From among the Video Nasties

Thirteen films into the Video Nasties Edition of the Summer of Blood, there's been a few predominately worthwhile movies here and there, surrounded by movies that are bad enough to be hilariously entertaining and (rather more often) movies that are bad enough to be fucking bad. But all this time, I've had an ace up my sleeve. Knowing that it was far likelier than not that as full summer of Nasties would be just as aesthetically vacant as my three summers of slasher films, I made a specific point of scheduling myself a little present, in this, the second-to-last week of this year's program: The Beyond, widely regarded as the masterpiece of the great Italian horror director Lucio Fulci, and a film which, to my immense shame, I've never gotten around to seeing, despite proudly claiming Fulci as one of my all-time favorite genre filmmakers.

The background to this particular example of the under-appreciated genius's art - and not to spoil the surprise, but I'm in pretty much complete agreement with the conventional wisdom on this one - takes us to the mid-1970s, at a time when the giallo, Italy's visually exquisite, narratively dotty tradition of hyper-violent murder mysteries, was starting to run out of steam. It was in 1975 that Dario Argento released Deep Red, the last of the greatly important "true" gialli, and following that moment, the country's giallo specialists found themselves thrashing about a bit. Fulci himself had been away from the genre since 1972's Don't Torture a Duckling, but he had yet to find serious success in his attempts to find a new voice with a pair of White Fang adaptations and the extremely solid but behind-the-curve Western Four of the Apocalypse. His return to the giallo, 1977's The Psychic, failed to boost his sagging profile (though it is a damn fine example of the form), and it was perhaps only a matter of sheer luck that the filmmaker managed to get in on the ground floor of the soon to explode Italian zombie genre, helming the epochal Zombi 2 in 1979.

Having at last found huge success in the horror field, Fulci managed to ride the new wave of Italian zombies into a brief string of greatness to rival his giallo period, though by the mid-1980s he'd begun to slide again, and never really recovered. Still, that gave him time to produce three of the most unique films in horror history, typically called "zombie" movies only because there's not any other really usefully descriptive way to categorise them (the "portal to hell" movie is indeed a subgenre, though a fairly obscure one). Often referred to as Fulci's "Hell Trilogy", these are 1980's City of the Living Dead/Gates of Hell, and 1981's The Beyond/7 Doors of Death and The House by the Cemetery (the last two made the Nasties list, though neither was successfully banned), broadly connected by the idea that the wall between the world of the living and the afterlife is rather more porous than we'd all like.

It is, then, with the second of these films that we are presently concerned (its Italian title, E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà, has the zesty translation And You Will Live in Terror! The Beyond). The story and the conceptual hook are essentially one and the same: there is a hotel in Louisiana which is situated directly over one of the seven gates to Hell, and the young woman who has just inherited the property gets to find out the hard way what that entails. As first conceived by Fulci and story-writer Dardano Sacchetti, this was meant to be plotless in an unusually literal sense: not much more than a series of disjointed shock scenes, all centered around the presence of pure evil in an old hotel. Fulci's Germany distributors, however, wanted zombies; and something mostly like zombies they got (especially in the final scenes). The core of the film remains almost exactly what the filmmakers wanted in the first place, though: New Yorker Liza Merrill (Catriona MacColl, with the Americanised name "Katherine" in the credits - she's a London native) would like to restore the Seven Doors Hotel to operating capacity, but Something has other plans, and goes to violent lengths to get its wish. We in the audience know a lot more about the terrible history of the Seven Doors than Liza will ever learn, though even we are still mostly left to be buffeted about by the capricious bends of the plot, which is coherent as far as such things go, though only in the sense of "it describes actions in an order that is easy to follow" and not in the sense of "you'll know what the hell happened and why at the end of it".

The Beyond opens with one of the strongest scenes to be found in Fulci's filmography - one of the strongest scenes, indeed, in Italian horror. In 1927, a mob of angry men storms the Seven Doors, looking for a painter named Schweick (Antoine Saint-John), declaiming him as a warlock, despite his protestations that he is the only thing that stands between them and something evil. They brutally murder him, and entomb his body behind a cement wall in the basement.

Oho, but that doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what this magnificent opening is all about. It plunges us swiftly and mercilessly into the atmosphere and violence that will define all of The Beyond, which is itself as beautiful and gory simultaneously as any film of its vintage. Shot in sepia tone, one half-wonders if it was conceived as nothing but an excuse for Fulci and his regular cinematographer, Sergio Salvati, to show off how gosh-darned talented they were; if you know two things about Fulci's aesthetic, the second (after his love for outrageous, poetic gore, high even for an Italian) is the abandon with which he wielded the contrast between light and dark, and of course that contrast is inherently more obvious in monochrome than in color.

The sequence also reveals the artists to have that rarest of all gifts: the ability to compose images using the widescreen ratio of 2.35:1 in ways that not only possess an abstract beauty all their own, but also create a narrative and emotional mood simply from the way they relate objects to one another. That Fulci was a great visual director, I knew; that he and Salvati created one of the most perfect anamorphic-widescreen horror films in history, I did not know, until those first images of The Beyond came to life before me. Woe to that one who only sees the film in its original American VHS edit, titled 7 Doors of Death! Not only is it cut badly, making its deliberately unclear story simply muddled, it reduces this fine widescreen images into pan-and-scan monstrosities - I haven't seen the film, but I cannot fathom that it would be even slightly as effective without the total effect of the constantly perfect compositions driving it.

The visuals are, in fact, such an essential element of how the film functions, I've felt obliged to provide some frames - taking a moment to point out as I do so that the first of these (which is, for all intents and purposes, the first shot of the movie) is such an obvious reference to Sunrise that I'm simply taking it as given that Fulci and Salvati knew that's exactly what they were doing.

The fogginess of that first image, and the perfect geometry of the spots of light, calling specific attention to the men in the boats; in the second, the dramatic light from below, splashing against the hotel exterior, giving it an ominous feel, while those black, slablike cars thrust a wall between us and the building - a wall of pitch dark; and the way in which the focus and the use of light and dark objects in the third send your eye scurrying down the hall ahead of the mob, taking in details quickly as you end at the nervous porter; I didn't choose these images entirely at random, though I almost could have in this sequence and stumbled upon three equally driving moments. That's how much care went into the lighting and composition of every shot - not just in this sepia opener, but in the entire feature.

In this sequence, we are also pitched into the on-edge mood of the film, thanks to inserts of a wide-eyed young woman (Cinzia Monreale, under the name "Sarah Keller") reading a book simply titled Eibon, as a storm rages. Where she is in relation to the mob, we cannot say for certain; but her descriptions of the writings of that man Eibon neatly align to the ravings of poor Schweick, talking all kinds of madness about the doors to hell as the mob drags him from room 36, down to the basement, where he will be whipped with iron scourges and nailed to the concrete wall with thick spikes, and then covered in quicklime, in a scene whose gut-wrenching depiction of the mortification of the flesh is not one degree less convincing or nauseating than the same material in The Passion of the Christ, 23 years later.

54 years after all of this, things play out more or less how they must: Liza flitters about, clashing politely with employees Martha (Veronica Lazar) and Arthur (Giampaolo Saccarola) - "They came with the place", she explains, but the darker meaning of this never gets touched upon - and making plans with designer Martin (Michele Mirabella), which include among other things the disposition of the faintly unpleasant painting left by none other than the late artist Schweick, a grey-tone piece showcasing what appear to be dead bodies lying in a stony desert. Meanwhile, she picks up information about the town from local doctor John McCabe (David Warbeck). But all of this is mostly incidental: if the beginning didn't tell us what we needed to know about something very wrong lying in wait within the Seven Doors Hotel, there are other clues: a workman falls and ends up in the hospital (this is where John enters the story, in fact), after seeing two chalky white eyes - blind eyes, from the look of it - staring out of an upper-story window; and the man that Liza hires to deal with the flooded basement, Joe the plumber (Giovanni De Nava) - yes, called exactly that, and if your mind just flashed to "I wonder if Sarah Palin is a huge fan of The Beyond", you are not alone - cracks open a wall, and naturally enough, out comes a hideously withered hand, and gouges out poor Joe's eye in the process of killing him.

From there on out, things happen pretty naturally (particularly if you've boned up on your H.P. Lovecraft): the exhumed corpse of old Schweick starts making the rounds, bringing bodies to life everywhere he goes; while Liza makes a new friend in the form of Emily (Monreale again; hmm, important?), a blind woman of a certain otherworldly mien. That is to say, she's some kind of ghost, which is a fact we're meant to notice instantly (her eyes look exactly like whatever frightened that worker off his scaffold), giving the film a real hell of a kick as we sit around, watching Liza meander about aimlessly, waiting for whatever the hell Emily portends to happen. People die like flies - flies dying hideously violent deaths, involving tarantulas chewing on their tongues and beakers of acid and the like - and what it all means is a matter for conjecture, because we get just enough concrete information that it's really damn hard to fit any of it together perfectly.

The narrative incoherence present in the film, endemic to Italian horror filmmaking for a decade on either side of 1981, was probably never as well-suited to the topic at hand as in Fulci's Hell Trilogy: and The Beyond turns it into flat-out art. It is something of a perfect horror movie. The genre, as I have argued and others have argued before me, is all about the interruption of the quotidian by the uncanny; horror, that is, is the presence of inexplicable danger in the face of the most banal kind of normality. It's hard to think of a better way to describe The Beyond than "inexplicable", the plot rolls along so capriciously and arbitrarily. Both Liza and John explicitly describe themselves as rationalists: she on account of growing up in New York, he on account of a medical degree. And of course they are both completely wrong, and to prove it the movie surrounding them has nothing of the rational about it.

Functioning as little more than a chain of shocks and unsettling, protracted scenes of violence, The Beyond wears its theme right in its structure. Head towards it with the assumption that it will all hang together in some traditional sense, and you're going to be horribly upset, which is not just part and parcel of Italian horror, it's uniquely appropriate - the film is quite literally a depiction of all Hell breaking loose, which would tend to be the kind of experience that doesn't nicely fit into pre-conceived notions of what a movie ought to act like. This is present not just in the creation of the visuals, but in the fragmented editing (even in the most generically typical sequence, the zombie shoot-out), and the sound design: like most Italian films until the end of the '80s, The Beyond was not shot with sync-sound, but unlike all but the very best of them, it boasts a soundtrack that goes far beyond its creepy music in the creation of an impossible, otherworldly mood. The sound effects in this film are all over the place, with the hair-raising specter of tarantulas that crawl around with metallic scraping noises getting my vote for most entirely fucking eerie.

Even Fulci's most characteristic quirks take on a new meaning here. He was known as an "eye" director: one of his most notable gore effects is the eye-gouge, of which there are a staggering three here (or rather, two and one "honorary", so to speak). But the imagery goes beyond literal eye-popping. One of the most typical kinds of shots in the film is the close-up of a character's eyes, filling the frame; blindness is an important recurring narrative motif. There's a sense in some moments in which the film is looking back at us: late in the film, there is an entirely unmotivated scene which consists of one shot only, of Liza staring straight into the camera, breathing hard. This constant emphasis on eyes insistently reminds us of perception, of the act of watching, of the act of visual interpretation; and deprived of any narrative coherence, visual interpretation is just about the only thing The Beyond gives us.

The period clustered around the end of the '70s was a marvelous time for this kind of artistic horror that was so committed to its creation of an uncanny, supernaturally irrational world that the film itself promotes incoherence within the viewer's brain; just preceding The Beyond, 1977 and '80 begot Argento's Suspiria and Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, respectively. Together, the three films represent a high-water mark for horror before and after: incredibly well-crafted, creating an unearthly vision of horror through a delicate combination of scenario, image, and sound. The Beyond is the ultimate expression of everything in Fulci's career: with this one film, he secured an unassailable (if regrettably obscure) position in history, and arguably achieved the greatest success ever in turning the one evident weakness of all Italian horror into an incontrovertible strength.

See also: a gallery of images from The Beyond

Body Count: 9 people are at one point seen alive, and later seen dead, plus a dog. It could well be 11; what happens to Liza and John at the end is probably closer to being dead than otherwise...

Nastiness Rating: 5/5, truly Nasty. I decided to commit myself to that rating during the scene when a little girl backs away in stunned alarm from the red, foamy pool that used to be her mother's flesh; and then the wildly protracted "tarantulas devouring a man's face" scene came along and confirmed it. The opening sequence, with its torture-porn quality scourging and skin-melting was really just a cherry at that point. Also, observe that this film was not successfully banned, while the "we've got tempera paint and sheep parts!" gaudiness of Blood Feast was, and reflect with me upon the asininity of the DPP over this whole Video Nasty thing in the first place.