Lucio Fulci’s collision of Lovecraftian gothic and hardgore splatter is visually and stylistically impressive, but somewhat overrated.
Lucio Fulci has had a major career reassessment over the last couple of decades, moving from being widely seen as a talentless hack to some sort of horror visionary, and The Beyond is seen as his finest work, a flawless masterpiece of terror.
Both opinions are wrong of course. While Fulci was a solid, efficient filmmaker who hardly deserved to be dismissed out of hand – like Mario Bava, he was someone who could work in many genres and usually be relied upon to produce an entirely solid movie – he hardly deserves the entirely uncritical praise heaped on him by some members of the fan scene who appear to look at his films through rose-tinted glasses, unable or unwilling to recognise the faults therein. He’s good – but he’s not that good.
The Beyond was the third film in the loose series of zombie films that Fulci made as a direct result of Dawn of the Dead’s huge success in Italy, and like the predecessor City of the Living Dead, it moves away from the George Romero influence to present a more atmospheric, Lovecraft-inspired (in feel rather than content) series of shocks, held together by a thin storyline.
The story here sees Fulci regular Catriona MacColl as Liza, a woman who has bought a crumbling hotel in New Orleans, only to find that it is located on a gateway to Hell (don’t you just hate it when that happens?). Before long, her workmen are meeting sticky, squelchy, gory ends, she’s being visited by a ghostly blind girl and her burgeoning relationship with hunky doctor David Warbeck is being hampered by a plague of zombies.
The Beyond is certainly Fulci’s best looking film. There are some incredibly atmospheric visuals here, with Fulci conjuring up a New Orleans that seems rooted in the past, with swirling fogs, ancient buildings and swamp lands – it’s one of the most gothic horror films since the heyday of Hammer and Corman’s Poe films. But unlike those movies, this has a decidedly modern (by contemporary standards) level of graphic gore. Fulci’s reputation for graphic splatter had been established by this point, and he certainly doesn’t let his fans down, with some of the most remarkably gruesome visual images ever caught on film – the little girl with her face blown away being the most astonishing. But his best moments are the more subtle ones, not least of which are the final scenes that I won’t spoil for anyone who has yet to see the film.
Add to this another great electronic score by Fabio Frizzi and the presence of Euro Cult regulars MacColl and Warbeck, and you should have a film that more than lives up to its reputation. The reason it doesn’t is entirely down to the leaden pacing. This is, unfortunately, the most badly paced of Fulci’s films from the period. While House by the Cemetery is slower, it does at least build atmosphere, but The Beyond unfortunately has a habit of grinding to a halt whenever a gore set piece is bring played out, making it little more than a series of remarkable set pieces with nothing much going on inbetween. And even these set pieces are dragged out beyond the point where they really work as moments of horror or gross-out splatter scenes. Perhaps overly influenced by praise for Zombie Flesh Eaters’ eye-piercing scene, Fulci allows the violent deaths to go on interminably – the worst offender being the infamous spider sequence, where laughably unconvincing puppets eat a hapless researcher. It’s not the bad special effects that ruin this scene – it’s the fact that it lasts forever, constantly cutting to shots of the pipe-cleaner spiders wobbling slowly across the floor while the victim lies there in terror. Scenes like this cross the line from building tension and terror to simply becoming dull. And the story itself is too thin to really develop during the incidental scenes, so the final result is a film that seems a lot longer than it is – especially if you watch it with someone who hasn’t grown up watching these films and so can look at them rather more objectively than most fans (believe me, I know from painful personal experience).
While I used to accept The Beyond as Fulci’s masterpiece, these days I’m more inclined to be impressed by Zombie Flesh Eaters – a cruder but more effective and keenly paced effort that might well be the best zombie film ever made in terms of visceral impact – or his 1970’s giallo movies. That’s not to say that there isn’t much to admire here, and if you haven’t seen the film, you definitely need to; if you have, you probably won’t care what I say about it anyway.