In 1986, Ronald Reagan was president of the US, the first mobile phone networks were only beginning to take off, and Top Gun was the most popular movie. And on October 24th, exactly 30 years ago today, a sci-fi/horror movie called From Beyond premiered and inadvertently predicted the future, only to be promptly overlooked and mostly forgotten. (It earned $1.2 million at the box office, despite costing about $4.5 million to make).
A gory, goofily sexy portrayal of scientific hubris run amok, From Beyond concerns a brilliant physicist, Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs), who assists his older and seedier colleague, Edward Proterius (Ted Sorel), in building a machine called the Resonator. When switched on, the Resonator modifies the brains of any nearby persons, allowing them to perceive alternate dimensions and horrific creatures normally hidden from view. As the main characters later discover, it also excites the human libido in some interesting ways.
Things quickly go horribly wrong. A traumatized Tillinghast is accused of Proterius's murder, and must rely upon "girl wonder" psychologist Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) and local police officer Beaufort "Bubba" Brown (Ken Foree), for help proving his innocence and sanity.
Despite its relatively brief 86 minute running time, watching From Beyond 30 years after its release may test modern viewers, who aren't down with silly retro body horror movies and their political incorrectness. For example: our pioneering yet stuffy psychologist sheds her lab coat for bondage gear; the "token" African-American sidekick is the film's muscular wisecracker; and BDSM—now mainstreamed thanks to the Fifty Shades franchise and a growing tolerance of varied sexual behaviors—is depicted as deviant and morally depraved.
"Our films are about the propensity of human beings to become monsters in and of themselves."
Notwithstanding, I love From Beyond. Although aggressively set in the 1980s, it was ahead of its time in presenting and dealing with some issues of sex and gender, making a woman scientist the film's ultimate hero. And where it was and remains prescient to this day is in its depictions of augmented reality, i.e., putting imaginary characters in the same physical spaces as us (which we have today in a rudimentary way, through apps like Pokemon Go), and body modification, or biohacking (which some people are already trying by putting chips and magnets into their bodies).
I recently talked about some of these ideas with From Beyond's screenwriter Dennis Paoli, a writing instructor at Hunter College in New York, who adapted the film from a short story of the same title by celebrated horror author H.P. Lovecraft (he also wrote From Beyond's much more popular predecessor, Reanimator, based off another Lovecraft story). Here's what we discussed:
From Beyond shows the downsides of augmenting reality
The chief horror in From Beyond comes in the form of grotesque beings that appear when the film's fictional scientific invention, the Resonator, is turned on. These take the form of "creatures that are like eels, creatures that are like giant worms, creatures that are like insects, creatures that are like nothing we've ever seen before," Paoli said.
The creatures also prove dangerous and ultimately lethal for some of the characters. That's something that isn't in the cards right now with our "real" augmented reality, thankfully (as the real technology only projects digital beings, not physical ones).
Horror aside, From Beyond shows the seductive and potentially obsessive nature of augmented reality (or realities). The Resonator enlarges the pineal gland, a real organ in the brain, making the characters able to perceive "beyond" their five senses, a feeling that quickly proves addictive to many of them ("you're acting like a junkie," one character tells another in the film). They want to turn it on, even though they know they shouldn't, with the dangerous creatures lurking on the other side. Still, the pull of a new reality, an expanded vision, proves impossible to resist—to their detriment.
"Our films are about the propensity of human beings to become monsters in and of themselves," Paoli said.
It's not hard to imagine our modern, lite version of AR producing a similar desire in some people, especially as our graphics and projection technology improves. After all, some people are already dangerously addicted to 2D games.
"When you look at Pokémon, it's built to be fun," Paoli said. "But the fact is those things can be very disorienting, and that's where the Lovecraft comes in: which world is the world we live in now?"
BDSM: fun for everyone
The ultimately villainous character who sets the film's events into motion, Edward Pretorius, has a BDSM hobby and his own "Red Room" full of props, toys, and his own homemade porn—which the other characters later cite as evidence of his derangement, abusive tendencies, and general vileness.
Yet one of the film's most memorable sequences occurs when ambitious psychologist Katherine McMichaels, sexually stimulated by the Resonator along with the other characters, dons a risqué leather outfit used by some of Pretorius's previous partners. Though unabashedly played for sex appeal, the moment was also meant to show that McMichaels' character is as self-actualized and transgressive for the time period as the bad guy.
"What she's doing when she dresses that way and engages with that material is that she's taking on the role of Dr. Pretorius," Paoli said. Paoli added that the point of the McMichaels character arc was to portray a hard-charging heroine who was intellectually equal or superior to the other scientist dudes in the film, a sentiment previously echoed by the actress Barbara Crampton in an interview with horror movie magazine Scream last year:
"I would say Katherine in FROM BEYOND afforded me the greatest opportunity to play a wide range of emotions in the course of 90 minutes. I went from being a repressed Psychiatrist to a yearning, sexually charged and awakened woman to…being a hero! It was quite a journey and one where Jeffrey (Combs) and I almost reversed roles from what we played in RE-ANIMATOR."
Ultimately, without spoiling too much, the Red Room and some of the bondage gear aren't there just to titillate in From Beyond—they prove pivotal to the film's grand finale.
Even though it characterizes BDSM as a morally repugnant activity, From Beyond is one of only a handful of "mainstream" movies that I've seen so prominently feature the subject as a main plot thread, at least until recent years. And its appeal to both the men and women characters in the movie shows an unusual "gender equality" for the era.
Body modification is also a hot topic
Of all the subjects that From Beyond touches upon, the most overt is that of body modification. Early on, it's established that the purpose of the Resonator is to produce a vibration that stimulates the pineal gland—a real-life structure inside the human brain.
The pineal glands of the scientists who create and experiment with the Resonator subsequently grow and mutate, even spilling out of several characters' heads as a kind of snake-like, literal "third eye." Although grotesque, the characters who undergo this transformation appear to enjoy it, due to the extrasensory perception it gives them. And a character who is fully absorbed into the alternate dimension is able to shapeshift, or what McMichaels calls "total bodily control at a molecular level."
"One of the things we wanted to do was go beyond any technology we had at the time," Paoli said.
In the last decade or so, we've seen amateur scientists, artists, and journalists begin to experiment with body modifications designed to do exactly this: expand the sensory capabilities of the human body. So far, these "biohackers" have mainly implanted relatively crude additions into themselves, like NFC (near-field communications) chips and magnets, but they're essentially trying to do some of the same things the characters in From Beyond are, just on a much smaller scale (so far).
Thirty years later…
From Beyond probably isn't likely to be mentioned in the same breath as other hugely influential sci-fi films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Minority Report, The Matrix, or even its contemporaries, The Fly and They Live (the latter which also deals with a kind of "augmented reality", though it was made two years later).
But when it comes to the incredibly human propensity to overindulge our grandest ambitions and worst impulses through technology, I think From Beyond is up there with any other film you can mention. Augmented reality, body hacking, and BDSM are all features of our modern reality, and in the case of the latter, downright mainstream. Paoli credits this to the source material: H.P. Lovecraft, author of the original story.
"Lovecraft's understanding of science and the scientific discoveries of his time made him prescient," Paoli said. "A number of our films, especially our Lovecraft films, are not outdated because of this."
So this Halloween, if you're looking to watch a fun, cheesy horror film that's way smarter than it gets credit for, you could do worse than checking out From Beyond.
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