Through the eyes of madness: A critical analysis of “From Beyond” (1986)

Director Stuart Gordon’s “From Beyond” is an amazing work because of how much it manages to embody at the same time. It is initially an exploitative horror, full of ripped clothes and gore, but it’s also a black comedy–tongues might be mutated and torn out in “From Beyond,” but they remain firmly in cheek. It’s also a literate film, one that further familiarized audiences with the work of H. P. Lovercraft.

Lovecraft’s short story “From Beyond” was pure pulp, a tightly written meditation on the limits of human vision. It is a minor masterpiece by the author, still worshipful of Edgar Allan Poe but further developing his singular literary identity. Gordon wisely used the short story as a springboard for a more complex, yet still compact, examination of how the human drives of vision, evolution and sexuality relate to madness: each of them exists within us as frightening potential.

Everything in “From Beyond” is personal. The film is almost entirely shot from subjective perspectives–there are no crane shots or overhead views that stand out (the cinematography was by Gordon collaborator Mac Ahlberg). There is even an infamous monster POV–mutated researcher Dr. Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) spotting a brain in Dr. Bloch’s head via pineal gland-vision–but there are also POV shots during the chases through the hospital and the house during the film’s climax.

One of the most intimate shots occurs when police officer “Bubba” Brownlee (Ken Foree) forces psychiatrist Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) to confront herself in a mirror. Under the influence of Dr. Pretorius’s alien Resonator, McMichaels swaps her modest attire for a kinkier leather outfit. She attempts to seduce Brownlee so he’ll let the group stay and keep experimenting with the Resonator, but Brownlee turns her head toward a mirror.

What appears to be an overhead shot is actually a shot of a mirrored ceiling. We are not seeing McMichaels from above; we’re seeing her reflection from her point of view. “Look at yourself!” Brownlee demands. “Is that who you are?”

The relationship between Brownlee and McMichaels is fascinating because it breaks the convention of many horror films of having a sober scientist as the voice of reason. Instead, street-wise cop Brownlee takes the role. He also acts as the movie’s Lambert, stressing the importance of getting out of the haunted house setting, something with which everyone in the audience ought to be agreeing.

It’s interesting to note that all three of the main characters are stripped naked at some point in the film. Nudity is often symbolic for vulnerability, but McMichaels and Tillinghast are both stripped for reasons that go beyond normal humanity–McMichaels is stripped when she gives in to her animalistic sexuality and Tillinghast is stripped when he is mutated beyond his human nature. By contrast, Brownlee is naked because he just got up. By retaining his humanity, he gives us an entry point and keeps up the personal perspective of the film.

But Brownlee isn’t always the best judge of the situation. He suggests that the Resonator is changing everyone in the house, but he’s wrong. Instead, the Resonator brings out their potential–for raw sexuality, for the next step in evolution, for seeing beyond the normal scope of human society. These are all states of “other-ness,” the other-ness that exists dormant in all of us, the same other-ness that is called insanity by the rest of the world. Brownlee is closer to the truth when he says to a Resonator starved McMichaels: “You may be a scientist lady, but right now you’re acting like a junkie.”

There is a general agreement that addiction is a psychological disease. Junkies are sick, and it’s a sickness that can claim even the film’s psychiatrist, and by extension the most educated, worldly and seemingly rational amongst us. What she’s addicted to is the ability to see more, a vision we could all unlock at the cost of our sanity. The horror of “From Beyond” isn’t that the monsters are somewhere out there–it’s that we’re already carrying them within. We just have to start looking.

Some girls: A critical review of “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter” (2017)

We here at Idols and Realities aren’t just a pack of thriller-thirsty things, exclusively reviewing crappy Netflix originals. We can do other tricks. We can read. We know the classics. Some of them, at least. If you come back next week, we’ll have balancing balls on the ends of our noses all figured out too. In the meantime, below please find a review of the novel “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter,” Theodora Goss’s pastiche of Victorian sci fi and horror.

“Strange Case” is a book that begins with the ending of another book, with Mary Jekyll, her mother recently dead and her family funds drying up, remembering the less recent death of her father, the infamous chemist Dr. Jekyll. Seeking to increase her cash flow, she starts looking into the alleged reappearance of her father’s old colleague Mr. Hyde, a wanted murderer whose head comes with a substantial reward.

Her investigation leads her to a conspiracy involving murders in Whitechapel, an international society of alchemists and a new family in the form of some other young women with monstrous histories: Diana Hyde, Beatrice Rappuccini, Justine Frankenstein and Catherine Moreau.

For the most part, the book is well written. The prose evokes the era without overdoing it, resulting in a brisk and readable text. The only real flaw story-wise, and it’s not much of a flaw all things considered, is that so much time is spent building up the heroines that there isn’t a lot of time left for the central villain to be built up–and yes, you will recognize him.

Goss’s book is appropriately literate, and if you’re not careful it can turn into a game of “spot the last name.” Goss digs deep. Mary Jekyll I got. Cat Moreau I got. Beatrice Rappaccini had me reaching for my pocket guide to literature.

For the record, I thought it was a wise move to include Sherlock Holmes and play him fairly straight. The master detective plays an important supporting role, never intruding on the main plot but buttressing it up where necessary and grounding the novel in the literary tradition it so clearly appreciates.

Of course, pastiches can become precious if you’re not careful, and this one’s preciousness is in its book-within-a-book structure. Readers might find endearing or annoying depending on their respective temperaments–it probably falls somewhere in the middle. See, the book we’re reading is actually the book that’s being written, after the fact, by the characters who experienced its events. They break into the narrative from time to time to reminisce, point out unnecessary embellishment or comically bicker.

There is one place where this is actually a strength. Any critiquing of Victorian culture–something that you almost can’t avoid if you’re doing a female-centered Victoriana re-write–is done in the margins of the book, leaving the action to be action. And, to Goss’s great credit, having a few “narrators” on the sidelines means that no one viewpoint is hammered into our heads. Readers are allowed to consider the events and the era without feeling pigeonholed.

There are plenty of Victorian pastiches out there. If you want cynicism and transcendence, you go for “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “From Hell.” If you want romance, both Gothic and erotic, you go for “Penny Dreadful.” If you’re looking for something a bit more fan fictional, try “The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.” In a way, it’s the ultimate fan fiction; it corrects apparent failings of its source material not by rewriting the past but by recreating the future.