30 years later, From Beyond is Lovecraft at his kinkiest

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Oct 28, 2016, 1:31 PM EDT

The creators of the classic Re-Animator got even weirder when they returned for a second helping of H.P. Lovecraft.

The legendary horror writer's 1920 short story "From Beyond," published in 1934, is generally not regarded as one of the man from Providence's finer works; in fact, like his serialized story "Herbert West - Reanimator," it is rated near the bottom of Lovecraft's bibliography. Yet, just as he created a classic horror film out of "Herbert West" with Re-Animator in 1985, director/screenwriter Stuart Gordon squeezed lemonade out of a lemon with his 1986 movie From Beyond, which came out 30 years ago this week and remains perhaps the most perverse adaptation of Lovecraft ever to hit the screen.

Very loosely adapted from the seven-page short story, From Beyond opens with Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) and his assistant Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) experimenting with a device called the Resonator that may be able to stimulate the pineal gland and allow humans to perceive what lies beyond the surface of reality. But the process goes awry and Pretorius ends up apparently dead, with Tillinghast accused of his murder.

A subsequent investigation by Tillinghast's psychiatrist, Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton), and the detective on the case, Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree), reveals that Tillinghast's pineal gland has mutated and that the Resonator may in fact be responsible for Pretorius' death. The three of them head back to Pretorius' house, where they rebuild the Resonator and learn that it opens the gateway to a dimension filled with malevolent creatures -- and a still-living and transformed Pretorius, who seeks to devour all three and keep the doorway between the dimensions open.

As he did with Re-Animator, Gordon took Lovecraft's material -- which is often based on an unreliable first-person point of view and features hints of the horrors contained within the story instead of displaying them outright -- and turned it into a surreal, gruesome, trippy journey into excess that was equal parts outrageous and unsettling. If anything, there's a bit less humor in From Beyond than Re-Animator, but a stronger connection to Lovecraft's best-known themes -- such as the thin walls separating our reality from other, more nightmarish ones -- and a lot more perversity.

The brave Barbara Crampton, who endured a severed head performing oral sex on her in Re-Animator, submits to the material again here as the Resonator turns her prim, repressed Dr. McMichaels into a raging sex bomb, complete with leather dominatrix gear, who starts to get busy with the mutating Tillinghast and then tries seducing the cop for good measure (and how nice to see the great Foree from Romero's Dawn of the Dead in that role). As for Tillinghast himself, Jeffrey Combs -- who played Herbert West in Re-Animator -- also goes through the wringer, playing the meek assistant to Sorel's insane, obsessed mad scientist, a funny switch from his megalomaniacal West.

With Crampton and Combs both returning from Re-Animator, Gordon hoped to launch a series of Lovecraft films using the same company of actors for each -- sort of what Roger Corman did with his hugely successful series of movies based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe in the 1960s. To this end, he kept the same crew together from Re-Animator: also reprising their duties on From Beyond were screenwriter Dennis Paoli, producer Brian Yuzna, director of photography Mac Ahlberg and FX artists John Carl Buechler and John Naulin.

To keep costs down, Gordon shot From Beyond at a studio called Dinocitta in Italy. He estimated that while the movie might have cost $15 million to make if he had worked in the States, filming it at Dinocitta kept the budget to less than $3 million. Even with the relatively low price tag, and with Re-Animator already proven to be a hit, From Beyond still ran out of money toward the end, and the effects for the finale were not finished to Gordon's satisfaction. 

Once the film was completed, however, it ran afoul of the MPAA rating board, which initially refused to give From Beyond an "R" rating because of the movie's plentiful gore and violence. Going out unrated or with an "X" would have severely hampered the movie's commercial distribution (the "NC-17" rating was still four years away, not that it would have helped either). Gordon ended up trimming some of the more extreme shots, although he later claimed to have not excised a single scene in its entirety. An unrated cut of the movie, restoring about five minutes of the removed footage, was released on DVD in 2007 and on Blu-ray in 2013.

Thirty years later, how does From Beyond rate? Quite well, actually. It's darker than Re-Animator but still features the same nihilistic tone that the earlier film had. It's also much more explicit in terms of the way it conflates sexuality, body horror and supernatural manifestations: Frankly, it's hard to imagine that Lovecraft might even recognize the DNA of his own work. But From Beyond, like Re-Animator, is enormously entertaining, weird and rewatchable: Even though he used the works of Lovecraft as a springboard for his own weird personal nightmares, Gordon was respectful in his own strange way to Lovecraft's vision simply by the fact that he possibly introduced the author's name to a whole new audience while using the Lovecraft mythos as his own powerful inspiration.

Gordon has in fact returned to Lovecraft several more times, with Castle Freak (1995), Dagon (2001) and the "Dreams in the Witch-House" episode of Masters of Horror (2005), but this and Re-Animator ae still his finest achievements in that realm (even though the latter two are arguably a bit more faithful). As for the cast, Crampton firmly cemented her status as a horror sex symbol and continues to work regularly in the genre (including the recent We Are Still Here and You're Next). Combs and Foree have consistently stayed active in horror as well, with Combs having a successful run playing nine different characters on various Star Trek series. 

Gordon's dream of a long-running series of Lovecraft adaptations may not have come to pass as he envisioned, and the author himself may have frowned disapprovingly at some of the liberties that Gordon took with his material, but we're still grateful that we have Re-Animator and From Beyond as singularly weird and wonderful trips into his canon.