Experiences From Beyond

I suppose we’ve been spoiled since Robert Stanley’s Color Out of Space when it comes to Lovecraft film adaptations. I don’t think I really have to explain that Lovecraft stories are notoriously hard to turn into cinematic narratives due to the fact that their prose rely on the olfactory sense (smell), and strange, non-Euclidean descriptions combined with things that readers are not allowed to see in their entirety.

So, when I found out that From Beyond had been made into a film, I just had to check it out. From Beyond is a 1986 science-fiction horror film directed by Stuart Gordon, and written by Dennis Paoli one year after Gordon’s other main Mythos movie Re-Animator. It isn’t so much that I wanted to see how the 2019 Stanley film compares to the Gordon 1986 one, even though both are derived from Lovecraft’s science-fiction horror stories and his idea of cosmicism: of a reality where humanity is a small piece of a larger and more uncaring and malicious universe. It’s seeing how those ideas are explored in the 1980s under another director: specifically the one who made Re-Animator that really caught my fancy.

The challenges between the two couldn’t be more different. While “The Colour Out of Space” is a novella, “From Beyond” is a fairly focused and standalone short story about an unnamed narrator who visits his friend Dr. Crawford Tillinghast and not only sees how badly he has physically and mentally degenerated due to his obsession in exploring another dimension, but also encountering the horrors of it himself. So how do you make a film about a fifth or an extra reality around us filled with alien existences that we can’t perceive ordinarily?

Well, while other essays and articles created by genuine horror scholars have gone into it more I’m sure, I think the key here is sex.

In both the short story that is its inspiration, and the film, stimulation of the pineal gland: a gland that creates melatonin that modulates sleep patterns in the brain, and has been historically considered to be a centre of spiritual and metaphysical development. The idea is that in “From Beyond” an electronic device that creates resonance waves can stimulate that gland to allow humans to see different planes of existence of which their usual five senses are not capable. The function of the gland itself is only partially understood even now after all this time.

So Stuart Gordon takes this premise, and realizes that perceiving these other realities, along with the stimulation of a part of the brain in an unusual way, would probably create unusual sensations in those that are exposed to the device that he calls the Resonator.

He takes out the servants that Tillinghast exposes to the machine, placed into the other planes, and left to the auspices of the creatures summoned by it. And he goes further to remove the unnamed narrator, and make three characters take his place: including Tillinghast who is demoted to a protagonist assistant doctor, played by the excellent Jeffrey Combs, to the unstable and eccentric genius Dr. Edward Pretorius — whose name is a reference to the Doctor Pretorius that blackmails and enables Victor Frankenstein to continue his creature-making experiments in James Whales’ The Bride of Frankenstein — who is played by Ted Sorel, and is the true creator of the Resonator.

Dr. Pretorius is also a major BDSM practitioner in Gordon’s From Beyond: seeking to achieve the ultimate experience in physiological pleasure in creating the Resonator and activating his pineal gland to its nth degree: at least from my understanding. It’s this combination of hubris and addiction to stimuli that creates the Resonator, and its resulting consequences on the protagonists.

The premise isn’t bad. From Beyond is supposed to be all about scraping away the seeming of reality, of appearances, for the planes of experience that truly exist around us. The extra-dimensional creature special effects are all right for the time, and they are not the things that make this film more than a little awkward, and clunky.

The problem, for me, is the narrative itself. H.P. Lovecraft is all about “the fear of the unknown” and considering that there is a strange and unseen alien environment around and within us, should be an utterly terrifying prospect. What Stuart Gordon attempts to do, which he succeeded in with adapting “Herbert West – Reanimator” which had already been created a serialized pulp narrative, falls a little flat in places with “From Beyond.” Gordon’s efforts in adding “what you fear is what you desire” to “a fear of the unknown” and its consequences that lends itself to Re-Animator in the form of gore, black comedy, and spectacle itself, overshadows From Beyond as opposed to accentuating it.

There are gaps in logic and narrative progression. Why would the overly idealistic and obsessive Dr. Katherine McMichaels, played by the legendary Barbara Crampton be allowed to force Dr. Tillinghast into repairing the Resonator, and recreating the experiment that traumatized him? How would this prove his innocence to the authorities who believe he murdered his senior Dr. Pretorius?

Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with these characters. Even Katherine McMichaels, who is stated to have controversial psychological views, is seen as holding sheer curiosity and need to genuinely explore behind the thin veneer of a barely existent professionalism and white lab coat. She seems repulsed by the monitors held in Dr. Pretorius’ BDSM dungeon room with screaming women in leather being flogged, but you can see her intrigue, and her predisposition towards the exploration of that state of mind. Seeing her is reminiscient of a Harleen Quinzel before ever meeting the Joker: a highly controlled but curious mind needing only permission to set her own sensual nature free. And this iteration of Crawford Tillinghast, whom she has more than just an intellectual fascination towards — or something that forms from that intrigue — is both terrified and attracted to the power of the Resonator that brings out something within him that he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

I think the film’s issue is that it tries to shame those flirtations with kinks and sexuality, which should be its strength to this regard. Bubba Browns, yes, Ken Foree’s character is called that is an officer assigned to Tillinghast and McMichaels who immediately grabs and shames her once she puts on the leather gear in Pretorius’ room, and berates her: asking her if this is what she wants to be.

Barbara Crampton as Dr. Katherine McMichaels in Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond

But what if it is? What if Crampton’s character is now exploring that aspect of herself, away from clinical trappings, and there is actual progression from that point? Instead we have this poltergasmic apparition of Pretorius occasionally manifesting when the machine is turned on as such like of fleshy mutated amalgamation and Jeffrey Combs’ Tillinghast developing an antenna from his pineal gland that requires him to eat human grey matter (because he rarely, if ever plays a character that doesn’t become a monster or antagonist of some kind): including from a particularly dour doctor named Bloch: who is probably named after Lovecraft’s friend and long-time correspondent Robert Bloch who went on to write Psycho.

Do you see what I mean? My tangent aside, and despite the story ending in Lovecraftian horror and madness, the film kind of runs off the rails with the original source material and its theme.

But what if we did something different? Neil Gaiman’s age-old admonition of a story most likely needing rewriting if something is wrong with it, and everyone else pretty much being wrong about how to actually edit aside, let’s do something different. Let’s make another adaptation of From Beyond.

Let’s use Clive Barker as an example of what can be done. I’ve already referenced his “what you fear is what you desire” earlier on in this article. Ironically, he had published The Hellbound Heart, the novella that would become the basis of Hellraiser a year later, in 1986: the same year From Beyond was released. Sexuality, and its obsessive perversion had been applied to Re-Animator, so why not go even further with From Beyond?

Imagine Dr. Crawford Tillinghast is the antagonist as he had been in the short story. Perhaps the story takes place after he’s gone, and Doctors Bloch and … let’s say Katherine Waite, along with a team from the authorities in conjunction with Miskatonic University, are sent in to his building to find out what happened to him, and his research. We see that the house has different rooms within it, almost Jungian-themed, and each chamber has a theme. Tillinghast has left video or recorded journals of himself as he experiments with making the Resonator.

Bloch could have been that friend of Tillinghast’s who had seen his experiments and what they did to him over time. He could be there to help the police find all those missing personnel, including mutual friends of theirs. Waite, because I too love Lovecraftian references, is there to find his research and she has an attraction to this while pretending to be professional. These goals tend to clash with one another as they go on. We see evidence of a sound and idealistic Tillinghast becoming more extreme. There are videos of him in BDSM dynamics with women, or men, or both on video. Bloch sees this as issues with his deteriorating body and mind, while Waite sees it as evidence of an alternative exploration of sensation and experience. She is also highly turned on by this against, perhaps, her own better judgment.

I see Tillinghast as a combination of what Lovecraft intended him to be, though perhaps more of the standard symmetrical handsome man turned into something else, combined with him adopting some charismatic mannerisms not unlike Robert Suydam from “The Horror at Red Hook,” or basically the reverse of Suydam to that regard.

The degeneration, or perhaps better yet, the change and evolution of the characters as they discover and repair the Resonator should be gradual as they try to find the missing personnel in this other plane. They begin to transform as they go along. Some of them die. Some are consumed. But the worst are the creatures they encounter. Think of the Resonator as Barker’s Lamentation Configuration, and the extra-dimensional violet entities that bite and consume as Lovecraft’s night-gaunts that arouse every time they touch a human being. Consider these repellent creatures passing through human bodies and arousing them, and mutating them. Add to the sexual tone of the entire thing. Make it uncomfortable and arousing as you see these changes happening to these characters. Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows do this, they play with Tillinghast’s creatures as erotic elements between characters in their limited-run Lovecraft Mythos comics series Providence.

Then you can have Bloch transform first as he has been exposed to the Resonator the longest. Perhaps there is mention of his physical and a tumour developing in his pineal gland. Maybe then he develops that antenna that doesn’t look like something from Sega Dreamcast’s Seaman.  Or maybe it does grow that way, and something sexually suggestive happens with it as this film changes from a scientific expedition trope into a surreal LSD horror. I like the idea of Bloch encountering a transformed Tillinghast who has reached the inevitable conclusion of his increasingly amoral and inhuman experiments in another plane, and being consumed by him. Maybe Waite has her encounter with Tillinghast and it goes … badly. So badly, like a terrible hallucinogenic trip that she escapes and just barely destroys the machine … but not before she is left stranded back in reality, partially transformed into something not unlike a Deep One, some retroactive evolution triggered, broken, screaming, and without aftercare: seeing something in reality and herself … beyond her understanding that ruthlessly destroys her, and yet keeps others fascinated in knowing more.

This feeds back not only into the story, but also into the Lovecraft Mythos with other nods and Easter-eggs. Consider this an alternative adaptation, a mutation of how I might have made this story with the right space-time and resources at my disposal. Gordon’s From Beyond has some fascinating ideas, taken from Lovecraft. I think, while the challenge is buttressing a very short tale into a cinematic narrative, there are enough elements there to make it all about the terror of that thin membrane of identity and knowing being torn apart to reveal something else entirely.

But as a false Doctor of Horror, this is just a creative observation and suggestion, not a prognosis

Ephemera of Disconnection, and Moments of Painful Clarity: The Etheria Film Night Shorts of 2020

It’s hard writing about anthologies. And the only film anthologies I’ve ever written about — Tales of Halloween and XX — have been in the auspices of the horror genre. And then, you have an event like the Etheria Film Festival.

This is an unusual situation, I’m given to understand. Usually, the Etheria Film Night Shorts are shown in the Egyptian Theatre, and Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to a live audience. However, due to COVID-19 the film entries for the 2020 Etheria Film Festival are all available on Shudder until July the 20th. These are unfortunate, and unprecedented times, and it’s only fitting that these nine short films possess both unique elements, and misfortune for quite a few of their characters.

Tales of Halloween and XX had framing narratives, a film that basically attempts to bring all of its other cinematic stories together. I know that, in the case of XX — another woman-directed, written, and acted anthology — a unifying theme had developed: that of family. The Etheria Film Night Shorts of 2020 do not have a framing story woven through them, even though Heidi Honeycutt — the director of programming — introduces the anthology, and then just leaves us to experience the films for ourselves.

The Etheria Film Festival features short science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and weird films created by female directors, and the 2020 selection is no exception. However, even without an overall narrative, I began to pick out something of a theme due to how each film is curated and ordered one after the other. If I were to really sit down, and think about the themes presented in the 2020 Etheria Film Night Shorts, I would settle on the danger of a superficial world of disconnect in a time of intense connection.

Many of the films feel like the feminist elements of XX meeting the dystopian banal technological reality of Black Mirror. The shallow, transactional “swipe-left” relationships displayed in “Waffle,” directed by Carlyn Hudson, and written Katie Marovich and Kerry Barker are in some ways far more terrifying than even a self-entitled psychopath. After all, what is more deadly: a predator that takes advantage of a system, or a system that normalizes such hollow relationships to be exploited? This definitely bleeds — figuratively and literally — into Mia’kate Russell’s film “Maggie May” which focuses on the dangers of self-centredness and that evil doesn’t so much happen when “good men” do nothing, but when banal people only care about themselves, and will do anything to avoid personal responsibility or consequences.

And if “Maggie May” is about a character who ignores what is right in front of her out of convenience despite having so many ways to correct the situation, and claiming to have no impetus to do so, then “Basic Witch” — written by Lauren Cannon and directed by Yoko Okumura — has one character use her power to make another face what he has done to her. It’s so deceptively gentle at first, complete with a sunny background and a latte and what looks like an episode of Charmed that teaches one person — perhaps even both characters — the lessons of consent. In a short period of time, we see a myriad of different thoughts and emotions between the characters and a form of communication that is usually so difficult to express is made manifest through radical empathy. It manages to make fun of parts of itself while also allowing its message to be painfully clear. The nuance and depth and that gradual horror but level ground of understanding in it makes it one of my favourite films in the whole anthology.

My other favourite movie in the Etheria Film Night Shorts is one I’d heard about when this event was being advertised online: “Conversion Therapist.” There are so many ways this short film could have gone, or been introduced, and Bears Rebecca Fonté subverts all of these expectations. Imagine a group of pansexual, polyamorous people utilizing a gruesome yet poetically justified set of techniques against a captive Evangelist conversion therapist. It is dark, what they do, and you can be terrified at their cruelty until you realize they are just using the tools of the oppressor against one of their tormentors. The moment I saw the man with the rainbow coloured T-shirt, I just knew what their prisoner had done, and that he was so utterly fucked. It’s not certain, to me, whether or not he did everything his torturers claim he thinks about or enjoys, but what we know he has done is enough to warrant the vengeance happening to him, and others of his kind. Talk about queer ultra violence.

So, at first you might be forgiven into thinking “Conversion Therapist” breaks the pattern I’m trying to work with, but aside from the fact that it takes what happens in “Basic Witch” to a much darker and more punitive level, it goes back to the hypocritical double-standards of a society or a social system that fails to understand its humanity. “Offbeat,” written by Chiara Aerts and directed by Myrte Ouwerkerk, is the non-English subtitled film in the anthology — made in the Netherlands — which displays just what happens when a dystopian society called the Dome creates the only clean highly technological environment built on conflicting ideals and statistics without humanity, while claiming to embrace diversity. It is here that the protagonist has to face the stigma of labeling while watching other characters like a disabled man, and a transgender woman struggle through tests of admission try to stay true to his own self and basic decency.

And this societal critique of a system that inherently discriminates in a cycle, while pretending at fairness, again literally bleeds over from science-fiction to horror tropes in the form of “The Final Girl Returns.” Alexandria Perez explores the idea of a survivor of a horror serial slasher being condemned to rescue the horror trope’s “final girl” only to have each one die to the murderer from she supposedly escaped each time. I am not entirely sure, but all of the characters seem to be people of colour — just as the protagonist from “Offbeat” is — and the subtext about the authorities never dealing with, or capturing each serial killer in this self-aware horror genre universe speaks very intersectional volumes, and is very timely.

Taryn O’Neill’s “LIVE” is a nice transition considering that each character from the last two films is attempting to survive, but “LIVE” goes back to a similar conceit as “Waffle” in that the world is ruled by social media but in this case the protagonist is forced to engage in something of a fight club for views along with other nearly 24/7 streaming activities just to survive a world where the growth of AI has made most human activity irrelevant. This is a reality where everything is, again, transactional and the only way to stand out is to give up your sense of privacy for spectacle and drama and so many more views.

This lack of privacy seems to be a theme in itself within “Man in the Corner” written by Daniel Ross Noble and Kelli Breslin, the latter of whom is the director. After viewing this short film, I tend to think that it can be a metaphor for “catfishing” — of meeting someone online who is under a false identity, except this is interpreted as physical — or ignoring the red flags of the situation around a hook-up for the physical immediacy of the experience. It is a surreal atmosphere, whose reality is unclear and both the protagonist and the reader wonder if they are involved in a dream, or a nightmare.

But I think the film that took me off guard the most is the last film of the anthology. “Ava in the End,” written by Addison Heimann and directed by Ursula Ellis, starts off as a story about another seemingly shallow, hollow science-fiction dystopia — this time with people being able to upload their consciousness into a digital cloud — where a young woman has an interaction with an AI called “Bae,” but as events unfold in such a short period of time you feel for both of them. In fact, I think what makes this film the strongest is that these two characters — who start off in one place — find a commonality, a humanity, an empathy with each other, a sense of connection that can happen in a world that is supposed to be so connected.

That is how the 2020 Etheria Film Night Shorts end. From superficial rent-a-friend and dysfunctional familial interactions, to revelations of harm caused through a lack of connection, to systems of impossible perfection and literal cycles of horror confronted, and the threat of privacy as an illusion to be preyed upon, it all concludes with two lost souls reaching for each other across the digital darkness to make some meaning — to share some solace — in their terrifying existence. And if the results of what should have been a live showing of the 2020 Etheria Film Festival doesn’t capture this contemporary feeling right now online, where so many of us now live even more so than before, I don’t know what does.