Dreams are weird. The shifting settings, ineffable imagery and bizarre happenings all seem to make sense at the time, only to leave you bewildered and often a little disturbed upon awaking. Nightmares are all that, plus a nice helping of mortal terror thrown in for good measure. Many horror filmmakers have tried to capture the strange, unknowable language of dreams in their work, but no one has ever succeeded quite like Lucio Fulci did with The Beyond.
In The Beyond, there is a plot, but there may as well not be. A young woman inherits a hotel, but it turns out to have been built over one of the seven gates to hell. As she attempts to renovate the crumbling mess she’s come to own, people die. Lots of people. Eventually, she ends up getting sucked through that hell portal. Did I just spoil the movie’s ending? Sure. But it doesn’t matter. The plot here is secondary at best. Tertiary maybe. Superfluous, if we’re being honest.
The characters, too. Could you say they are underdeveloped? You could. That would be missing the point. What is the motivation of the mysterious man in your dream that keeps handing you tiny cakes? It doesn’t matter; he is a cipher, unknown and unknowable, cooked up by your brain because your brain is trying to tell you something, maybe. Or you just ate too many brats right before bed. The characters of The Beyond are the same. They exist because a movie without people is too weird even for Fulci. They exist because something, or someone, has to move the plot along, no matter how inconsequential that plot is. They exist because the film needs victims. Mostly this — if they have a speaking role, chances are good they will meet a gruesome end. It is a horror film. Victims are mandatory.
And oh, what beautifully gruesome ends these victims meet! Eyes are gouged out. Acid is deployed until one is nothing but a frothy mess (Walter White would be proud!). Spiders devour a man’s face, in horrifying (if completely fake-looking) close-up. A woman’s dog turns on her and tears out her throat. And there are zombies. So. Many. Zombies. They don’t do much but sway hypnotically and slowly menace the protagonists, but in doing so they present an indelible image, as do all the kills. The film marches from kill to kill with an inexorable determination. Each is seemingly more elaborate and gruesome than the last, and each is presented with an unflinching eye for horrific detail.
The movement between these kills — the strange, inexplicable leaps of logic and story that stitch them together — help shape that dreamlike atmosphere. So, too, does the soundtrack, from longtime Fulci collaborator Fabio Frizzi. His use of repetitive phrasing, stark synthesizer tones and weird, altered human vocal sounds adds a hallucinogenic sheen to the proceedings that stands among his finest work (only his soundtracks to City of the Living Dead and Zombie are possibly better).
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The whole effect of the film is hypnotic, something to be experienced rather than just watched. It washes over you in waves, like a particularly gruesome sea, leaving the rational part of your mind adrift. When it is over, you don’t really understand more than when you began, but you are changed all the same, just as having a particularly jarring nightmare triggers some subtle shift in your psyche. It is the triumph of the subconscious over the conscious; you will know that what you have just seen is remarkable, even if you can’t understand it, much less explain it. You don’t have to take my word for it — you can see it next Wednesday, June 24 at the Alamo Drafthouse. Just don’t blame me if you can’t quite wake up from it afterward.
Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.