While he may not have the name recognition of George Romero or Wes Craven, Lucio Fulci has had a singular impact on the horror genre. And though his work doesn’t lend itself to the sort of pop culture familiarity that unites these and other more mainstream horror directors, what he did best within the genre, he did as well as any other filmmaker. His was a down and dirty horror: grisly, textured, elaborate, graphic. And arguably his finest achievement, certainly one that perfectly showcases his style and skill, is The Beyond (1981), out now on an extensive 3-disc collectors edition Blu-ray.
The Beyond begins in 1927 Louisiana, where the basic premise of portentous evil lurking near seven doors to hell is established. Upon one of those gateways sits an old gothic hotel, which in the present day, Liza Merril (Catriona MacColl) inherits from her recently deceased uncle. As the film gets underway, the hotel is undergoing some much-needed repair. A house painter, stricken by a vision of haunting eyes piercing through the darkness, falls to his death. Thus initiates the ominous and gradual—and gradually more outrageous—terror.
Upon hearing tales of the hotel’s past, Liza is initially doubtful, carelessly dismissing the series of tragic incidents that appear to be related to said gateways, and ignoring dire warnings about the site. She examines a sacred text that connects the seven portals to hell with the hotel, but only does so with a passive curiosity. She also brushes off the eccentric, malicious, and quite possibly evil incarnate servants, Martha and Arthur (Veronica Lazar and Gianpaolo Saccarola)—”they came with the hotel,” she casually notes.
Eventually, she discovers more about the mysterious occurrences and their menacing origins and starts to believe in the prospect of malevolence unleashed upon the earth, just as the threat escalates and expands, not as in a zombie-inflicted virus, but in a dispersing atmosphere of danger enveloping the region (and beyond?). A doctor she befriends (David Warbeck) remains skeptical, but by the time his opinion starts to sway, the film’s narrative grows increasingly secondary, disappearing behind Massimo Lentini’s production design, Germano Natali’s special effects, and the make-up creations by Giannetto De Rossi and Maurizio Trani, all of which, of course, are born from the terrifying imagination of Lucio Fulci.
When honing in on the maimings and the gruesome bits of brutality, Fulci films in lingering detail, shooting straight on and cutting away only to substitute real body parts for fake ones, but never to curb the violence or cheat the audience. He denies no potential chance for corporeal mutilation and is seldom hesitant to show it in extreme close-up. It’s a most potent stylistic choice in terms of shock value, but it’s also a way to tout the exceptionally well-crafted carnage. This film might have Fulci’s most fluid gore, with gushing goop ever flowing, but it also contains several other squirm-inducing sequences of less liquefied death: flesh tearing spiders, a carnivorous dog, and eye gouging galore. Marveling in the practical construction of the bloody effects may distance one from the narrative, as the focus goes to technique rather than plot or character identification, but such a diversion in no way diminishes the effectiveness and the thrill of the film. Quite the opposite.
The Beyond is more than blood and guts though. It also has some of Fulci’s most atmospheric settings, such as the morgue with its sterile whiteness and its carefully placed corpses, and the historic buildings with their ornate interiors beautifully lit and arranged. Toward the end, when the dead finally rise, the hotel is shown from the outside, coming alive with stilted silhouetted figures in the widows. Location shooting around New Orleans, which itself has a natural ambiance in real life, undoubtedly lends the film an additional authentic sense of peculiarity. Fulci’s penchant for graphic gore might get the notoriety, but one can’t deny his capacity for equally stunning visuals that rely more on aesthetic beauty than stomach churning bloodshed.
Fulci was firing on all cylinders when The Beyond was released. After several lesser known features within diverse genres, Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) gave the director a degree of international attention within the Giallo form. This attention was further surpassed by Zombi 2 (1979), an extraordinary work sold as an alleged sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), followed by the outstanding City of the Living Dead (1980), the first in a trilogy of sorts that would include The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery (1981). Into the 1980s, financial constraints, shifts in genre interest, and physical illness relegated Fulci to the margins of horror, where he was sadly joined by fellow countryman Dario Argento and even the pioneering Romero.
Nevertheless, these directors and their best movies are special chapters in the story of the horror film, and it’s nice to see a film like The Beyond receive such a stellar home video release. The new Blu-ray from Grindhouse releasing contains a great looking transfer of the uncensored director’s cut, a commentary track featuring MacColl and Warbeck, interviews with Fulci and many others involved with the film, the long thought lost German pre-credit sequence in color, liner notes by genre experts, and even the original soundtrack album by Fabio Frizzi. It’s an excellent treatment of an excellent film.