Sunday, March 29, 2009

Final Girl Film Club: "The Beyond"

Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond is one of the best films of the Italian Horror genre. The film is definitely better than most horror movies, and it is doubly better than most Italian horror movies. The problem some people have with the film is that it makes no sense and has no interest in following any kind of sensible or linear story path. Fulci was not interested in making stories that made sense, and really to his credit, The Beyond, for all of its craziness and inane moments, probably makes the most sense when held up to his other films. Fulci and the Italian's love to stylize things -- really ever since Fellini decided to abandon the neo-realist movement in Italy, all bets were off -- and Fulci takes after filmmakers not just within the horror genre. Look at some of the films of Bertolucci (like The Conformist) which are almost all style over substance; or the surreal, ethereal nature of Fellini’s final films; but Fulci’s style is mostly akin to the supernatural, non-linear stylings of Dario Argento. The Italian's had an eye for imagery and for how something could just pop on the screen; whether it be beautiful shadow play (like The Conformist) or the bright neon and somewhat otherworldly colors seen in Argento’s Suspiria, and Fulci’s The Beyond was no exception.

The "plot" of The Beyond, however, is another thing, and usually with Fulci you have more fun at the expense of the story, rather than actually being chilled or thrilled by it. The Beyond is about a favorite theme of Fulci's, the "gates of hell" being opened up for some reason by some ancient artifact or painting, or because a priest hangs himself (all themes from his films). Time travel also comes into play as do psychics and yes, even when they don't belong: zombies.

This was the first film in Fulci's "gates of hell" trilogy and it's his most accomplished work as a director. I could try to go on and on about how there are themes at work here and Fulci really was trying, but I would just be lying and trying to turn a hack filmmaker into something more than he could possibly be. There are a number of retrospectives by people who think Fulci was a great artist, and there are no doubts that he had the eye of a very astute student who studied the Italian masters. But I just don't think he can be taken too seriously. Now to his credit it was the producers who made him add a hospital full of zombies at the end of The Beyond, not Fulci, so he wasn't completely hack-tastic here. Fulci succeeds in making The Beyond one of those ethereal experiences I always attribute to Argento’s early work. Unfortunately for Fulci, this was about it for him as he would give up any remnants of talent he had for the easy buck, as he would finish his career with awful slasher films like The New York Ripper and Murder Rock. But what about this film, well it is indeed better than any other Fulci film, but if you are looking for a scary story – something that moves beyond the eeriness of the images, then you should probably look elsewhere.

The film opens when a warlock/artist in 1920's Louisiana paints something evil looking which ends up rousing the interests of a lynch mob. They burst into the 7 Doors Hotel (The butchered American version of the film is called The Seven Doors of Death) and find the man in room 36, they pour lots of quicklime (a favorite of the Italian's) on him as Fulci proceeds to film the scene in typical Italian horror film fashion. Meanwhile there is a little girl downstairs reading out of some book of the occult with a made up name. As the quicklime does its thing, the book (gasp) goes up in flames. That's about all of the story I can relate because there really isn't much else to tell. It's all set up for scene after scene of Fulci's most famous gore moments. And they’re good ones.

The best part about Italian horror (and especially Italian zombie) movies is the fact that things take so long to happen, usually with a really weird funky bass line or synth playing over the action. What easily begins as unsettling and somewhat unnerving, turns into a gross out fest that sometimes turns laughable because of how long the camera lingers on something so grotesque (the famous spider scene or the moment where acid burns off a ladies face are two scene’s that come to mind). Often times these loooong moments of gore seem like filler, and other times they work in evoking a sense of otherworldiness that displaces the viewer and unsettles the nerves, but whatever the affect one thing is for certain: it's no wonder Fulci didn't tighten things up through the editing process, the film would only be 50 minutes long.

In the opening scene mentioned above the mob pour quicklime on the artist and for about two minutes you get to listen Fabio Frizi's synth play over the imagery while the calcium oxide does its thing. Skin pops, eyes fall out, and then if that weren't enough, Fulci has to nail the dude up to the wall. It's a pretty brutal scene that gives the viewer a sense of things to come and showcases some of what made Fulci so popular with Zombi 2; here he ups the ante substantially.

(Back to the “plot”) Well sure enough cut to present day and the heroine Liza buys up the hotel where the artist was murdered. During the remodel she notices a bad leak in one of the rooms. She calls Joe the plumber and he goes down to investigate. Well this takes him under the hotel and face to face with the artist...who is now a zombie! It's all academic from there as poor Joe the Plumber dies by means of Fulci's favorite death: injury to eye.

The injury to eye death is seen all through Italian horror and Fulci was the master of it. This shot usually consisted of the cheap scare of something that you think is dead springing to life and grabbing the face of the living. This leads to a POV shot and once again the plodding camera of Fulci lingers on things just long enough so we realize how fake things look and how horrible the violence is going to be. Once we (as Joe) see that the fingers are going straight for the eye socket...out it goes. Once Joe is dead, the picture the artist painted reappears and dun dun dun...the gates of hell have been opened.

Another scene that is brilliantly strange and hilarious is when some guy (you can tell just how defined these characters are, I've seen the film numerous times and don't even remember characters names) who is researching the gates of hell and the weird occurrences around town and the hotel climbs a ladder in the hotel to reach an old book about the hotel’s history. For no reasoning whatsoever lightening strikes and what started out as a normal scene turns into something so bizarre and hilarious I think I'll just let you see it for yourselves:

Click here to watch video

Again, the staples of Fulci's "craftsmanship" are at work here. The scene goes on forever, the spiders make a ridiculous hissing noise, they chomp when they eat this guys flesh as if they were the Simpson's sitting down for dinner, and I love how they could only afford two real tarantulas, the others are obviously fake and are set on the actor all while the obviously real spiders crawl onto him. It's wonderful isn't it? However, to Fulci’s credit, the scene is pretty squirm inducing.

There are other great moments like when the zombie artist (remember him) is hooked up to a machine to indicate its heart rate (that should make it obvious what scene will follow), or how about when a beaker of acid (why is there acid just sitting around in a room of corpses?) tips over and eats away at an entire face for what seems like an eternity (again, Fulci getting every last minute out of his budget) and then that same acid slowly approaching a creepy girl in what looks like jell-o; also in this same scene, how does the girl escape? We don’t know because Fulci just ends the scene with the girl screaming, looking up at all the zombies about to attack her in the morgue. But the girl comes back later in the movie (in what is probably the most famous death in the movie, and perhaps in all of Italian Horror).

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Or, how about the scene where a blind girl gets eaten alive by her seeing eye dog in an obvious homage to Dario Argento's Suspiria? All of these are wonderfully memorable scenes from what is one of the seminal horror films.

The Beyond is full of wonderful gory death scenes, and that is why it's fondly remembered and so fervently sought out. Every low budget independent zombie (or regular horror) film made today in some way borrows Fulci's philosophy and style of gory filmmaking. Watch when Joe the Plumber’s (I swear the McCain/Palin campaign stole from Fulci) wife is shocked to see her dead husband approach her. There is a spike in the wall right behind her and then watch how long this scene takes to develop. The pay off is great, and you can see this pacing today in gory torture porn like Hostel and Saw. There's also a head being shot off and glass from a window somehow finding its way onto some poor guys face. If Fulci knew anything, he knew that if you had to wait for the big bad gory moment, it made it all the better.

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Fulci never made anything as good as The Beyond. For all of the crap I am giving it, the film really does look good on DVD, and Fulci was good a creating an eerie atmosphere and some really nice shots (I especially like the shot of the little crazy girl with no pupils on a vast and expansive highway) that created a unique, ethereal (there’s that word again, but it works so well when talking about Italian horror) mood rare to the horror genre. I would liken it to what Wes Craven did with A Nightmare on Elm Street where you never knew what was real and what was fantasy (and actually Fellini’s 8 ½ , too); however, where Nightmare creates an unsettling feeling as you watch, The Beyond fails to reach that kind of unnerving of our emotions. For example, Fulci never really takes the material seriously or really approaches it at all. Secondly, the Italian filmmakers had Fulci's blueprint from Zombi 2 on every set, so screenplays received very little attention, because they knew the blueprint for making enough money that would insure they could finance their next movie -- Italian hack-filmmaker Umberto Lenzi is a perfect example of this "blueprint theory", only working once with both the cannibal (Cannibal Feroux) and zombie genre (Nightmare City); however, both were arguably his two most famous and profitable films -- This blueprint causes the zombie moments of The Beyond (read: the ending of the film) to feel flat and passé . However, the rest of the film is daringly original, unlike most horror films of that era.

Some would prefer to see The Beyond as a really crappy film, but I prefer to view through the lens of ethereal horror that displaces the viewer, and it's wonderfully fun camp, too. I can see why Tarantino loved the movie enough to give it a midnight revival in the late 90's. The film has many charms, looks great, has hilarious dubbing, and some of the iconic gore moments in all of horror cinema. If you're a horror fan, there should be no reason that you haven't seen this film yet.

Fulci would go on to complete his trilogy with his other famous gore fest The House by the Cemetary (City of the Living Dead was the first film of the “gates of hell” trilogy), but neither film is quite as good or memorable as The Beyond, because of the tripe that Fulci was making in the late 80’s and 90’s. What made The Beyond so special was that it was so utterly different from anything being released at the time, and was truly the last great work Fulci’s name would be attached to.

The Beyond should be seen by anyone interested in film. It's amazing how under-appreciated some of the Italian filmmakers are. Even if they create stories that are completely incoherent I don't think that should be held against them, I think it adds to the strangeness of the experience that is an Italian horror film. Plus, if audiences today can praise directors from the likes of Michael Bay to indie darling Michel Gondry for creating films that are nothing but style over substance, then I think these Italian filmmakers like Fulci and Soavi and Argento deserve to be revisited and examined under a less scrutinizing lens.


  1. How can I add anything to this when you've covered it all. Perfectly encapsulates what makes me enjoy The Beyond so much.

    So are we down for some Fulci giallo now to see if he was able to add anything to that genre or find out that it's all New York Ripper quality?