Apr 8, 2011

Blu Ray Review: The Beyond [18]

Dir: Lucio Fulci
The Beyond is the third of Lucio Fulci's four zombie films, which have become the most popular and enduring films on what is an extensive and wide ranging CV. While his previous film, The City of the Living Dead, had strayed somewhat into the surreal (notably with that infamously abrupt ending), The Beyond sees Fulci step into a world that never seems less than dreamlike, and blur the bounds of real and surreal and the leading character's sanity or madness, throughout.

The story is notably difficult to get a handle on, but in basic terms it concerns Liza (played by Catriona MacColl, in the second of her three films for Fulci), who has inherited a hotel in New Orleans, but as she's doing it up discovers that legend says it is built over one of the seven gates to Hell and that when that gate opens - as it appears to have done - the dead will walk the Earth. It's a loose tale, and just about provides a framework for MacColl and David Warbeck (as the local doctor who comes to Liza's aid) to be menaced by some of make up artist Gianetto DiRossi's nastier creations. However, Fulci's out and out horror films were never famous for their narrative cohesion, and nor does a lack of it take away from the experience of them, indeed in this case it may add to the experience.

At the time it was released, this film and others like it were dismissed as the work of hacks, but The Beyond reveals Fulci as a master visual stylist. From the outset he lends the film a subtle surreal atmosphere with the use of smoke to give every scene (even the first in the hospital morgue, which should really be a cold, clinical, place) a slightly otherworldly feel. Fulci is also an auteur, and many of his visual obsessions are on full display here. Most notable is the clear fascination with eyes, there is an implicit suggestion in the film that those who have looked into 'The Beyond' go blind, and this is accentuated with frequent close ups on the eyes of Cinzia Monreale's character Emily; an ethereal presence who may or may not be real, but seems to seek out Liza at key moments in the film. Fulci is also fascinated by the idea of trauma to eyes, which is the focus of many of the gore scenes in the film; eyes are gouged, put out with nails and eaten by spiders.

These and all the other gore effects are brilliantly realised by the great Gianetto DiRossi and his team, whose work also graced Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters, City of the Living Dead and New York Ripper among many others. DiRossi's ingenious work allows Fulci to really get close in on the gore effects, to dwell on them, and while there are a few rough edges, the work is generally incredibly impressive. Fulci also knows how to use the effects, in an extended scene in which a woman's face is melted off with acid he certainly indulges in the gore, but he doesn't sacrifice menace on the altar of sensation, repeatedly cutting back to an increasing pool of acidic blood as it advances on the unfortunate victim's young daughter.

The two most notable effects in The Beyond are, respectively, perhaps the single best and the single worst DiRossi and Fulci ever accomplished as a team. The spectacular one is a relatively simple exploding head, but for me it's among the best effects of its kind ever filmed; the nastiest and most shocking (yeah, including Scanners). On the other hand the sequence in which a man is, essentially, spidered to death is pretty terrible. The mechanical spiders look awful, and really undermine some otherwise fine effects. That said, this was a sequence that stuck in a future filmmaker's mind; Sam Raimi used a shot from this sequence in his first Spider-Man film.

For all its spectacular gore and lack of narrative cohesion, it would be a mistake to think that The Beyond has nothing to offer apart from splashy violence. The performances are proficient, given the limitations (lines like: "You have carte blanche, but not a blank cheque" and a lack of on set dialogue recording), and the central trio of MacColl, Warbeck and Monreale all do solid work. Monreale is perhaps especially good, turning in an ethereal performance as Emily. What really sets the film apart though is that haunting sense of otherworldiness. Some of it; the lack of any characters outside the central drama, the seeming dislocation in the story and the abrupt nature of many scenes may be down to the budget and English language skills that gave us things like the sign in the hospital that says 'Do Not Entry', but there also clear elements designed into both the narrative and the visuals. You can't look at the tightly constructed and edited scene in which Liza and Emily first meet (on a deserted road which seems to stretch into forever) and not come away with the impression that Fulci is at least suggesting that this is some sort of alternate reality.

Even if I'm not convinced it's his best film, The Beyond may contain Fulci's best ending. He seems here to want to revisit the doomy and surreal feeling of the ending of City of the Living Dead (where it didn't really come off, to be frank), and this time he nails it perfectly. After 85 minutes of relentless violence and gore, the film pulls back, and has the courage to end on a note that is truly downbeat and haunting.

The Beyond has its weaknesses, largely in the screenplay, in which individual moments seldom join up (which, while it adds to the strange feeling of the film, can also make it a challenge to watch). One set piece falls flat, some of the dialogue and acting is comical, and there is the odd flaw with the editing (notably the take that goes on JUST long enough to show Catriona MacColl begin to break out laughing in the midst of a zombie attack. However, it is visually stunning, and sweeps you up irresistibly in a very particular world. If you haven't seen it you really can't call yourself a horror fan.


The Disc
The picture is absolutely stunning. The team at Arrow Video have, again, put together a brilliant restoration of the film. As much as the previous DVD releases looked great, this is light years ahead of them. There is detail in the frame that you just wouldn't have expected would ever be visible. The best thing about the transfer, however, is that it manages to uncover this detail without losing the grain that gives the film its texture, without giving it that slightly artificial, overly perfect, feel that HD can have. As far as I can tell this is a perfect transfer.

Menus are well designed and laid out, and operations are fluid and run without animated sequences between menus, which tend to be cool once and then annoy.

The Extras
This is one of Arrow Video's most prestigious titles, and they have gone all out on the extras package. On the first disc there are two audio commentaries; the classic laserdisc track with stars Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck, and a new recording with Fulci's daughter Antonella. I have only sampled the new track, which sounds like a fond reminiscence of Fulci, but the older track is one of my favourites; it was recorded just before Warbeck's death, and is a warm, funny track marked by the continuing chemistry between the stars, who are clearly fond of each other.

Across the two discs there is also a selection of newly filmed and substantial interviews. MacColl - who always seems a little baffled by the affection these films are held in - contributes heavily, in both a new interview and a post-screening Q and A. Cinzia Monreale, credited in The Beyond as Sarah Keller, is animated and enthusiastic in her interview, and seems to have different memories of Fulci than you might expect, given what has been said about him over the years.

From behind the scenes there are interviews with genius make up artist Gianetto DiRossi, who reveals a few of his secrets (all of which are simpler than you might expect) and with The Beyond's original US distributor, who gives an interesting insight into the grindhouse scene of the 70's and 80's.

As a whole package, this is pretty exceptional.

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