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April 21, 2015

The Beyond

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Lucio Fulci - 1981
Grindhouse Releasing BD Region A

I first saw The Beyond as a midnight show in the summer of 1998. At the time I had mistakenly thought that the re-issuing of the film was primarily the work of Quentin Tarantino, only to learn much later that most of the heavy lifting was done by Grindhouse founders Bob Murawski and Sage Stallone. Tarantino's participation was in his clout as a brand name, bringing attention to a handful of films through his short-lived Rolling Thunder distribution company. I had recalled the original American release title, Seven Doors of Death, but had never seen anything by Fulci, limiting myself in my pre-DVD/Netflix days exclusively to films by Dario Argento when it came to Italian horror.

Like others who have seen The Beyond, I loved the final minutes of the film when the two main characters, Liza and John, try to escape from the zombies, only to end up in a desert-like environment with a few scattered bodies in the landscape. It is the landscape that is in a painting made by an artist, murdered for black magic at the beginning of the film. Are they in hell? We know that the flooded basement passageway covered a legendary portal to hell. A white film covers their eyes. They are blind with nowhere to go. And then they seem to evaporate, to disappear into the painting. Those final minutes provide some wonderful dreamlike imagery.

What put my off that first viewing was that The Beyond made no sense. Especially distressing was that John would figure out that the only way to stop marauding zombies was to shoot them in the head, only to forget seconds later, and ineffectively shoot them in the chest, wasting bullets. There seemed to be an absence of any kind of internal logic.

Over the years, I've seen several Fulci films. My own preference is for the films that might be considered more conventional, One on Top of the Other and Lizard in a Woman's Skin. I might not be an enthusiast, but I figure that I should have some familiarity with Fulci, as well as now being more familiar with several of his peers. Also, I am more aware of the some of the requirements of popular Italian cinema as opposed to the films that appear at the art house and film festival. In terms of writing seriously about Lucio Fulci, the best approach may be as if one is watching a film by Terrence Malick - don't expect or demand a traditional narrative, and allow yourself to encounter the film on its own terms.

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So back to The Beyond. The blu-ray is gorgeous. Of course this is subjective on my part, but I think that the best way to appreciate The Beyond is to think of it as the cinematic equivalent to an amusement park haunted house ride. There is no story. It's a short journey with ghosts, goblins, witches and skeletons popping out of the dark to scare you, make you laugh, or maybe both at the same time. And when you really think about dreams, they don't make any sense, especially when at one point you're in some kind of room, and then you're suddenly in the mountains (at least in my dreams). So when John and Liza exit the zombie ravaged hospital and suddenly find themselves in the flooded basement, there may be no literal connection, but it is the kind of connection one might find in a dream.

Even though the top billed actors are Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck, the real star is Cinzia Monreale. As the mysterious and blind Emily, it is her image that has become iconic for The Beyond. That Catriona MacColl is driving the long and empty Lake Pontchartrain Causeway alone is magical in itself. Looking ahead and seeing nothing but a straight line that seems to have no end is strange enough. But stranger is a blind woman with her guide dog, standing in the middle of this highway. How did she get there? How could she know that Liza was driving? It's a terrific image that keeps on getting reproduced in various posters, and even inspired what is euphemistically called an action figure.

The nice thing about the blu-ray is seeing just how good the special effects are. The bristles on those flesh eating tarantulas really stand out. And while one might argue on who would dumb enough to leave an open bottle of sulphuric acid on a table, that scene with the melting face is effective. Eyes are gouged, flesh is ripped, and blood spurts out by the gallon. What ever arguments are to be made for or against this vivid presentation of violence, there can be no argument regarding the artistry at work here.

On a purely aesthetic level, a shot of MacColl, illuminated in part by the light filtered through a blue curtain, took my breath away. Cinematographer Sergio Salvati supervised the transfer. There are enough quiet moments to appreciate the use of color, especially the warm brown tones in many of the interior shots. The film takes place in New Orleans, and the exterior shots in and around the city help in creating the sometimes other worldly atmosphere.

There are loads of extras, but among the best is a brief introduction to The Beyond by a still very attractive Catriona MacColl. Definitely make a point of listening to the commentary track recorded by MacColl and the very funny David Warbeck. Done for a laserdisc release shortly before Warbeck's death in 1997, the two exchange stories about their experiences not only in making The Beyond, but their other work with Fulci. There is also Warbeck's joke about a pair of cannibals that almost made me fall out of my seat from laughter.

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Posted by peter at April 21, 2015 08:10 AM