The seven dreaded gateways to Hell are concealed in seven cursed places…and from the day the gates of Hell are opened, the dead will walk the earth
When the carnival came to town, the most popular attractions weren't necessarily the midway or the games of skill-chance. No, when the drifters of the nation's byways wandered into your local county or state park facility, they brought with them the Scylla and Charybdis of the traveling fair: the strip show and the freak tent. Buffering both sides of the sawdust pathway like archways to another world, a battle between prurience and propaganda raged, offering the young male a rite of passage as perverse growing pain. One would introduce them to the world of the large of lung and gloom, while the other would taunt the biological snot out of even the most steely-eyed stud.
It's no wonder then that when we look to our present entertainment industry to find parallel ports, the most often enjoyed video repasts are pornography and horror. And apparently, the more ferocious the better. Leaving obscure fetish films to the Asians and Eastern Bloc, it's clear that all-out guts and gonad terror tomes find their most friendly associations in the hands of Italian moviemakers. You could champion your Japanese or point to South Americans as mavens of the macabre, but when it comes to placing fever dream death sentences on screen, these amateurs can't hold a cadaver to your Bavas, your Argentos, and your Soavis. Often seen as the penultimate paisan of puke, however, was the late Lucio Fulci, who topped the list of Mediterranean madmen by creating his own wicked world of exploding brains, festering sores, and maggot rains. Considered a master of the malfeasant, his foul festival of grotesque cinematic oddities is usually capped off by The Beyond, a brooding bayou mindblower about a hotel that may house a gateway to hell. And just like the vile visions that lay behind the soiled canvas pavilion flap, some of what Uncle Lou has to offer is mighty unsavory.
Facts of the Case
Liza Merrill inherits a dilapidated hotel in Louisiana from a distant relative and moves from the big city to the Big Easy to start anew. When one of the workmen helping to refurbish the place has a horrible accident, it seems to portend terrible things to come. A plumber named Joe is attacked and killed in the basement, and a long dead corpse is discovered. Joe's wife dies of an accidental acid bath to the face. Then Liza runs into a blind girl named Emily who warns her about the inn's haunted past. More gory accidents occur. Soon it is learned that sixty years before, a warlock named Schweick lived in the lodge and occupied room 36. The hotel was apparently built over one of the seven gateways to hell, and the strange sorcerer was either working to keep it closed…or trying to find a way of opening it. With the help of a local doctor and an ancient book, Liza must discover the truth about the "doors of death" and face down evil before the dead walk the Earth and plunge the planet into a nightmare world of malevolence.
In the world of horror, you either "get" Lucio Fulci or you don't. After starting his career in Italian cinema as a genre jack-of-all-trades (moving from comedies to westerns to musicals), he found himself hated by his homeland when he made the scathingly anti-Catholic Don't Torture a Duckling (which hinted at the whole "priest-pedophile" issue years before it was acceptable). It took almost a decade before Zombi 2 (or as we here in the States known it, Zombie) refurbished his box office clout, turning Lucio into one of the most recognizable international brand names for excessive gore epics. Zombie was followed by The City of the Living Dead (AKA Gates of Hell), a notorious bloodbath featuring young women vomiting up their guts and a man getting an industrial drill thrust through his head (all witnessed in loving close-up). Toward the end of his career, he was accused of repeating himself (The House by the Cemetery) or creating low budget, incoherent junk (House of Clocks, Cat in the Brain). Right in the middle of it all was the film that many consider to be his masterpiece, the often misunderstood and named The Beyond (or The Seven Doors of Death or And You Will Live in Terror: The Afterlife). It combined the guts and grue of Fulci's newfound fondness for flesh rendering with a hyper-stylized visual flair and somber, sullied southern overtones.
Over the twenty or so years since its release, The Beyond has developed a loyal and loud cult following that champions this film and voices its frustration at the horrible hack job it is usually available in. For a long time, the only way to see this Fulci flick was to rent or buy an abysmal, pan and scan full screen edit job with the strangely suggestive title The Seven Doors of Death. Minus most of its slaughter, a good five minutes of mood setting prologue, and rendering the already jumbled film even more disjointed with random cuts, Seven Doors was the stupid remnant rabid Fulci fan had to dig his or her claws into. Thanks to the efforts of the unlikely duo of Sage Stallone (Sly's son), who oversaw a major restoration of the movie, and Quentin Tarantino, who distributed it through his Rolling Thunder prestige label, The Beyond got its comeback (sadly, Fulci died before the rediscovery was in full swing). Now thanks to Anchor Bay, a whole new generation of horror mavens can discover what so many have pined over for so long. The end result, however, may be a small swatch of disappointment.
The Beyond is an incoherent, messy combination of Italian terror and monster movie grave robbing that is almost saved by its bleak, atmospheric ending. It is a wretched gore fest sprinkled with wonderfully evocative gothic touches. It has more potential than dozens of past and present Hollywood horror films, yet finds ways to squander and squelch each and every golden gruesome opportunity. It's a movie that gets better with multiple viewings, familiarity lessening the startling goofiness of some of the dialogue and dubbing. It is a film that is far more effective in recollection than it is as an actual viewing experience. It would probably work best as a silent movie, stripped of the illogical scripting, stupendously redundant Goblin-in-training soundtrack drones, and obtuse aural cues. Fulci can create stark and moving visuals, and there is nothing wrong with linking them together to form a dreamlike state of ambiguousness, but the problem with The Beyond is that the stream of consciousness style fails to build into an effective state of dread. Instead of being mortified at what's around the corner, or what waits in the darkened room 36, we are pitched about like Tilt-a-Whirl patrons, the film hoping we are pleased with a less than smooth suspense ride.
The Beyond suffers from the drawbacks of its ethnic heritage, a mishmash of ogre overkill that could be called the Pasta Eater's Prerequisites to Heavy-Handed Horror. First and foremost in any Sicilian scare-a-thon, there must be blank-eyed woman who seems determined and empowered in one scene, but that can also become completely useless and scatterbrained the next. She must radiate innocent virginity as she embarks on soul blackening escapades. There must be strange entities materializing from the ether, ghouls, ghosts, or spirits hanging out in the material world to warn or haunt us. There is always a pissed-off dog or monkey hanging around, some manner of mauling mammal to boost the beast factor. And as with all pathways to a Roman roundelay, all Italian horror roads lead to zombies: slow, dull witted, seemingly nonchalant members of the living dead who are more sedate than scary. Indeed, Fulci is not out to make his flesh eaters visions of cannibalistic evil. In some ways, the reanimated corpses in The Beyond are like plot point speed bumps, ambulatory path blockers that mandate the characters maneuver around or circumvent them in order to advance the storyline. They are never menacing, never seen munching on arms or even breaking a sweat. About the most macabre thing any of the clamoring cadavers do occurs when Joe, a plumber turned pus bucket, forces a wall spike through the back of the head (and up through the eye socket) of an unwitting victim.
The ocular issues of Italian filmmakers are another issue altogether. Speaking of peepers, Fulci does have his own unique fixations, fear fetishes if you will, that get overplayed and exaggerated in The Beyond. He must have had some blunt trauma to the eyeball at some point in his life, or a desire to deliver said, since he is absolutely obsessed with removing the gooey sight orbs from out their slushy sockets. Ghouls poke them out, spiders chew them up, and random acts of fire burn and blind them. When we're not witnessing the purposeful removal of the soul's windows via cruel and unusual punishment, we are compositionally close up on them, director and cameraman filling their frame with bloodshot or baby blue marbles just emoting to beat the band. Fulci is a director who takes the description of cinema as a "visual" medium both figuratively and literally. Still, the focusing on one's corneas is not the only thing obsessing this Mediterranean maniac. Lucio also likes to place his characters and action underground, usually in a filthy, body-strewn catacomb or water filled basement. Doesn't make any difference if logic and location renders the setting stupid or impossible, if he can bury it beneath the Earth, Fulci is placing his plot in it. This means lots of darkened shots of people standing around, wet and dirty, just as confused as the audience about where they are and what lies ahead. Of course, this should all be incredibly moody and spine chilling, right? Sure, and tiramisu was Julius Caesar's favorite food. Unfortunately, these fascinations are more monotonous than affecting. The choices are all obvious, the symbolism as rote and routine as a grad student's short story, yet without them, the film would be missing one of its main selling points. It just wouldn't be a bit of Lucio lunacy without them.
And then there's the gore. Italians in general (and Fulci specifically) love to ladle on the red sauce, and we ain't talking about Mama's homemade manicotti gravy here. If there is a chance to feature the inner workings of the human body in all their claret giving grisliness, Fulci will provide untold moments of chests bursting open, guts flowing like Vesuvius, and wounds gaping like waterless goldfish. A gash is not just a cut; it's an open pipeline to the human circulatory system. When something bites or bashes someone, it causes untold internal hemorrhaging that always finds some way to spray out and spill all over the surfaces. Blood is poured like syrup over dry IHOP pancakes and the camera is always moving in to capture the viscera and cartilage as it's folded, spindled, and mutilated. Unlike the surgeon's precision of Ton Savini or a warped weirdness of Rob Bottin, the Roman and Tuscan tongue gouger just loves to languish over the mayhem their makeup creates and even muck it up a bit more to make it that much more lunch loosening. They can create some truly spectacular and disturbing imagery, but they are also capable of making everything look as fake as the forehead on an Irwin Allen alien. Imagination and malignancy are not attributes missing from their latex and greasepaint gross out kit, but occasionally, things can really look more or less mannequin.
So, with all these potentially nauseating engrossments in hand, it's hard to understand why The Beyond is not a better movie. There are boatloads of body parts and blood. There are incredibly atmospheric settings and sequences. We get excellent shock value out of seeing a little girl's heads explode in two and a dog rip huge chunks out of its master's throat. Rotting corpses rise from filthy bathtubs and acid melts the faces (and most of the rest of the head) of random characters. So why aren't we cheering in cheesy delight or mortified beyond our own moral tolerance? One answer could be overkill. After all, even a movie like Day of the Dead knew to thrown in a little politicizing with its vivisection. All The Beyond (or City of the Living Dead, or Zombie for that matter) wants to do is wallow in lurid disgust until the organs offend you with their over-the-top gore and then add a scene or two of inspired visual poetry to offset the smell. Fulci is going to beat you over the head with the clots and sideswipe you with the sinew. Now fellow foreigner Dario Argento creates dream imagery we can relate to, attaching the nightmares of childhood into the real world reality of adults to disturb and unarm us. His hallucinations may seem as intangible as Lucio's, but somehow he manages to fuse tone and texture together to create a truly unnerving experience. Fulci is all about the fester, the feel and pong of rotting flesh. Once you've sampled the repulsive stew, he kicks back and regroups until it's time to serve another heaping helping.
Or maybe it's the fact that gothic horror is just a hard sell in today's short attention span marketplace, where werewolves battle vampires in Matrix inspired fight scenes filled with chaotic stunts and CGI cartoon creatures and the game playing fanboy still screams for more. Something as languid and repugnant as The Beyond just can't register. Perhaps at an even slower pace, with more stunning images and settings, this movie would really spook. As it stands, its startlingly short running time and slapdash cinematic approach to story and scenes guarantees that once Fulci looses his audience, it's going to be hard as hell to win them back…that is, until the ending. It's one of the few times where Lucio understands what he's actually got going for him. The setting is remarkable, the acting pitch perfect, and the overall effect engrossing and yet incredibly disconcerting. It almost single handedly makes up for the previous exercise in jigsawed juvenilia. If the entire film had been handled like the last five minutes, fulfilling the prophecy the previous ninety minutes had all but mucked up, The Beyond would be a stellar work of breathtaking cinematic scope and power. As it stands, it's just an above-average offering from a director gripped by heart juice, sewers, and tearing out tear ducts. The Beyond may be a celebrated work of forgotten genius, by why it is held in such high regard may just be "outside" your comprehension.
Anchor Bay has decided to release The Beyond in two distinct, but mostly exact versions. If you are a collector of tin cases that won't sit straight in your standard bookshelf arrangements of discs and Amaray cases, by all means seek out the fancy limited edition, plunk down the higher than usual asking price, and enjoy the movie poster replica postcards and companion booklet outlining Fulci's career and the cult following over The Beyond. If, on the other hand, you don't much want a metal box messing up your neatly arranged DVD units, then head toward the normal release of the movie and wonder just what you are missing (answer: not much). Either way, you get a marvelous anamorphic widescreen image and multiple soundtrack options to confuse and amuse you. On the transfer front, anyone whose ever seen the horrendous pan and scan version under its Seven Doors of Death moniker will be overwhelmed at the beauty and brightness of the new print. Starting with a sepia-toned introduction that recalls the past while toning down the incredibly gruesome opening lynch mob killing (there is a bonus on the disc, taken from a German edition of the film, that removes the beige filter and allows us to see the blood and brains letting in all its nastiness) and moving through many design and palette changes, the transfer here is remarkable. The contrasts between the starkness of the hospital setting and the baroque decay of the hotel and underground sets are that much more dramatic here. It recalls the back and forth of Kubrick's The Shining.
Aurally, the soundtrack options are a little overwhelming. You can opt for either a standard Dolby Stereo surround presentation, which keeps the dialogue up front and center, or go for the all out 5.1 immersive experience, which is actually quite effective. There is good spatial atmosphere and movement, from both sound effects and character voices. If you are a purist and want to hear the original mono track, that is here as well. There is also the Italian version (in Mono) for anyone wanting to experience the many Mediterranean actors speaking in their native tongue. The addition of so many sonic options is just par for the course with Anchor Bay's presentation of this Special Edition.
The bonus material is equally exciting. First we get a gloriously droll and anecdotal commentary track featuring stars Catriona MacColl (Liza) and David Warbeck (Dr. John Mackay). Recorded a few years ago (right before Warbeck passed away, sadly), it's like listening to a couple of old college chums revisiting their alma mater. They loved their experience on the film and working with each other and Fulci (apparently, not all actors have the same response) and their narrative is filled with jokes, insights, and honest reactions to the movie. It's interesting to note how very "British" both of these actors are and yet in the film they speak with very flat, almost Southern American accents.
Next on the bonus bonanza is a feature called "Images from The Beyond," which is really a featurette divided up into galleries, interview segments, and mini-documentaries on Fulci and the film. We get a nice set of behind the scenes pics, some very brief clips of Fulci, Warbeck, and MacColl speaking in more current settings about the film and their careers (it amazing to see how much Fulci changed since his onscreen appearance as a records clerk in The Beyond). We then can experience three different versions of the film trailer as well as a weird music video for a band called Necrophagia (their death metal dirge features clips of the film. One wonders why). When combined with the aforementioned full color German intro to the film and the booklet/post card materials, all versions of this title are wonderful. And even the Easter eggs are worth checking out. Once you find them, you will be treated to an incredibly graphic and disturbing trailer for the Fulci film Cat in the Brain, AKA Nightmare Concert, and the awful full screen opening for the video release of The Seven Doors of Death.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's too bad that Fulci is not more accomplished as a horrormeister. His movies seem to be replete with great ideas hampered by wild mood swings of stupidity or silliness. The Beyond has a grand setting, a great sense of foreboding, some very tasty gore, and a spectacular ending, yet it fails to formulate even the beginning tenets of fear. A gross out goof like Zombie has the closing shot of a New York infested with the living dead and such highlights as eye/splinter interaction and corpse/shark fisticuffs and it still seems more mixed up than menacing. Subtract the driller killer moment and the foggy Dunwich locale, and City of the Living Dead is like a tired travelogue through an under-colorized Romero Dead film. Fulci's movies are peppered with all manner of such surreal should be shocker sequences, but they don't pay off. And the question becomes why? Maybe it's personality that's missing from his movies. True, you can usually tell a Fulci film a mile away, but it's because of the repeated motifs and twisted tendon obsessions, not because the movie feels like a part of him. Apparently he's just a journeyman director who stumbled upon a foul formula for success and milked it all the rest of his days. He definitely belongs among the legions of Italian masters, but he's not necessarily representative of the best the genre has to offer.
There aren't many traveling carnivals left. The carnie is no longer a punchline for a joke but a vanishing breed of vagabond that triggers wanderlust nostalgia, not thoughts of syphilis and criminal misdeeds. The same can be said for the Italian horror epic. While Argento keeps finding ways to disappoint his audience and newcomers like Michele Soavi reinforces the notion that many first works are a director's finest, the void for callous corporeal exercises in gory excess are as rare as a county fair sideshow. It seems like the American MPAA mandate to clean up the most excessive of cinematic cesspools—the horror genre—has resulted in an emasculation of terror worldwide (except in Asian markets where the autopsy aesthetic has found a new fertile and fetid playground). Maybe that's why films like The Beyond keep resurrecting their uneven heads and are heralded as masterpieces. Fulci's film reflects a time when the fright film experimented with itself and its conventions to try and redefine and repulse the population expecting certain tried and true conventions from their monster movies. If Bava was the philosophizer and Argento the stylist, Fulci was and is the foul-mouthed brat, more than willing to dwell in swill for the sake of an upset stomach or disturbing set of images. He's the barker on the boardwalk, beckoning us to come inside and lose our innocence via his fright film freak fest. Unfortunately, like most of those smelly sawdust settings, there is nothing but disappointment and dreck around every corner. The Beyond is almost a good movie. But perfection is just beyond it.
The Beyond is found guilty of being inconsistent and irritating and is sentenced to the Stream of Consciousness division in the Mind Crime Unit of Horror Hoosegow for a period of sixty years. Lucio Fulci is found guilty, posthumously, of substituting gore for logic and personal obsessions for plot. But since he can't be dug up and forced to plead his case, the conviction is thrown out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Audio Commentary with Stars David Warbeck and Catriona MacColl
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