This week’s double feature are two films that go very well together, at least in my opinion. They are both from the 80s, both co-written and directed by Stuart Gordon, both are based loosely on the works of H.P. Lovecraft and both star the incomparable Jeffrey Combs and the lovely Barbara Crampton. Not to mention, they are probably two of the best features to come out of Charles Band’s prolific Empire Pictures… certainly the most infamous.
Based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft, this delightfully fun gore-fest opens in a university in Switzerland with something going frightfully wrong in one of the labs and security and faculty rushing to see what is going on. They burst in to find famed Doctor Hans Gruber (Al Berry) a bloody screaming mess with brilliant student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) at his side with a syringe. Gruber dies and West is accused of his murder causing him to reply that it was he who gave him life. We then cut to Miskatonic University where West has appeared and seeks to continue his education. He rooms with fellow medical student Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) who is dating Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton), who is Dean Halsey’s (Robert Sampson) daughter. But West’s true goal is to continue his experiments with defeating death using a serum he’s developed, and he begs Cain to assist him. After being given some gruesome proof, involving Cain’s cat, that West’s serum works, he agrees. But one of their experiments goes horribly awry and not only leads to the death…and re-animation…of Dean Halsey, but also gets the unwanted attention of rival Doctor Carl Hill, who wants West’s serum as his own. This sets a series of blood-soaked events in motion that sees corpses rise and headless foes carrying out their own diabolical plot that puts the lives of West, Cain and the lovely Megan in grave danger…emphasis on grave.
Directed by Stuart Gordon, Re-Animator is a really entertaining and deliriously blood-spattered treat that perfectly straddles the line between comedy and horror. And it’s my experience that comedy/horror is one of the hardest types of flicks to make as the blend has to be just right to work…and Gordon nails it here. There are some set pieces here that are both grotesque and hilarious, such as West and Cain’s first experiment gone wrong and the really over the top morgue-set finale that includes Megan as a nude and bound damsel being menaced by a perverted severed head…it’s the scene this flick is most famous for and I will always have much respect for Barbara Crampton being such a good sport in performing it and with such seriousness.
And while we are on the subject of the cast, they all do a perfect job of taking the material seriously yet adding that touch of theatricality that gives it a much welcome energy and buoyancy despite the gruesome subject matter. Few films with so many severed limbs and so much spurting blood have been this giddy. This is the flick that introduced the genre world to Jeffery Combs who is not only a horror icon, but equally iconic in the world of Star Trek as well. He plays West very seriously but takes him over the top just enough to delightfully evoke the mad scientist vibe he needs to make his part work. Abbott plays the straight man to West’s demented yet determined scientist and is a noble, if not flawed hero. Crampton’s Megan is basically required to be a feisty girlfriend who mistrusts West and then become a damsel to be rescued, but she’s beautiful and hot and a real sport for her work in the last act that has earned her special status among horror fans. This and her equally racy work in From Beyond make her a real trooper in my book. Rounding out the main cast is Robert Sampson as stern father and school dean Alan Hasley and he seems to play both dean and zombie henchman with equal relish and David Gale provides a truly despicable villain in Dr. Hill whose villainy extends quite beyond decapitation and death. The performances hit the right notes and keep Gordon’s flick balanced on that horror/comedy line.
The gore FX are excellent and quite disgusting, especially during a final act that sees all manner of corpses, limbs and viscera coming to life and wreaking havoc. Again, if the FX didn’t work, the film wouldn’t have near the impact it does. Add a witty script by Gordon, Dennis Paoli and William J.Norris and an energetic score by Richard Band and you have a cult classic movie that hits all the right marks and doesn’t miss a beat. One of my favorite horrors and one I can proudly say I was able to catch it in a theater…the Hyway Cinema in Fairlawn, N.J. to be exact…back in the day in 1985. A fun, gory good time!
Rated 4 (out of 4) disembodied heads.
FROM BEYOND (1986)
Stuart Gordon followed up his cult hit Re-Animator with another H.P. Lovecraft inspired story, this one about experiments to expand the senses into other dimensions. The result is a weird, sometimes kinky and moderately entertaining film, but it didn’t live up to the instant classic it followed…which admittedly, were big shoes to fill…though it has developed a cult following of its own.
The film opens with scientists Dr. Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) and Dr. Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel) initiating The Resonator, a machine that uses sound waves to stimulate the pineal gland in the human brain which would allow one to see into other dimensions. The experiment works until something from another dimension sees them back. The result is Pretorius left without a head and Tillinghast driven out of his. The young scientist is institutionalized, and the authorities want answers. Enter beautiful Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton), a psychologist who volunteers to take Crawford back to the Pretorius house to determine if he is truly crazy or if they really did unleash something through their experiments. Accompanied by Det. Bubba Brownlee (Ken Foree), the three try to restart The Resonator and piece together what happened that fateful night. But the more Dr. McMichaels sees of the accomplishments the two men made, the more she is seduced by needing to push the experiment further. And despite Crawford’s dire warnings, Katherine unleashes a horror upon the three that none of them may escape.
From Beyond is a far more serious and ambitious flick then Re-Animator and could have used a bit more of that film’s theatrical tone. Gordon directs with a far more somber and darker feel then his last flick, despite the borderline goofiness of some of what goes on. While there is a smattering of humor, the comic aspects of his re-animated corpse epic are gone and replaced with a bit of a surreal atmosphere with a touch of S&M, as he once again portrays science gone too far. This time his story focuses on heightening the senses of the living and not raising the dead…and it’s not as much fun and not always successful as the film sometimes seems to bite off more than it can chew for its small budget. The FX this time are not limited to gore, but various creatures including the constantly evolving monstrosity that Pretorius has become, now that his twisted mind is taking physical form on the other side. The production tries to accomplish The Thing-like creatures with a fraction of the budget and the FX are mixed, with some being quite effective and others being rubbery or just plain unconvincing. Another thing is that the film is shot entirely on sound stages, and it shows. The film never quite looks real. More like a filmed play than a movie.
A big plus though, is that the cast are all good. Combs plays more of a victim here, a man mentally wounded by what he has seen and experienced and he is fine, though, except for a few really bizarre and over the top moments, he seems a bit wasted somewhat as it’s becomes Crampton’s show. And Barbara Crampton does shine as she gets a far meatier part from Gordon and co-scripters Brian Yuzna and Dennis Paoli. She starts out as a young doctor resented for her accomplishments at her youthful age and then slowly turns mad scientist as the experiment’s allure pulls her in. Once again, she is a trooper for Gordon as the pineal gland stimulation also controls sexual urges and Dr. McMichaels gets her dominatrix on in the film’s most notorious scene and gets her pretty flesh again ravaged by prosthetic horrors. Next, we have the always delightful Ken Foree as the big teddy bear cop who has some of the best moments and lines. Not sure why Foree never became a bigger star. He can play a tough guy and has charm and charisma to spare and it’s on full display here. Rounding out is Ted Sorel who is dripping with malice and madness as Pretorius, but we see little of him not covered in pounds of latex monster make-up and not getting to know him well limits him to being a fairly generic villain, though well played.
But the biggest flaw with From Beyond is its weak script. The dialog is hokey, the science is obviously more science fiction…which is fine…and it really needed to flesh out the characters and situations a bit more, and at least Gordon is lucky his cast helped out on the character front, adding some dimension to their portrayals. We could have used a clearer idea of what lurked in this other dimension to establish a deeper threat and a more gradual portrayal of the effects it has on the house occupants. They transform way to fast and the film’s over too quickly before we really feel the story’s accomplished anything other then the time-honored ‘leave well enough alone’ moral. What really was the point other than to shower the screen with goo and gore and get the shapely Ms. Crampton into a leather corset…not that I mind. The film is almost a series of set-pieces more than a complete movie with a smooth narrative flow. Sure, we were entertained somewhat, the film has its degree of fun, but we’re never swept off our feet like with Re-Animator and sadly, Gordon has never again hit his stride or equaled his accomplishment with that classic.
Overall, I do like From Beyond. It’s got a midnight movie feel, some unintentionally goofy goings on and definitely benefits from the 80s nostalgia now, too. But it is a bit of a disappointment after Re-Animator and once it’s over you just get the feeling there was potential there to achieve a lot more even with what they had to work with. An amusing diversion that is fun enough when viewed from a guilty pleasure perspective, but could have been something more, or at least had a little more fun with what it was.
Rated 3 (out of 4) saucy psychologists.