Stuart Gordon is a horror director who owes his cult credentials to only one film: 1985’s loose H. P. Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator. A low-budget schlocky horror-comedy with a lot of splatter, Re-Animator has been made harder and harder to be fond of following two unlikeable sequels (Bride of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator), directed by Brian Yuzna, the producer of the original Re-Animator and Gordon’s own 1986 follow-up From Beyond.
With Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton returning from Re-Animator, From Beyond is essentially a re-run of the previous hit albeit with a role reversal. Dr Crawford Tillinghast (Combs) and Dr Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel, channelling Ernest Thesiger from Bride of Frankenstein in more than just name) are working on a machine that can stimulate the pineal gland of any human nearby, allowing them to see visions of a world beyond their senses. Pretorius is apparently killed when the experiment goes wrong and Tillinghast is committed as a crazed schizophrenic.
While institutionalised, Tillinghast meets Dr Katherine McMichaels (Crampton), who is intrigued by his research and who manages to get Tillinghast released into her custody. With policeman Bubba Brownlee (a very good Ken Foree, the lead in the original Dawn of the Dead, now slumming it in Rob Zombie’s terrible movies) keeping a wary eye on Tillinghast, they return to the site of the experiment in order to carry it out again. It is not long before an evil presence from another world starts to affect their minds.
As with Re-Animator, the plot is not essential as Stuart Gordon’s primary concern here are the special effects, which have aged reasonably well. In the 1980s, especially after the innovations in the transformation sequence in the otherwise rather dull An American Werewolf in London, horror filmmakers tackled special effects with élan and ingenuity. Whether the film was serious, as in Cronenberg, or less so, the make-up and special effects were effective precisely because they felt so homemade and weirdly natural. Fake blood will always be more convincing than its spurting CGI counterpart, which has taken a lot of the fun out of these kinds of films, and there is always something likable about a film that puts its actors through all manner of splatter and uncomfortable make-up.
However, as convincing as the majority of the special effects remain, splatter films are rarely well paced and are almost always perched on the wrong side of camp. As a result, From Beyond does not have much of a plot and the actors do not really have very much to do other than gawk at whatever the special effects team throw at them. As well as this, it is difficult to take the film all that seriously as you are constantly waiting for the next gag rather than the next scare. There is little to no suspense and the film is never frightening. With its focus on the pineal gland and abnormalities therein, From Beyond fits into the body horror category and yet it does not manage to convey the same levels of disgust and unease that Cronenberg can without really trying. As good as the special effects are, From Beyond is almost entirely focussed on them to the exclusion of nearly everything else.
Having said that, the film is not devoid of other interests. The actors are all reasonably good, particularly Ken Foree, who keeps the film somewhat down to earth and likable. There is an entire set piece involving a giant worm during which Foree is wearing only very small underwear because, after all, he just got out of bed. Combs continues to show his ability to overact and say ridiculous things while keeping an entirely straight face. Early in the film, he stares directly at the camera, his face twisted in sheer terror, and says, “It bit off his head…like a gingerbread man.” Crampton’s obvious miscasting only adds to the fun and she gamely pretends to be an expert psychiatrist. Sorel is entertaining as the villain almost in spite of the sheer amount of make-up on him. A lot of the film takes place inside a creepy house on Benevolent Street and Combs, Crampton and Foree make an engaging trio, so much so that when the film splits them up and moves to a different location it is much less interesting. Ultimately, From Beyond is undone by messy plotting more than anything else.
From Beyond, despite having the bigger budget and more special effects, seems like a toned down version of Re-Animator. It is not as dark or as funny or as well paced. However, it is reasonably entertaining in the same way as the 1960s Hammer horrors and the 1930s monster movies. Its major flaws are that is not scary enough and that it is too focussed on special effects at the expense of plotting and characterization. It feels a lot more calculated than the surprise hit Re-Animator, the attempt at making more of same betraying the spirit of the original. Though still fun, it is probably best suited for a boring afternoon than a late night.