Adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft are, all things considered, pretty rare; good adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft barely exist at all. So it's maybe more inevitable than surprising that the two best Lovecraft-derived films come from precisely the same filmmaking team: director Stuart Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna, co-writer Dennis Paoli, working under the aegis of Charles Band's Empire Pictures, with a score by Band's brother Richard, cinematography by Mac Ahlberg, editing by Lee Percy, and starring Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton in the lead roles. The first of these, 1985's Re-Animator, is so obviously the consensus pick for the all-time best film based on Lovecraft that I hardly feel that I need to say more on the matter; the second of these, 1986's From Beyond is maybe a bit less obvious, but I don't suppose anybody would much mind if I claimed without doing anything to back it up that it has a better reputation than e.g. 1970's The Dunwich Horror or (God help us) 1965's Die, Monster, Die!

Now, I have chosen my words - "Lovecraft-derived", "based on Lovecraft" - judiciously, because it's a fair argument that neither of the two films in question are actually particularly honest or true adaptations. Re-Animator junks most of the 1921 serial "Herbert West—Reanimator", which nobody much likes, so nobody much minds. From Beyond is based on a story written in 1920 and first published in 1934 that is, I think, not likely to show up on too many My Favorite Lovecraft lists (the narrative voice is awfully florid), but is at any rate tidier, more effective, and more characteristic than "Herbert West": it is a short little vignette in which Lovecraft indulges in his bone-shaking terror of everything that modern science tells us of the cosmos (it comes from his fascination with the idea that most "solid" matter is actually made up of the empty space between molecules), with more of a suggestion of a plot than an actual story. And this, too, did Gordon, Yuzna, and Paoli pretty much just gut and rebuild from the ground up: if we wanted to be extremely generous in ascribing any sort of intention to faithfully adapt the source material, the best I can do is to suggest that the film From Beyond functions more like a sequel to the short story "From Beyond", adapting the source material in its opening scene and then going on from there, and also transferring the name of the story's villain to its unnamed narrator.

Still, the film's strengths have nothing to do with Lovecraft and everything to do with the time period it came out: From Beyond is basically an exercise in taking the trends of horror in the 1980s to their natural ends, and seeing if the horror audience is willing to follow. To put it more bluntly: this is a wildly disgusting exploitation film in which extreme gore and body horror are irresistibly connected to violent sexuality. Not, as in so many slasher films or the legion of Italian zombie and cannibal pictures made in the wake of Dawn of the Dead, that gore and sex are simply set next to each other, each to titillate in their own right; the body horror is in and of itself a matter of sexuality. This was in the air, a bit, in the second half of the 1980s: earlier in 1986, body horror master David Cronenberg explored similar territory in The Fly, though the emphasis there was much less on sex; the following year, celebrated horror author Clive Barker made his directorial debut with Hellraiser, which has more emphasis on sex, and less on pure, unmitigated body horror.

I don't know if this fairly means that From Beyond is thus the "best" of the three - it's a remarkably strong set of films - but it is, I think, the most visceral and grotesque. The sense of humor found in Re-Animator isn't absent, but it's much lessened, and rather than being gleefully cynical, this is more actively bitter. And this makes From Beyond a good deal more fucked-up. This is, of course, the point.

The one thing about the Lovecraft original this copies perfectly is the feeling of being a sketch more than a story: the film's 85 minutes fly by, and they leave the ghost of ideas that have played out moreso than a full-developed narrative arc. The ideas center around a pair of scientists, Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorrel) and his assistant, Dr. Crawford Tillinghast (Combs) who have just finished the creation of the Resonator, a machine that (if Pretorius is right) will allow them to see beyond the normal human range of perception.  It works very well, revealing the existence of floating worm-like creatures in fluorescent pink, which apparently do not interact with our physical reality. Unless they can detect that we can see them, at which point they can bit like hell, which happens to Tillinghast. He wants to stop things right there, but Pretorius is already in the full flush of Power-Hungry Mad Scientism, and refuses. Fortunately, the Resonator malfunctions and shuts off, leaving Pretorius headless and Tillinghast with a story that only convinces the cops that he's a gibbering maniac who killed the older scientist, somehow doing so without spilling a drop of blood.

In police custody, Tillinghast meets with psychiatrist Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Crampton), who doesn't believe him at all, but who does think that his curiously enlarged pineal gland might offer some secret mystery about the nature of schizophrenia, if she indulges him enough to watch his behavior. Thus the two of them, and police detective Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree) return to the rooms where Pretorius met his end, and over Tillinghast's objections, McMichaels re-activates the Resonator. At which point we learn that Pretorius isn't dead at all - he's just moved into some kind of pocket dimension. And in the process, he has changed a lot.

This gets us through the first act of From Beyond, and pretty much to the end of anything that can be rightfully summarised as a narrative. From here on out, it's basically just playing out a scenario, in which the mutant Pretorius-thing that looks less human every time we see him grows more and more anxious to use the other three as his/its catspaws in taking over the world; McMichaels is at first fascinated and then repulsed; Tillinghast is at first repulsed and then fascinated; Brownlee is repulsed throughout, which is of course the only correct option. What this plays like is very much an expansion of the thread in Re-Animator where the awful Dr. Hill, already a power-hungry creep and crypto-pervert is free to become the most him version of himself once he's become a reanimated zombie. Pretorius, who is in a real sense the actual protagonist of From Beyond (everyone else spends the entirely movie in various states of reaction), is very much presented not as something that has gone beyond humanity, but as a disgusting exaggeration of human lusts and hunger, both sexual and otherwise. Still, Gordon and company obviously know that the sexual part is what's going to get the biggest rise out of us, and they lean into that, starting with the distinctly vagina-with-teeth design of the worms' biting mouths, all the way up to the final form of the Pretorius monster, which looks without too much squinting like a slimy penis with a ruined human head where the glans should be. And then, of course, there's his horrible, sloppy groping of McMichaels's body when he's still vaguely human-shaped.

This isn't really new stuff in concept: tampering in God's domain as a one-way ticket to unbridled male libido laying waste to everything in its past certainly dates at least back to the 1886 publication of Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, and I'm sure an enterprising historian could take it back farther still. And Gordon and his co-writers are absolutely aware of the lineage they're working in (Dr. Pretorius takes his name from the campy villain of 1935's Bride of Frankenstein, after all). What matters about From Beyond, then, is all in the execution. This is an extremely unsafe movie - even Re-Animator, which is arguably the more disgusting film (the head-rape scene in that film is considerably grosser than the equivalent scene here), is still basically just an extreme version of the gross-out zombie movies that were 17 years old by that point. From Beyond is a much more aggressive work, not merely exaggerating the gore effects that had become '80s horror cinema's raison d'être, but making them feel actively, zealously perverse, rather than merely appalling. One might say that we have a film that takes the gory lineage of e.g. Herschell Gordon Lewis, Lucio Fulci, and Tom Savini on the one hand, and mashes it together with the perversely kinky lineage of e.g. Ken Russell, John Waters, and Paul Verhoeven on the other. That's a whole lot of aggressive and even nasty filmmaking on both sides, and the point where they meet is, of course, genuinely shocking.

One will either admire this on its own terms or not (the film demands that you be ready to deal with how non-stop gross it is, and will not slow down for you if that proves to be too much); I do come down very hard on the side of admiration. For one, the commitment is unmistakable: while these aren't the most realistic gore effects of the period (and given how much of this is otherworldly sci-fi/fantasy, they probably can't be), the great John Carl Buechler, one of the foremost creators of gore effects from the 1980s to the 2000s, has created in the form of the decaying Pretorius several of the most impressively organic, fleshy monstrosities of an entire generation of horror cinema. This is, absent any other consideration, one of the pinnacles of effects-driven filmmaking in the 1980s, an excellent decade for effects-driven filmmaking.

It also benefits, as did Re-Animator, from Gordon's excellent work with actors. There are only four cast members to speak of in the film, but every one of them gives a genuinely terrific performance: I am inclined to say that Crampton steals the show, perhaps unexpectedly, with the most complicated character arc to work through (doubt to delight to arousal to terror to resolve) and also being the only remotely sympathetic focal point of the film's increasingly slimy, inhuman final sequence. But Sorel's monstrous self-regard, while being mostly buried in latex and deprived of the use of his own body for nearly all of the film, is almost as good, campy in a vulgar, hateful way that gives it a sharp edge. Foree has the easiest role (the smart one who knows this will end badly), but he brings a distinct good humor to the part anyway; surprisingly, and for I think the only time in his career, Combs actually impresses me the least out of the headline cast, playing Tillinghast as a bit too much of a square man of science, honorably trying to make amends for his mistakes. It's a performance that might have emerged in more or less the same form from one of several different B-movie leads in the '50s, and I suspect he was trying a bit too hard to make sure that no trace of Herbert West crept into his work. It's a solid, workmanlike performance, but the film is more gonzo and excessive than solid.

All in all, then, a superlative work, if necessarily quite limited in its appeal; so limited that the film was quite a flop, in fact, after having been given a substantially higher budget than the surprise hit Re-Animator. Neither Gordon nor Yuzna ever fully recovered, I am sorry to say. The latter ended up slumming around in disreputable low-budget horror films, including a few Re-Animator sequels; the former kept hanging around Charles Band for a while longer, making cheapie films in a variety of genres, none of which were this good and some of which were extremely bad. Gordon had dreamt of creating a whole series of Lovecraft films with Combs and Crampton, much like the Roger Corman/Vincent Price cycle of Poe adaptations in the 1960s, and I am pained to imagine what that might have looked like; while he and Combs worked together several more times, including the Lovecraftian 1995 film Castle Freak, this is the end of what looked to be a very promising series of adaptations. Still, let us not mourn too much: we got at least two terrific Lovecraft films out of the deal, and that's two more than just about anyone else in history gets to claim.