“This hotel is one of the seven gateways to hell.”
I was surprised when I saw that Turner Classic Movies was showing Italian director Lucio Fulci’s 1981 (released in America in 1983) cult classic The Beyond on basic cable. The film’s grotesquely violent, containing some of the most intense violence I’ve seen in many films; they’re definitely some of Fulci’s most violent moments. TCM didn’t really censor anything either; the picture and sound is extraordinary and it contains all the violence that appears on the Anchor Bay DVD version. Naturally I recorded it.
The film begins in the early 20th century when a group of enraged townspeople torture and crucify a warlock. The scene is rather violent, with the mob lashing him and finally hanging him to die. Fast forward 60 years and a young woman named Liza (Katherine MacColl) just inherits the hotel the warlock died in. The hotel is Liza’s “last chance,” to make something good for herself. After the mysterious Emily (Sarah Keller), a blind woman with extremely pale eyes, an uncanny knowledge of Liza and the hotel, and a seeing eye dog named Dicky, arrives and warns Liza to leave, bad things start to happen. The hotel is one of the seven gates of hell, nestled over this quaint, rundown hotel. Along the way Liza meets Dr. John McCabe (David Warbeck), who’s skeptical of Liza’s supernatural stories and the two loosely bond throughout the film. The film is a mixture of Italian zombie fare and supernatural thriller, containing all the traits common to Fulci’s films – extreme gore, decent cinematography and lighting, and horrible, yet sometimes comedic dubbing. Zombi II contains a metaphysical explanation for the zombie outbreak and The Beyond also follows a similar thread; relying on unexplained phenomenon instead of concrete, corporeal explanations.
The first gore scene in the present features Joe the plumber (how ironic), called in by Liza to uncover the mystery of the flooded cellar. Following a theme common in this film, Joe’s eye is mutilated in his death. The character really receives no development, but he isn’t there for that – his job is dying cruelly. Joe also returns later, both in a hospital following his autopsy and in an impalement scene I’ll describe later. The hospital scene is particularly vile, where Joe’s wife is murdered presumably by Joe and has acid spilled on her body. Her daughter enters the morgue where she’s attacked and finds her body dissolving from the acid. The morgue’s white walls and overly bright lights distinguish this scene
Another memorable gore scene involves a gang of spiders attack Liza’s business partner in a public records room. After climbing on a ladder to retrieve the hotel’s building plans lightning strikes, accompanied by a roaring thunder crash, and the man falls off the ladder. Knocked unconscious by the fall, he only awakens when overtaken by the eight legged mob. The arachnids sound like both grating metal, almost unbearable and like somebody pressing into ground beef, recorded with a contact microphone. The sight of the spiders isn’t what causes anxiety, but rather the sound. When the spiders tear him apart it sounds like somebody ripping apart a head of lettuce. They take out pieces of his mouth, rip out his eyes, and mangle his tongue – all shown in graphic and prolonged detail. The scene’s violence is juxtaposed with the almost comic nature of the man’s fall. His reaction to the sudden flash seems out of character, resembling slapstick instead of actual fear, and his fall, accompanied with a loud misplaced scream, takes the suspense out of the scene – at least at the beginning. Fulci retakes the silly moment, implementing both grueling sound and visuals to make the scene nauseating. Between the excruciating sounds described above and the hyper-violent spider attack, Fulci successfully crafts a sadistic sight that’s one of his trademark cinematic moments.
Another scene, featuring Joe the plumber (again, how ironic) and Liza’s assistant Martha (Veronica Lazar) follows, and is a quality deviation on a theme from Zombi II (where a zombie pulls a woman towards a sharp wood splinter, piercing her directly in the eye before it breaks off). Martha’s cleaning out a bathtub that seems filled with blood when Joe, now a zombie, slowly emerges from the ooze and attack. This scene sets up nicely for its climax – Joe grabs Martha’s head and slowly begins descending towards a wall. Immediately the camera cuts to a spike hanging from the wall, informing the viewer of his objective. Gradually he pushes her back until he impales her head on the spike. Her eye pushes out of its socket and blood goes everywhere, causing a highly cringe-worthy moment. Considering not only Emily and the little girls’ eyes and his use of this trope before (both in this film and in many others), I’m certain Fulci believes the eyes are an important symbol. It’s possible he views them as the window into one’s soul, which is taken away when these are damaged or taken away.
Next Emily’s death happens with much fanfare, climaxing in a very graphic slow motion scene where her guide dog Dicky attacks her violently. Back at the hotel Emily finds herself surrounded by a group of the undead, commanding Dicky to attack. After a man versus zombie bout, implementing a chorus of quick cuts, the dog returns and kills her master. Although the dog appears phony, his assaults are vicious. The dog attacks her jugular, ushering out a bloody flood and other parts of her face. Fulci captures her death, especially the gushing blood, in slow motion, demonstrating the ghastly red deluge emanating from her. Even though the gore is unsettling, the lead-up is the more intense part. Her assailants appear in dark areas of the room, some more visually gruesome than others, and slowly advance. The uncertainty overshadows the violence and since Emily’s a main character it’s uncertain whether her demise is imminent.
After a confrontation between Liza and John (“I’m a doctor, I want a rational explanation!”), the two escape the house and head for the hospital. Along the way they notice eerily empty streets and a vacant hospital. After finding blood on a desk, zombies break through a window and attack Liza. Resembling mental patients, these zombies slowly approach the two as John shoots them. Supposedly only head shots take these corpses down and Fulci incorporates a great deal of gunshot wounds into the scene, accompanied with excessive blood coming from each hole. The two accidentally separate and Liza ends up in the morgue where she finds the Joe’s daughter. At the same time John finds another doctor in a room. However, their reprieve is short lived and the zombies return attacking the two and cornering them. Shooting open a window, large shards of glass land in John’s accomplice’s face, causing excessive bloodshed; John escapes.
Taking the little girl with them, John and Liza again confront the zombie horde. Another round of John Woo-like gunshots ensues and they end up fighting another group of carcasses in the morgue. Joe’s daughter turns on Liza and attacks her. John then shoots her square in the face, exploding the upper half of her head. As they escape they mysteriously end up in the hotel’s basement, where the film’s final scene begins. The duo finds themselves in a wasteland and the film’s final scene features the two surrounded by corpses in every direction. Their eyes now resemble Emily’s and as they stand in horror a voice states: “And you will face the sea of darkness and all therein that may be explored.” They’re in hell; not a Christian hell, but a never ending sea of death, surrounded by those who went before them. Instead of portraying hell as a fire filled torment, Fulci presents it as a hopeless void where one searches eternally for salvation and never finds it. It’s a bleak ending, carrying a frightening connotation.
I read earlier today that Fulci based his film on Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. Artaud’s cruelty isn’t necessarily visually vicious, instead relying on violent moments to reveal uncomfortable truths. I’m not 100% certain of Fulci’s intentions here; his ferocious depictions of violence don’t really impart uncomfortable truths in the same way Artaud’s theory and works do. Fulci’s moments do convey a sense of impermanence, of the fragility of the human body. They’re hard to watch at times, even though they possess absurdity and an almost comedic sense of exaggeration. Watching Fulci’s gore scenes doesn’t inspire an exploration of mortality, instead just meandering in the realm of grossness. They’re nasty but don’t contain the sadness or horror one receives when contemplating their own demise. Instead they rely on exploitation, on extremities to make them work. This isn’t necessarily a negative, but suggesting Fulci’s work intends a deep deliberation on life and death is invalid. Instead, the film’s conclusion is the most terrifying aspect of the film: a barren landscape where time has no meaning and eternal toil in misery awaits seems more petrifying than any of the graphically violent moments.
The Beyond presents Lucio Fulci at the height of his career, where his ideas still seem fresh and not adhering to a set of standards because of their economic viability. The film is part of a supernatural trilogy – also featuring City of the Living Dead and The House by the Cemetery – and is one of my favorites from the seminal horror legend. As I get older I find his films harder to enjoy; the excessive bloodshed doesn’t appeal like it did in my youth. Although I’m still young and hopefully have many years left, each day I realize that I’m one day closer to expiration and watching excessive violence doesn’t carry the same thrill as it did. Also, after years of violence following 9/11 and the American led conflicts that followed, violence for violence’s sake doesn’t hold the same appeal. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a good gore flick now and again, but the zeal I once held for the genre dwindles with time. I still believe Fulci’s films contain credibility and are enjoyable, but as time moves forward I’m can’t help distancing myself from crass representations of violence.
Here’s the trailer