Creature-Feature Conversations: The Beyond
Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.
The Beyond (1981, directed by Lucio Fulci)
With guest reviewers Thomas Mavroudis and William Tea
JONATHAN RAAB: I was recently discussing this film with a Creature-Feature Conversation alumnus. My perspective is that its vibration was in tune with our present wavelength. On Twitter I shared: “Fulci's THE BEYOND is a parade of loosely connected vignettes about haunted Southern Gothic spaces occupied by zombies and corpses getting their faces melted off, and therefore the perfect artistic lens through which to consider our present times.”
What do you folks think of that? Does this movie have extra resonance now, in our present times, or do I need to stop reading the news?
WILLIAM TEA: As a Lucio Fulci super-fan, I may not be the most unbiased person to ask such a question. I don't know if The Beyond is extra resonant now, but I'd certainly argue that it is resonant. The horrors of the past coming back to haunt the present is a pretty common genre trope, though here I think it's not so much that the past is returning or repeating but that it's inseparable from the present. The past is still happening. It never stopped happening; we just tried to wall it over and pretend it wasn't there. Like with David Warbeck's doctor character, there's a stubborn refusal to acknowledge it and, because of that, a distinct feeling that violence is inevitable. Maybe even overdue.
That atmosphere of hostility really mirrors the spirit of 2020, I think. This is a year where everything seems out to kill us, from murder hornets and country-wide forest fires to viral pandemics and world leaders with itchy trigger fingers.
Similarly, in The Beyond, there's precious little logic to who gets killed, or how, or why. A random plumber's wife is just as likely to meet a slow, brutal end as the cryptic blind woman trying to warn our protagonist of the danger she's in. And, sure, there are hordes of rot-faced ghouls and torch-wielding angry mobs actively seeking your demise, but you're just as likely to fall off a painter's scaffold, or have a bottle of flesh-scorching acid fall on your head for no reason, or get bitten to death by a huge pack of carnivorous tarantulas that have no business whatsoever crawling around a marble-floored New Orleans municipal building.
THOMAS MAVROUDIS: I like that “walling over the past and pretending it’s not there” observation. I am not a vocally political person, so I’m going to do my best to not stray down that road. That said, I feel we are most certainly in a period of human history where our tendency to wall the past away is going to come back to haunt humanity worse than ever before. Let’s not kill the wizard for once… maybe…
But personally, the pure disjointed, nightmare quality of the movie resonates more, as I feel increasingly that 2020 is just the final seventh door to hell being opened. For seven some years now (whoa, see that? SEVEN!) I’ve seriously pondered the possibility that I might be dead and enduring some sort of torment-featured Limbo. Greek Orthodox—which I am—do not believe in Limbo, but who knows? No one can prove I’m wrong. In case you’re wondering, I died in a car crash outside of Jean, Nevada.
JR: I think a man of faith such as yourself would end up in Purgatory instead, but we’re mixing our ancient church traditions, which, come to think of it, is a good exercise in preparing to approach The Beyond with its own mishmash of pseudo-religious prophecy courtesy its Book of Eibon, a mysterious tome that provides a limited spiritual scaffolding to justify the reality-bending horrors of the film.
But if we are, like many modern western theologians, intent on understanding this text of prophetic doom and dread literally, I think we’ll arrive at the wrong conclusions. The Beyond was shot with a limited shooting script, much of its plot and setpieces made up or modified on the fly, more reflective of mood and atmosphere and the impression of fear and dread than about the specific lore regarding the Gates of Hell. This is an art house picture disguised as a splatter film, unbound by internal logic or any imposed by a viewing audience.
I took notes to discuss the plot, such as it is, but almost everything—from the murder of the artist Sweick, to the painter falling from the scaffolding, to the multiple acid-face-meltoffs, to the tarantulas, to Room 36 (three sixes, get it?) and beyond are connecting tissues rendered into dribbling blood-pulp by the undead emerging from the subconscious of the basement-hell-portal itself. We have an old haunted hotel, a blind ghost woman who exists and doesn’t (and gets killed by her own seeing-eye dog who is... also a ghost?), and zombies, zombies everywhere.
It’s entirely possible that this movie was cut together by someone who didn’t understand the film or have a script on hand, but I don’t think that’s actually the case.
From a technical and atmospheric standpoint, I struggle to come up with many films that stand in the same class as The Beyond, aside from City of the Living Dead and House by the Cemetery by the same director, of course. Fabio Frizzi’s score is oddly upbeat while haunting, Sergio Salvati’s cinematography is gorgeous and nightmarish-atmospheric, and Giannetto de Rossi’s splatterwork is revolting and arresting.
What were some of the standout setpieces for you, from individual shots to kill scenes?
TM: Yeah, this is really a work of atmosphere and tone, more than anything else, I feel. The opening shot in this sepia-like tone is already unnerving, because it hints at a quality of filth in addition to telling us we are seeing into the past. We have closed captions activated on our television all the time because our daughter is hard of hearing, and I love watching horror because with closed captioning, so when they begin murdering Sweick, the caption is “spooky music with a funky beat.” I love it, because that is exactly right.
Going back to the “filth...” the film has an overall muddy quality. But it’s a good thing. Unlike, say, Suspiria for example, the colors are not vivid and it works in delivering this gross optical sensation. For instance, Emily’s cataracts. That is the color of thick snot from someone with a bad infection. But “juicy,” I think, is the best description of the film’s practical effects. And I just really love the puppets. Yes, they look like Conan O’Brian’s inspiration for Toonces and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, but I think, too, they heighten the nightmare feeling. I wish I could have seen this on a big screen, at midnight in a seedy theatre, the way it’s meant to be seen.
WT: I can’t remember who said it, but there’s a quote I’ve always liked that says “cinema is part and parcel of dreaming.” We go into this room and turn off all the lights, our conscious mind goes quiet and we immerse ourselves in these images that aren’t really there. I’ve never seen The Beyond properly either, on a giant screen in a darkened theater in the middle of the night, but I can only imagine that the “cinematic dreaming” effect would feel even more extreme. The word “nightmare” has already come up a few times now, and that’s appropriate. In fact, I would go a step further and say The Beyond isn’t just nightmarish, but that it literally is a nightmare.
Obviously, you can see it in the way the film is kind of an irrational jumble of disconnected horror setpieces, this kind of semi-plotless parade of images and impressions. But you can also see it in how the setting itself seems to distort to accommodate the horror. There’s one point where the heroes are driving to the hospital and they mention that it seems like the whole city is empty.
On one hand, I guess you could take that as a suggestion that the evil is so widespread that it’s killed off most of the other people. But this is New Orleans. It’s not a small place. If you’re applying real-world logic, it doesn’t seem like a place that would go silently into the night. Its death would be loud and chaotic. Applying the logic of a dream, however, I think it makes more sense that everyone else in New Orleans seems to stop existing for the simple reason that the story isn’t about them. They’re not the ones “dreaming.” No one else is around because that’s part of the nightmare. It’s just one more horror in a long line.
Similarly, there’s the part near the end where the heroes turn a corner in the hospital and suddenly find themselves back in the hotel they initially came from. Again, if you want to try to force some kind of consistent in-universe reasoning, you could say they were magically “teleported” back there, but I think that’s missing the point. The point, I believe, is the breakdown of reason.
I think two of the death sequences I briefly alluded to earlier warrant mention. First, there’s the scene where a woman in the hospital morgue gets a bottle of acid dumped on her head. Second, there’s the scene where a man falls off a ladder and is slowly devoured by spiders. Neither of these deaths make a lick of sense, as they only work if the victim stays completely still and allows them to occur. Neither of the people in these scenes is realistically incapacitated. No one is holding them down. They just… lie there.
The guy who fell off the ladder may have been knocked unconscious, but he clearly wakes up in the middle of the arachnids’ attack. Yet he does nothing to stop it. With the woman who gets acid poured on her, we don’t even see how she ended up lying beneath the knocked-over jar in the first place. There was a scene where she saw something off-screen, then we cut away to another character, and when we came back she was already on the floor, her face bubbling and oozing into bloody goop.
I’m not claiming it’s intentional, but these deaths strongly evoke, to me, at least, the whole concept of sleep paralysis. So much of Lucio Fulci’s output, The Beyond especially, seems coded with references to sleeping and dreaming. Even the zombies he’s so well known for can be seen as kind of like the ultimate somnambulists.
TM: I’m glad you mentioned New Orleans. That city in real life is like a dreamscape and was the perfect place to set this movie. The dream—both good and bad—characteristics of the location make it seem actually plausible that one could drive over what I’m assuming is Lake Pontchartrain and have a surreal encounter like Liza meeting Emily and good faithful four-legged companion Dicky.
Jonathan stated there are few movies that create the similar sense of what I’ll call post-reason fear and I agree. But I’d like to suggest a couple that come close. First, I think of my all time favorite spooker, Prince of Darkness, which is plenty gross-out juicy in itself. In fact, the more I think about it now, I suspect Carpenter is paying some tribute to Fulchi. Although Prince follows a mostly linear path, those crazy “dream” broadcasts have always haunted me because of how jarring they are in concept.
Turning to a contemporary picture, I offer The Void. I’ve only seen it once, so I could totally be missing the mark, but at least the way it ends is reminiscent of The Beyond, the heroes lost in a landscape of eternal dread.
JR: Aren’t we all?
Thomas Mavroudis is a member of the Denver Horror Collective, as well as the Horror Writer’s Association. He has an MFA from the University of CA, Riverside where he studied under Stephen Graham Jones. He was the Horror Writers Association Scholarship from Hell recipient in 2019 and his debut novella from Omnium Gatherum is slated for a late 2020 release. His work has recently appeared in Weirdbook, Behold the Undead of Dracula, and Terror at 5280’.
William Tea is a native of the Northeastern Pennsylvania Coal Region and a friend to monsters everywhere. His stories have been featured in anthologies published by Muzzleland Press, Dunhams Manor Press, Wildside Press, Silent Motorist Media, Planet X Publications, StrangeHouse Books, and CLASH Books. He is currently struggling through his first novel. Find him online at williamtea.com.
Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.