I don’t have any hard and fast rules when it comes to reviewing a film. In terms of style, content, structure and word length, it’s pretty much a case of however I’m feeling when I sit down at the computer and start typing. Sometimes I start with a plot synopsis, sometimes a contextual remark on the film’s place in the director’s canon, sometimes a personal recollection of the first time I saw the film, and sometimes a bit of straight-up unapologetic sarcasm.
With ‘The Beyond’, I really want to start with a comment along the lines of “this is one of the most gorgeous horror movies I’ve ever seen”. Only it seems a slightly inappropriate description for a movie featuring multiple face meltings, excessive eyeball trauma (what was it with Fulci and the introduction of sharp implements to the vitreous humor?), a chaining, a crucifixion, and some anti-social behaviour from the natural world, viz. a guide dog completely abandoning the job description and a protracted scene where some big-ass spiders eat a guy’s face. (Any arachnological issues one might have with the veracity of said set-piece will, I guarantee you, be swiftly dispelled by the sheer ickiness of it.)
And yet … ‘The Beyond’ is never less than handsomely mounted and often outright beautiful (not as potent a piece of cinematic eye-candy as Argento at his most visually florid but still more enough to turn the head of a DoP groupie), and nowhere more so than in the sepia toned 7-minute pre-credits sequence. There’s a note-perfect analysis of this scene in Tim’s review of ‘The Beyond’ at Antagony & Ecstasy, which I’d urge you to read. This sequence – set in 1927 – is a mini-movie which moves elegantly from painterly imagery to brutal narrative without ever sacrificing its aesthetic (kudos to cinematographer Sergio Salvati).
A group of townsfolk converge, by boat and car, on a dilapidated hotel where Schweik (Antoine Saint-John), a painter reviled as a warlock, is staying. They enter the premises and burst into his room. During what follows, Schweik attempts to reason with them, revealing that the hotel is built over one of the seven gateways to hell and that he has specialist knowledge which can ensure the portal is never opened … the kind of dialogue which, today, would earn him a fast-tracked referral to a mental health facility. The kind of dialogue which, in 1927, earns him the attentions of a lynch mob.
Incidentally, those dozen words: “the hotel is built over one of the seven gateways to hell”? That’s your plot synopsis, right there.
The story – i.e. the remaining 80 minutes during which property heiress Liza (Katherine MacColl) and general practitioner Dr John McCabe (David Warbeck) find out what the audience already know – recommences in 1981 with the hotel even more dilapidated. Liza, unexpectedly finding herself the new owner, decides to renovate and reopen it. Discovering a flooded basement and an incipient leak even though the water is turned off, she hires Joe the plumber (Giovanni di Nava) to fix the problem. Not only does the luckless Joe not fix the problem, he exacerbates it by way of opening the door to the undead. Fucked up and generally unpleasant set-pieces ensue; a nastily cynical coda kicks you in the balls; roll end credits.
As a work of narrative coherence, ‘The Beyond’ is up there with ‘Suspiria’. In fact, coming three years after Argento’s masterpiece of anti-narrative and just a year after his equally free-form follow-up ‘Inferno’, Fulci’s opus invites comparison to the Three Mothers mythos. If Argento’s concept was of three houses of evil, one for each of his triumvirate of demonic dames, one can only imagine where Fulci’s imagination might have taken him if he’d chosen to explore the other six entrances to the underworld. (Although an argument can be made for ‘City of the Living Dead’ and ‘The House by the Cemetery’ as companion pieces which use their settings to similar effect.)
But coherence isn’t what ‘The Beyond’ needs. No matter the weird feeding habits of spiders, the libraries and bookshops which are repositories of weirdness, the hospital in which a family doctor can happily conduct his own post-mortem or a grieving widow wander unaccompanied into an autopsy room; never mind the concept of Liza inheriting two staff members along with a hotel that hasn’t been open to the public in half a century, two staff members who can’t be much older than their late 30s; pshaw to idea of Dr McCabe, a man who (one presumes) has taken an oath to preserve life, grabbing a six shooter from his desk drawer and cutting loose like Harry Callahan the moment some weird shit goes down; and pshaw plus VAT that he routinely manages ten or twelve shots from said six shooter between fumbled reloadings.
‘The Beyond’ transcends logic and narrative coherence. All Fulci is interested in is generating an atmosphere of mounting terror. From the outset, before we’ve even got to the faces dissolving in acid or the gouged-out eyeballs, there’s a sense of something off-kilter. A handful of early manifestations – a painter startled by a figure in an unoccupied room; a service bell buzzing from an equally empty room – suggest a haunted house story in the classic tradition. Then Fulci ramps things up with Joe the plumber’s unfortunate transgression. After which – pardon the pun, but it really is the most apposite expression – all hell breaks loose. From hereon in, all bets are off. We’re in a fractured and disturbed cinematic space in which anything can happen.
Which isn’t to say that ‘The Beyond’ is simply a chaotic frenzy of gruesome set-pieces, one piling up against the other like a train wreck or a multiple-vehicle smash up. The craftsmanship behind the film is too artful and attentive to detail. The opening sequence sets up visual motifs which are revisited throughout the film:
Likewise, a striking shot of the mysterious blind girl Emily (Cinzia Monreale) and her guide dog standing stoically in the middle of a deserted highway is echoed in the existentially shattering final scene where Liza and John find themselves on a pathway of an entirely different sort.
‘The Beyond’ is a film better experienced than analysed, even though I do say so after expending a thousand words on it. In his rejection of logic and conventional narrative, Fulci achieves the illogical but inescapable fragmentary narrative of a dream, one palpitating onrush of primal horror or revulsion lurching into the next, one grotesque image supplanted by another until they sear the mind with a sort of visceral poetry, the entire nightmare suffused with enough pointers towards the corporeal world to make you wonder whether you’re not in fact dreaming and the bottom has simply dropped out of reality.