In 1920, genre author H.P. Lovecraft wrote a short story entitled From Beyond, in which a man is horrified by what he sees when his friend, scientist Crawford Tillinghast, activates the machine he created in his attic laboratory, a machine that emits a violet glow and waves that stimulate the pineal gland, thus giving a person a view into other worlds of matter, energy, and life that exist all around us but cannot be perceived with our regular five senses. With the augmented sight provided by the machine, Tillinghast and his friend are able to see that monsters surround us at all times, as unable to see us as we are to see them. Until they too are stimulated by the machine.
By the end of the story’s few pages, Tillinghast is dead of apoplexy, his machine is destroyed, and his friend lives in constant fear of the monsters he knows are passing all around him at all times.
After the success of his 1985 debut film Re-Animator, which had been an adaptation of a Lovecraft short story, Stuart Gordon looked through the Lovecraft archives for more stories he could turn into movies. The most interesting possibilities to him were Dagon, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Dreams in the Witch-House, and From Beyond.
Gordon really wanted to pursue Dagon and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, but Band was not enthusiastic about the idea of a movie featuring fish people. Although Gordon would later continue developing Dagon/The Shadow Over Innsmouth for Band, the project never happened with Band attached, and Gordon wasn’t able to get Dagon made and released until 2001.
With the options narrowed down to From Beyond and Witch-House, From Beyond won, with Witch-House put on hold until Gordon adapted it for the Masters of Horror Showtime series in 2005.
The hurdle Gordon and co-writers Yuzna and Dennis Paoli had to overcome in adapting From Beyond was the fact the source material was very short, depicting only one experience with the pineal-stimulating machine. They had to expand the story, and to do so they decided to make Lovecraft’s work the basis of the opening sequence, and then fill out the feature running time by imagining what might happen after such an event.
In the film, Jeffrey Combs plays Crawford Tillinghast, a scientist who has been working with fellow scientist (and BDSM enthusiast) Edward Pretorius in the creation of a machine they call the Resonator, which when activated emits a violet glow and resonant vibrations that stimulate the pineal gland, which is located near the center of the brain. Pretorius believes the pineal to be a dormant sensory organ, a third eye, and that stimulating it can enhance your senses.
The Resonator experiment proves that.The stimulation of the pineal causes a strange sensation in the forehead, can even cause headaches.. and it can also allow a person to see more than anyone has before. A world of dangerous creatures that exist all around us, swimming through the air. If they sense the presence of the people who can now see them, they will attack.
Tillinghast realizes that the experiment is too dangerous to continue, but Pretorius pushes forward, wanting to experience and see more and more. Things get out of control, and by the time the title sequence starts to play, the machine has been destroyed and Pretorius’s head is missing, devoured by a creature that lives in another level of existence.
Tillinghast ends up in a mental institution, deemed a paranoid schizophrenic, but the police are baffled as to what occurred in the attic laboratory of Pretorius’s mansion, so they bring in “girl wonder” psychiatrist Doctor Katherine McMichaels (Combs’s fellow Re-Animator alum Barbara Crampton) to examine him. Tests show that at least some of what Tillinghast says is true; his pineal gland has clearly been stimulated, as it’s oversized.
McMichaels decides that the best course of action is to take Tillinghast back to the Pretorius mansion on Benevolent Street, recreate the Resonator experiment, and witness for herself what happens, while working Tillinghast through his fear and trauma.
Accompanying McMichaels and Tillinghast to the mansion is police officer Bubba Brownlee, played by Ken Foree of Dawn of the Dead, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, and The Devil’s Rejects. If your movie is going to center on three characters, you can’t do much better than casting Combs, Crampton, and Foree as those characters.
The Resonator is repaired, activated, Tillinghast, McMichaels, and Brownlee all not only see into the world of monsters, they also discover that Pretorius is still alive in there and undergoing a monstrous transformation.
The machine is shut off before anything too bad can happen, and that should be it. McMichaels has proven Tillinghast isn’t crazy and Brownlee can back her up, they can get out of there and the Resonator need never be activated again. Maybe just once to show the monsters to some more authority figures, but these characters can leave.
McMichaels doesn’t want to leave. She has gotten a taste of this other world and she wants more. She’s an instant addict to the Resonator’s power, and finds an excuse to keep turning the machine on, the same driving force behind her becoming a psychiatrist: her father was institutionalized as a paranoid schizophrenic, so she is seeking to find a cure for schizophrenia. She thinks the Resonator may be the key. If it gives people visions like the visions schizophrenics have, maybe experiencing the other world will give her the answer to helping those with the condition. It seems like quite a leap to me.
Running the Resonator doesn’t just give you strange sensations in your forehead and cause headaches, or put you in danger of getting eaten by hideous monsters, or cause the gland in your brain to grow… Since the pineal gland also regulates sex drive, running the Resonator can increase someone’s libido to a point where they act in inappropriate ways. This happens to McMichaels, who gets into Pretorius’s bondage gear, and Pretorius, who was already a perv in his normal life, is still quite a horny devil as an otherworldy creature. As in Re-Animator, Gordon has Crampton get molested by a monster.
Gordon puts all of his characters through a lot in this film, physically and mentally. They’re driven mad, hideously transformed, and die in horrific ways. Several people lose their brains through their eye sockets.
Pretorius is gaining power, eventually able to turn the Resonator on and off from the world beyond our perception, and his ultimate goal is to devour the entire human race. The Resonator must be destroyed again, this time completely. Having come to her senses, McMichaels, in one of the most dumbfounding movie moments ever, pulls a time bomb out of a bag and sticks it on the machine. How did this character get her hands on a device like that? There is no explanation for it within the movie. The idea was that she stole it from a construction site, but in the finished film it’s a complete mystery and a very funny visual.
Despite the third act bomb misstep, From Beyond is a great second Lovecraftian effort from Gordon. I don’t hold the film up as highly as I do Re-Animator and haven’t watched it nearly as many times, but it’s certainly no disappointment. Combs, Crampton, and Foree deliver exactly the greatness you’d expect from them, the film is quickly paced, and it’s always intriguing.
Where the film really shines is in its practical creature effects, its slime-dripping, toothy monsters having been created by the effects artists at three different companies: More Than Skin Deep, Mechanical and Makeup Imageries, and Mark Shostrom Studio. Another standout element is the cinematography by Mac Ahlberg, who had also worked with Gordon on Re-Animator. Ahlberg captured some striking images on this film’s colorfully lit sets.
From Beyond goes far beyond its source material, but Lovecraft’s story provided the foundation for a highly entertaining horror movie.