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.