations (much of it feels improvised; it is certainly no coincidence that Fulci was a huge jazz fan). Forget about character development or consistent storytelling; rhythmic mood and revulsion are the names of the game here. As Fulci himself admits about this picture, “My idea was to make an absolute film, containing all the horrors of the world, a film without a story. There's a house, with people, and dead who return from the Beyond ... that's it. There is no logic to be found in it, only a succession of images … which must be received without any reflection.”He cites French poet Antonin Artaud as a primary influence, who would probably have been tickled at being compared to a film that starts with a mob crucifying and chain-whipping a servant of Satan and ending with a zombie apocalypse in a hospital. And the classic misspelling on a doorway, “Do Not Entry,” could have easily been scribbled by a French poet. (Sorry.)
The film is the second of Fulci’s unofficial “Gateway to Hell” quadrilogy, sandwiched in between 1980’s City of the Living Dead and 1981’s House by the Cemetery;1982’s Manhattan Baby is the last of this series. The Beyond’s original American title, The Seven Doors of Death, serves an appropriate heading for the entire string of pictures: All take place more or less in the same universe and individually deal with one of the seven doors to Hell located in secret locations around the world. In this case, the gateway is in the basement of a rundown hotel in New Orleans, which is being renovated by essentially a non-entity named Liza Merril (played by Fulci’s favorite scream queen, Catriona MacColl). Grisly flashbacks, filmed in black-and-white in an apparent homage to the Universal horror films, reveal that this terrible doorway has long been protected by an artist named Schweik (Antione Saint-John), whose apocalyptic painting of Hell seems to be the key to opening its portal. He dies a horrible death at the hands of a mob in the 1920s; once his gooey corpse is uncovered in the present, the painting becomes increasingly lifelike and threatens to swallow Liza and the entire hotel into the bowels of inferno.
All that makes more sense when written it than it does while viewing. Deep analysis of the plot is not necessary by Fulci’s own admission; let’s instead focus on the surreal world that he creates through the threadbare narrative. As exploitive as much of his gore might be, Fulci’s cinema is one based on expansive imagination of a dream-world that is fully realized but barely seen. After viewing it for a second time this week, I remain amazed at how extensive the universe of The Beyond seems, despite the fact that it is comprised mostly of full shots and close-ups. The film’s most famous image is of Liza driving down a bridge, only to be suddenly stopped by a mysterious blind woman who magically appears on the road in front of her. In his invaluable book Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci, Stephen Thrower successfully describes the power of this scene: While we only see the long stretch of the bridge directly in front of Liza, coupled with an uncomfortable close-up of the blind woman’s dead eyes, Fulci composes the shot so that the water over which the bridge sits seems to go on forever in all directions. It’s as unsettling an effect as anything in The Shining or The Exorcist, giving a sensation that the world created here is constantly on the verge of swallowing us whole.
This unsettling tone of impending doom saturates the entire film, and it is a testament to Fulci’s imagination that he elevates threadbare material into such a terrifying apocalyptic nightmare. Despite the heavy-handed gore, we are more uncomfortable by what we don’t see than the violent displays (though the extreme gore isn’t without merit; more on that below): Like most Italian splatter films of the era, this one ends with an enigmatic zombie attack in a hospital; in this case, they are not flesh-eaters but rather hounds of hell sent to collect the last of the living (but then, why can a bullet to the head still stop them? Never mind…). If you look carefully, it seems to be the same half-dozen actors in every shot, but Fulci stages these sequences so that the entire hospital looks completely overrun by the shambling undead, who moan softly and keep their heads down while still driving forward toward our heroes. Unlike Romero’s dead, no fortification will keep them at bay: They can knock down walls, materialize out of thin air, etc. But the most terrifying aspect of all is that we barely see any of the undead while being aware through sound effects and their victims’ reaction shots that their rotting remains are quite literally crawling out of the woodwork. Fulci uses a budgetary limitation to provide what is one of the most disturbing interpretations of a zombie infestation that I’ve ever seen.
Thematically, Fulci works on a very abstract level that places archetypes over narrative logic. A character will utter simplistic lines featuring the words “hell” or “doom,” and the film then provides images that realize the necessary requirement of the words—a blood-soaked ghost rising from a bathtub, spiders hungry for human flesh, deadly acid spreading across a sterile floor, an underground labyrinth of ethereal sounds and images. It doesn’t matter whether or not these images follow coherent or linear reason, which is why characters who seem evil suddenly turn into helpless victims or clearly mummified remains are attached to an oscilloscope while laying on a morgue slab. As Fulci notes, the film unfolds as a succession of classic images explored with surreal feverishness that intentionally outdoes or contradicts threads established in previous scenes. That’s because dreams are never logical. For that matter, neither is the idea of Hell, which every religion paints as endless torment beyond all comprehension. We can complain that The Beyond cheats by creating a fantastical world in which all continuity can be dismissed as intentional incoherence, but Fulci never cheats within his own rules: Yes, his style allows for narrative tricks that we couldn’t forgive in just about any other movie, but we cannot deny that this technique terrifies us in its maniacal gibberish.
Besides that, I’m not entirely convinced that a lack of rational continuity equals total incoherence: Besides Liza, the key human player is Dr. John McCabe (played by David Warbeck, another Fulci favorite), apparently the only doctor in New Orleans who makes house calls and offers to drive dying people to the hospital himself without thinking to call an ambulance. Like Liza, he is a non-entity as a character, and Warbeck successfully performs the role’s only requirement, which is to look bewildered and skeptical in about equal proportion. But McCabe is more than a character in a film; he represents the model of the medical doctor who, even with his logic and even-headedness, cannot stop the coming oblivion. It is a continuation of the “academics” featured in the other “Gateway to Hell” films—the priest and reporter of City of the Living Dead, the psychologist of House by the Cemetery, the archeologists of Manhattan Baby: They all use intellectualism to try to dissuade themselves that Hell is indeed awakening beneath them, and none of their academic prowess can stop their inevitable destiny. Logic ultimately need not apply, because it cannot save them. Fulci certainly does not make an optimistic point about the nature of humanity.
Fulci’s subverted philosophy aside, the film is great to look at. Cinematographer Sergio Salvati makes every drop of blood and sliver of rot count to create perpetual unease, and the locations are triumphs of macabre set design. All of Fucli’s “gateway” films are at least aesthetically splendid—note the underground network of trap doors and cobwebs in City and the dusty old basement of Cemetery—but this one is by far the most elaborate and mesmerizing. Each new set piece tops the previous: The hotel is a creepy creation of damp decay and misty doom, and Fulci’s exploration of stirring corpses in the dimly-lit morgue lingers in my mind as a truly unsettling reflection. It all accumulates to the unforgettable final image of the Beyond, which utilizes Fulci’s method of revealing nothing but creating everything. We would expect an Italian splatter hell to be an amassing of brutality and sadism, and we are instead presented with an alarmingly empty void—as empty as the characters’ own rational explanations and attempts to make sense of their incoming oblivion.
Even these simple aesthetics expose how Fulci transcends what is usually a genre featuring incompetent filmmaking and little suspense. Yes, the gore is plentiful and is intended to disgust us, but it comes almost as relief after the unreasonable amounts of tension created by the look of the film, the subversively haunting images that inform us of dread without revealing it. Fulci turns these disgusting images on their heads by not making them the payoff, but the build-up. We expect mindless violence, and are instead left with a decidedly mindful and un-graphic image of two frantic loners who have fallen into a Hell that appears as a misty plain stretching on forever. Zombies eating their liver would actually seem less bleak, less startling than Fulci’s minimalist vision of Hell as eternal redundancy.
All these praises of an utterly wacky film to say: Fulci (who died in 1996) was a talented director, and I admire his work both in The Beyond and his other splatter epics. Though he shot over fifty films covering dozens of genres in over three decades, he is known primarily for a series of horrors he made in a four year span from 1979-1982, resulting in beloved gore titles like Zombie (which I hated), City of the Living Dead (which I kind of liked), House by the Cemetery (which I really liked), Manhattan Baby (which was pretty boring with two or three moments of genuine inspiration), New York Ripper (which I haven’t seen, but I’m told it features a serial killer who quacks like Donald Duck), and this one, his tour de force as far as the films for which he is remembered. Since his rise to horror stardom during this “golden” era, there has never been a horror convention in which devoted attendees do not utter his name in unhallowed reverence. In recent years, more “respectable” critics and scholars have begun to reevaluate his work favorably, and Quentin Tarantino has been very vocal in praising him as a key influence to his own style. Though he’d probably be the last to believe it, Fulci’s terrifying visions have finally begun to drift away from the level of guilty pleasure to the chamber of true cinematic artistry.
While I’ve learned to wholly embrace a movie like The Beyond on its own terms, I think it’s a little disappointing that Fulci worked for most his career in these sleaze-o, low-budget chronicles of sadistic bloodshed. I suppose I’m almost apologetic to my readers in dubbing this a classic film, because I believe his work outside of the genre, such as the superb western Four of the Apocalypse, indicated a truly talented eye for detail and mood outside of the required conventions of exploitation pictures. He was a director of such creative energy that he fashioned films that were far better than they had any reason to be, but a part of me wishes that his most memorable films could have explored a wider array of environments, since his westerns and giallos reveal plenty of untapped potential. But for the type of film that this is, I cannot apologize in my praise of its technique: The purpose of Italian schlock is to disturb us with outrageous brutality, and The Beyond disturbs us with its sickening images and nightmarish abstraction more than any other picture of its kind. It is the best film with latex-eating tarantulas and random acts of violence against eyeballs ever made, and that is no small feat.
A.K.A. The Seven Doors of Death
Catriona MacCool: Liza Merril
David Warbeck: Dr. John McCabe
Antione Saint-John: Schweick
Cinzia Monreale: Emily
Al Cliver: Dr. Harris
A Fulvia Films production. Directed by Lucio Fulci. Written by Fulci, Dardano Sacchetti, and Giorgio Mariuzzo. No M.P.A.A. rating; contains graphic and persistent violence/gore. Running time: 87 minutes. Original Italian theatrical release date: April 29, 1981.
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