David Lynch reportedly once described Eraserhead as being a “dream of dark and disturbing things” and the same description can easily be applied to Lucio Fulci’s 1981 masterpiece, The Beyond.
The second part of Fulci’s Beyond trilogy, The Beyond sits between City of the Living Dead and The House By The Cemetery. With its portrayal of naive humans getting an unwanted look at the inexplicable reality that hides just a little beyond ours, it’s a film that very much calls to the mind the work of H.P. Lovecraft. While insanity was often the punishment for gaining knowledge of Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones, the punishment for discovering the Beyond often seems to be blindness.
(Ocular damage was one of Fulci’s trademarks. Starting with Zombi 2, almost every Fulci film seemed to feature someone losing an eye. In The Beyond, a plumber played by Giovanni De Nova loses an eye while wandering about a flooded basement and, over the course of the narrative, several character are rendered blind, making them incapable of seeing the true horror of what they’re experiencing. Fulci struggled with diabetes and the threat of blindness runs through almost all of his horror films.)
The Beyond starts with a striking, sepia-toned sequence that’s set in the year 1927. While a young woman named Emily (played Cinzia Monreale) reads from a book, a mob attacks a painter named Schweik. They believe Schweik to be a warlock and they view his grotesque paintings as being proof. (In many ways, the mob is comparable to the critics who insisted on judging Fulci solely based on the subject matter of his films while ignoring the skill with which Fulci directed them.) Schweik is tortured and left crucified in the basement of the Seven Doors Hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Jump forward 54 years. A woman named Liza (Catriona MacColl, who appeared in different roles in all three of the Beyond films) has inherited the long-closed Seven Doors Hotel and she’s moved down to New Orleans to reopen it. Unfortunately, her efforts to renovate the place aren’t going smoothly. It’s been one disaster after another, almost as if someone or something is trying to keep her from reopening the place. The latest was the flooded basement and the plumber who lost both his eye and his life. Of course, Liza would probably be even more concerned if she knew just what exactly it was that attacked the plumber in the first place.
While driving down one of Louisiana’s many bridges to nowhere, Liza is forced to come to a stop when she sees a blind woman and her guide dog standing in front of her car. The woman is Emily, who doesn’t appear to have aged at all since we last saw her. Emily is now blind. She tells Liza that her hotel was once home to an evil warlock and she warns her to stay out Room 36.
Meanwhile, the plumber’s wife and his daughter visit the plumber’s corpse in the morgue. This not only leads to the plumber and several other dead people coming to life but it also leads to an accident with a beaker of acid that was, for some reason, sitting on a desk. Soon, the daughter is blind herself. On the plus side, all of the drama at the hospital does give Liza a chance to meet Dr. John McCabe (played by the always welcome David Warbeck).
Fulci never got much credit for his work with actors. (Some of that, of course, is due to the fact that most of Fulci’s film were atrociously dubbed for overseas release.) However, The Beyond is definitely one of the best-acted of all of his films. In fact, one reason why we stick with the film even when things start to get really, really weird is because we genuinely like Liza and John. Warbeck and MacColl had a lot of chemistry and, in the midst of all the mayhem, they created two very real characters. Cinzia Monreale is also impressive in the role of Emily. Fulci made good use of her other-worldly beauty and Monreale keeps us wondering whether Emily is trying to help of Liza or if she has a secret agenda of her own.
(Towards the end of the film, during a zombie siege, there’s a scene where John and Liza get in an elevator and, as the doors close, Warbeck tries to reload a gun by forcing a bullet down the gun’s barrel. MacColl sees what he’s doing and breaks character, laughing as the doors close. The Italian crew apparently did not realize that Warbeck was playing a joke because this was the take that they used in the film. Needless to say, it temporarily takes you out of the film and yet it’s such a charming moment that you can’t help but love it. It’s nice to see that with all the grotesque insanity going on around them, Warbeck and MacColl were having fun.)
The Beyond gets progressively more bizarre as it continues. It doesn’t take long for Fulci to abandon any pretense of traditional narrative and the film soon becomes a collection of vaguely connected, increasingly surreal set pieces. A man goes to a library and ends up getting eaten by an army of spiders. Ghouls suddenly roam through the hallways of the hospital. Yet another person loses an eye, this time to a loose nail. Another relatively minor character suddenly has a hole in her head. A chase through the hospital’s basement leads to the characters somehow finding themselves back in the hotel. And finally, we go to the Beyond….
This is going to be heresy to some but, as much as I appreciate it, The Beyond is actually not my favorite Fulci film. Overall, Zombi 2 is my favorite and, as far as the trilogy goes, I actually prefer The House By The Cemetery. That said, The Beyond is the film that best exemplifies Fulci’s cinematic philosophy. Fulci called it pure cinema, the idea that if your visuals are strong and properly edited together, the audience will use them to supply their own narrative. That’s certainly the case in The Beyond. A lot happens in The Beyond and it’s not always clear how everything’s related. But since every scene is full of Fulci’s trademark style, the viewers builds the necessary connections in their own mind. The end result is a film that, perhaps more than any other Fulci film, capture the feel of having a dream. It’s not a film that will be appreciated by everyone. Fulci’s work rarely is. Still, for fans of Italian horror, The Beyond is one of the key films.
Fulci followed The Beyond with one of his best-known movies, The House By The Cemetery. I’ll look at that film tomorrow.