There are really only two ways to tell a good scary story. There is the horror outside, such as a clearly defined slasher or a creature, and the horror within, where who you can trust is often in doubt, even within ones own self. Whittling this down further, there is the endless debate of whether or not film makers should show the audience the villain, such as a monster, ghost or slasher, or hide it and hope the viewer creates a much more disturbing and personally frightening image in their mind than any film maker could ever conceive. Fulci however, seemed unconcerned with these dilemmas, and in throwing caution to the wind, managed to mix and match these concepts while avoiding the pitfalls that befall many genre directors. Fulci was the master of, if nothing else, making films that are full of the grisly and revolting payoffs scenes many horror fans live for, regardless of the consequences that came about due to censorship or the possibility of compromising the artistic merit of his work. The Beyond may be the best example of him balancing this conundrum, as it is full of vile gore and grotesque imagery, while still having an abundance of impressive visual feats and palpable atmosphere and energy.
The plot, like so many of its brethren, is easily summed up in just a few short lines, but that isn’t to say it isn’t entirely serviceable and enjoyable. A young woman inherits a run down old Hotel in New Orleans, and after a series of murderous supernatural happenings, comes to find out that it is built upon a doorway to “The Beyond”, a place eerily similar to many folks concept of what Hell must be like. This story falls in line with the “building fascination” that was sweeping the genre’s landscape at the time which would see old houses, hotels, mansions, or shacks in the wilderness being portals, gateways, or incubators for malicious spirits, creatures, or people. Unlike some of its contemporaries though (most notably The Shining), The Beyond doesn’t drag its feet when it comes to pacing, and delivers some of the most stomach turning and memorable kills in the history of film.
But before I jump into what may be this films strongest suit, which is the nauseating bloodletting and effects, let me first touch on the acting, which, much to your surprise or chagrin, is actually a notch above what you have probably come to expect from Italian grind house style shock flicks. The reason for this is simple. David Warbeck and Catriona (or as she is billed in this flick, Katherine) MacColl. MacColl isn’t your typical scream queen type female lead, and instead of rooting for her death, I find myself being endeared by her and her struggle more and more through every viewing. She is also easy on the eyes, but doesn’t look out of place for being the “normal girl” that her character is. She doesn’t look like a super model who was stuck in a horror movie, in other words. And she has the legitimate acting chops to give what could have been a transparent and predictable persona a modicum of significance and strength, traits you don’t often find in female leads, especially in this genre. David Warbeck plays your more standard “straight” character, who over time gets embroiled in the other-worldly goings-ons of the ramshackle hotel that has a knack for relieving its inhabitants of their very lives, only to bring them back again to due its bidding. He is a Doctor, which logically plays nicely into why he would even be around the house, but other than sewing up a body, his duties are relegated to suspicion over the creepy hotel followed by delivering some .357 caliber aspirin to the shuffling undead. Together however, MacColl and Warbeck have a fair amount of chemistry (please note however, there is NO romantic subplot in this film) on screen, and make for likable and easily watchable leads. Cinzia Monreale deserves a mention as well, as she plays Emily, a blind girl who has a bit of a history with the hotel. The supporting cast is made of of mostly dubbed Italian actors Fulci had undoubtedly brought over to America to fill out his cast, and while they do a decent job of playing the small roles they have, there purpose is to enhance the creepy factor with their distinct faces and be cannon fodder for the deadly forces at work within the hotel.
One thing Fulci may never get credit for was his actual directing, which is ironic since he is best known for being a director. What I mean by that is, the first thing people notice or hear about his films is the gratuitous gore and poetic death sequences, but rarely do I find folks even giving mere mention to his penchants for proper framing, his use of off center portrait shots, his use of lightning, slow motion, etc. In terms of strictly exemplifying his directing prowess, The Beyond may not be the strongest example, but it isn’t the weakest by a long shot. Fulci was, in my eyes, great at using shadows, he understood how to film at night without sacrificing image quality and clarity, and could use timing and framing to achieve some clever little boo scares which were often book-ended with some brutal slaying of some sort. In The Beyond specifically though, the scenes on the bridge, the opening murder of the “the painter”, and the final 15 minutes collectively are the best examples The Beyond puts forth in solidifying the case for Fulci’s actual talent. Much like Sam Raimi will never get enough credit for putting a camera on a long plank of wood and then running it through the woods to give the audience a point of view shot from the “things” perspective, Fulci seems to be struggling, even in death, to shake loose the shackles of being dubbed something as simple as a gore-hounds director. The Beyond is full of clever, neat, and tight shots, and the lighting and angles chosen, as well as the location and set design, all help to bring this one to life. Again, this may not be the best movie to make the case for Fulci and his legacy, but I am still taken back a bit by how clear and sharp this whole film looks, especially when you take into account the modest budget and its age.
And now to the really fun stuff. Technical package aside (it looks great, sounds good albeit a bit dated, and Fabio Frizzi’s score is haunting, but not his strongest work), what has made The Beyond into the famous, or infamous, picture that is today, is the incredibly abhorrent and vivid gore that hits with stunning frequency throughout the film. Zero computer interference, and all done in front of the camera, the effects on display prove that while other countries may be able to claim to have started the gore revolution, the Italians may have taken it to it’s apex. Giannetto De Rossi, one of my favorite maestros of the macabre, lends his talent to The Beyond, and reunites with Fulci to outdo himself and his work in Zombi 2. While Rossi’s most famous piece maybe be the slow, excruciating splinter in the eye from Zombi 2, his set of kills and make up in The Beyond impresses me more in its scope and its believability. I am tempted to explain in further detail how breathtaking, awe inspiring, and repulsive this all is, but I almost don’t want to ruin the surprise and the raw feeling you get when you see some of these slaughters and butchering for the first time unannounced. If you are particularly weak stomached, The Beyond may very well throw you over the edge, but if you consider yourself of fan or worshiper of phenomenal, old school, practical make up and gore effects, this is required viewing.
The Beyond is one of my favorite movies, and was one of the pictures that catapulted my ascension (or is that descent?) into the foreign and underground world of horror cinema. At first, it was an obsession with seeing the most hardcore and gross films I could hunt down, but with Fulci, in became something more than just the hunt for the ultimate 90 minute package of death. I had begun, all those years ago, to really appreciate movies for more abstract and ethereal reasons. After many years of having this one on the shelf, I was very pleasantly surprised, personally, to see how I liked it MORE this time around (this is my 8th or so viewing of it) than I did back when I was showing it to everyone who I could get to sit through it. There is a a semblance of class to The Beyond, and even a bit of an open-ended feel, which is counter-weighted by the easily celebrated special effects work. The atmosphere is just engrossing enough to work really well, without feeling like its trying to hard to amp up the creep factor by throwing a shitload of fog everywhere. And the point I may want to make the loudest is that this flick has some stunning image quality and clarity, even after all these years. If you are looking to begin digging into what the ill-fated Italian movie market had to offer in terms of no holds barred horror, The Beyond, and for that matter any of Fulci’s “horror” work, is as good a place to start as any. But even if you aren’t, and you just want a vaguely familiar feeling story with a unique European flair and no qualms about ratcheting up the tension, the body count, and opening up the floogates of the gore, The Beyond may just have some vacancies and be able to accommodate your stay. You may want to steer clear of room 36 however.