At some point near the hair-whitening apex of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond — namely a final sequence that feels like a Bosch hellscape dripping from the screen — a spider emerged from the cushions of our relatively new couch.
Unlike the bulbous, hairy and hungry spiders that obliterate the face of a character in The Beyond — accompanied by some of the most disgusting Foley effects I’ve ever heard — this particular arachnid was small and easily smashed. (Yes, I try to repatriate spiders. Just not the ones dumb enough to reveal themselves after I’ve spent five minutes watching their bigger brothers devour someone in a movie.) Still, the symbolism was not lost on me. That creature somehow sensed, in a reverie of spider synesthesia, that the abominable sounds and apocalyptic visions emanating from my entertainment center were a comfort in which to find solace. It wasn’t wrong, no matter how little time it had to enjoy things.
When you’re already finicky about horror films, writing a feature story about the psychology of how they work to scare audiences only raises your guard even more. I know how emotional contagion works. I know you should really cover your ears. I know the conditioning behind the startle effect. I’m not incapable of being scared, but most movies have to really work for it.
Yeah. With The Beyond, Fulci crumped my usual comfort of detachment like soft, mottled fruit.
Despite the obvious surface appeal of, and curiosity for, titles like A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Four of the Apocalypse or A Cat in the Brain, I had not seen any Fulci films prior to this month. As Evan mentioned earlier, The New York Ripper was part of our annual No Sleep October marathon day. That film fed my William Lustig-fueled fascination for films about the days when New York was a cesspool shithole of crime and seediness — immaculately filmed, too, as an intriguing counterpoint to the parade of sleaze. However deeply dipped in poor taste, Ripper was playful. The Beyond is unrepentantly, unnervingly punitive.
It’s the middle movie of Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy, sandwiched between City of the Living Dead and The House by the Cemetery. I’ve not yet seen either of those, but if you’re going to jump into hell, why feel like you’ve got to do it in order? Set in New Orleans, The Beyond concerns Liza Merrill (Katherine MacColl), a New York woman who inherits the Seven Doors Hotel and plans to reopen it. Building permits can tell you a lot about the property you’ve bought. That it’s one of the seven gates of hell — and that your plumbing renovations will flood the place with more than just water — ain’t one of them.
Set in the 1920s South, the sepia-toned sadism of the prologue reveals Fulci’s unparalleled eye for gore, with a simultaneous crucifixion and melting of someone whom the town has deemed sinister. Fulci’s camera eye for bodies in anguish and anxiety is rivaled by few as well, and he rarely settles for the physical atrocities. Note the extreme close-up on the sweaty brow on a black man, who presumes the angry mob strolling in with guns is coming for him rather than an otherworldly evil so foul.
There are plenty of present-day developments in The Beyond concerning the rediscovery of an book known as Eibon, a cursed room and again, those goddamn spiders. But what transpires is less about narrative structure than the feeling that any codified system in which to believe is slipping away from you altogether … and that maybe you’ve made the choice, however subconsciously, to make that happen. Fulci may have made his movie nearly 40 years ago. But he understands how inexorable, and conscious, a descent into madness can become — that we lack the willpower to leave well, or hell, enough alone, even as our body continues to move with purpose but as if through sand.
How often do we occlude the obvious at our own peril? Hear the cackling of those nudging us toward annihilation but press on anyway? Understand but ignore the limits to curiosity without conscience or consequence? Worry little about the resultant pain delivered with great patience for maximum suffering? An invocation of hell seems like good cause to run, run away, but Fulci knows – as do Carpenter and King – that our inclination to follow it all the way down never really goes away. Finding the secret might unlock your mystery, but it can also unspool your sanity. The Beyond is a grinder through which you’re squeezed, and its ideas of the way history is erased with convenience and violence resonate as powerfully today as they might have to an Italian familiar with fascism. The pervasive themes of blindness visited upon nearly all those who attempt to read Eibon suggests the full, immutable truth is available only to those who would dictate it from seats of power.
More often than not, The Beyond reminded me of David Lynch, with a fever-dream macabre that makes terrific use of both New Orleans’ sea-level humidity as well as its occasional desolation and hopelessness. Little bits of film gate-jumping are clearly editorial gaffes but come to take on the context of a schism in the world. One moment recalls Lynch’s Black Lodge from Twin Peaks rendered in a sort of half-reality – what someone believes to be an escape but is instead an endless ellipses of anxiety and horror. There are other instances that feel like the panic of believing, perhaps beyond reason, that something terrible has happened to someone we love or, perhaps to less unrealistic ends, that the world as we understand it has simply ceased to be. That general abstraction carries through most of The Beyond, but there’s enough narrative to know that Liza has tired of being told what to do and will follow her own instincts at great cost.
One narrative moment that seems to be insurmountable for some folks is an instance of really, really ill-advised gun shooting from John McCabe (David Warbeck), a doctor who turns up to help Liza as otherworldly elements conspire against her. Let’s just say that John seems ill-attuned to observing that a shot to a zombie’s pancreas is not as good as one to its brainpan. It certainly seems ridiculous until you realize John is trapped in his own insistence upon reality in a world now so inverted that his organs might as well be on the outside of his body. To expect logic from hell is like expecting a flame to be judicious or a bullet to be discriminate about where you think it should land.
Indeed, The Beyond‘s co-writer Dardano Sacchetti (a longtime Fulci collaborator) has said the hotel and its characters are an excuse for “the weaving of pure emotions.” That sounds like pretentious justification for a film in which many bodies are dissolved under acid or maybe just an exit ramp for settling on a theme. But the very thesis of The Beyond is that viewing life as more than a linear path from birth to death — no matter how joyous or sad — is just a more comfortable form of entropy. And what happens when that system is erased? It’s anguish, it’s pain, it’s anxiety, and in its depiction of reality receding — slowly but most surely — like a distant shore into existential anarchy, The Beyond is pure, and putrid, horror brilliance.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is everyone’s No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2018
Blue Sunshine — James Ledesma
Spoorloos (The Vanishing) — Andrew Kimmel
The Devil’s Candy — Joshua Hull
FYFF Horror Marathon 2018 — Evan Dossey
Cat People (1942) — Aly Caviness
The Child’s Play Series — Salem
The Shining (1980) — Dave Gutierrez
Hellroller — Richard Propes
Poltergeist III — Greg Lindberg
Scream — Heather Knight
The Witch — Rick Dossey
The Frankenstein Cycle — Lou Harry
A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors — Sam Watermeier
Eastern Horrors — Alex Holmes
Unfriended — Austin Lugar
Freaks (1932) — Alys Caviness-Gober
As Above, So Below — Jonathan Curole
The Dentist — Mitch Ringenberg
The Halloween Franchise — Evan Dossey