“Brennan Went to Film School” is a column that proves that horror has just as much to say about the world as your average Oscar nominee. Probably more, if we’re being honest.
A Warning: This column contains plot spoilers for From Beyond.
This month at Dread, we’re celebrating the weirdest, wildest, and bloodiest side of horror to celebrate MAYhem, and the second I was assigned this topic, I knew I had to talk From Beyond, Stuart Gordon’s 1986 follow-up to Re-Animator. Also based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story and starring Barbara Crampton and Jeffrey Combs, it could have been a cookie cutter copy of his prior success, but that’s not how Mr. Gordon works, my friends.
Sure From Beyond shares a lot of DNA with Re-Animator, but it also pushes the envelope in every possible direction. It hangs its visceral delights on the thinnest thread of plot: Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Crampton) is trying to assess the sanity of Crawford Tillinghast (Combs) by recreating the experiments that led to the violent death of his mentor Dr. Pretorius. These experiments involve a sonic resonator that activates the pineal gland, allowing one to see into an alternate dimension that shares space with our own and is chock full of spooky Lovecraftian goo monsters.
This is all an excuse to indulge in some of the grossest, goopiest special effects ever attempted. From the giant basement lamprey monster that sucks off Tillinghast’s hair to the half-melted bubblegum form Pretorius assumes in the alternate dimension to the cloud of otherworldly flies that reduce Ken Foree’s cop character Bubba to a skeletal mass, From Beyond is perhaps the single grossest feature film to hit American theaters in the ’80s, the only competition being other films from producer Brian Yuzna.
But while I love to revel in gooey grotesquerie as much as the next Dread Central columnist (here’s looking at you, Matt Donato), we’re here to draw out the subtext that you might not have noticed hiding beneath the shiny sheen of slime that coats the film. Let’s zoom in on Dr. Katherine McMichaels. Her journey in the film involves Barbara Crampton dressing in leather lingerie, so it’s easy to get distracted, but she’s not giving one of the best performances of her career for nothing.
McMichaels throughout the film is struggling with an extremely potent metaphor for addiction. Even though the stimulation of the pineal gland exposes one to extreme danger (including, but not limited to, very hungry sky barracudas), it also provides erotic and sensual stimulus heretofore unknown. McMichaels slowly becomes more and more intrigued by and dependent on the machine, even though it slowly begins to destroy her life and the lives of those around her.
Even though the resonator has reduced Tillinghast to a chapped, bald, bloodless zombie of a man with a distended pineal gland threatening to burst from his forehead any minute (and that minute does come – this is a Stuart Gordon movie, after all), McMichaels cannot resist sneaking off to stimulate herself, to experience more, to see more than any human has ever seen. Her need for bigger and bigger pineal fixes eventually results in Bubba’s death, giving the resonator power enough to activate itself with or without her.
This is a terrifying mirror into the world of addiction. At first, it seems like McMichaels is in control. She can stop anytime she wants, it’s just a harmless source of pleasure and “scientific inquiry.” But the more she feeds into it, the more power it has over her until it’s a monster with complete autonomy and the ability to cause great harm to those who surround her, completely out of her control. She’s forced to cut herself off completely by destroying the machine before it destroys her and moves on to more victims. Sure, there are a lot more giant bat monsters than in your average movie about addiction, but From Beyond’s emotional truths are nevertheless just as present and harrowing. When we leave our heroine, she is in a bloody heap in front of Pretorius’s mansion, laughing hysterically in a half-hyena scream. She’s survived her encounter with this highly addictive substance, but her life will never be the same after being touched by its influence. Maybe it’s not a happy ending, but it’s a compelling image of American addiction right around the time that Hollywood especially was deep in the middle of an overwhelming cocaine problem. It’s an exercise in the terror and trauma of real-world drug issues, and that kernel of truth is why the film packs an even bigger punch than your average special effects extravaganza.
Brennan Klein is a writer and podcaster who talks horror movies every chance he gets. And when you’re talking to him about something else, he’s probably thinking about horror movies. On his blog, Popcorn Culture, he is running through reviews of every slasher film of the 1980s, and on his podcast, Scream 101, he and a non-horror nerd co-host tackle horror franchises from tip to tail! He also produces the LGBTQ horror podcast Attack of the Queerwolf! on the Blumhouse Podcast Network.