ANALYSIS: The Cult(ural) Impact of THE BEYOND (1981)

This month on the Pod we’ve been diving deep into Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell Trilogy, and here Becci Sayce examine the lasting legacy of it’s central instalment…

Graphic violence, extravagant set pieces, surreal shots and an unnerving score: the 1970s and 80s saw a boom in Italian horror among Western audiences, with works from the likes of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Ruggero Deodato making a seismic impact among film fans. From giallo to supernatural horrors and zombie flicks, Italian cinema drew audiences in thanks to its transgressive, bloody narratives that shocked and tantalised, with Lucio Fulci at the forefront of this boom.

Through the 1950s until 1996, when he died due to complications with his diabetes, Fulci created a number of successful, shocking films that propelled him to the status of cult filmmaker. His extensive filmography contained work from numerous genres – from westerns to comedy – though his real gems lie in horror, with The Beyond (1981) often cited as his best work.

The notorious video nasty sees Liza Merril (Catriona MacColl) inherit a mysterious hotel in Louisiana, one with a ghoulish past that includes sitting on one of the fabled Seven Gates to Hell. And when a workman suffers a terrible accident while refurbishing the hotel, the violence escalates as otherworldly forces prey on those connected to the building.

Liza soon meets a blind woman named Emily (Cinzia Monreale) who tries to warn her about the hotel’s violent past, but it proves too late as Liza and Dr John McCabe (David Warbeck) – who becomes entangled in the dangerous web of the hotel – are thrust into a living nightmare.

As intriguing as the plot is, it pales in comparison to the scenes of gore which make this one of Fulci’s most stomach-turning works. Blood and guts may be commonplace in horror, but where Italian horror stands out is in its ability to turn gruesome scenes into something of beauty.

Many horror films feature one or two notorious scenes that shock viewers, but The Beyond catapults us from one savage image to the next in a whistlestop tour of the most depraved parts of humanity.

We see a man eaten alive by tarantulas to pulsing, other-worldly sound effects; a character’s face melts away in uncomfortable proximity as her daughter watches on; and we are frequently face to face with rotting, undead beings that are inexplicably roaming the earth.

Fulci goes for the jugular when it comes to gore whilst still managing not to wander into the realm of appearing so outlandish so as to become comedic, creating uncomfortable, stomach-churning imagery that lodges in your subconscious. Though these scenes are grotesque in nature Fulci transforms them into a work of art, with much credit going to special effects artist Germano Natali and make-up artist Giannetto De Rossi who bring his vision to life.

Many horror directors, especially those accustomed to gore, have signature types of violence:. for Fulci, it is the shocking scenes of ocular destruction that prove particularly eye-catching.

Horror is no stranger to graphic images of violence towards eyes, with arguably one of the most infamous eye-gouging featuring in Fulci’s own Zombi 2 (1979). It seems unimaginable to lose one’s sense of sight in so many situations, but it feels particularly pointed when you are confronting the loss of vision whilst watching a film.

The film’s sepia-toned opening sees Emily discover an ancient text, the Book of Eibon, that gives warnings about the ‘seven cursed gateways in seven cursed places’. In a close up reminiscent of Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980), upon reading the ancient supernatural book Emily immediately loses her sight. Elsewhere throughout the film, the otherworldly entities cause different characters to go blind – whether through exposure to burning plaster or simply popping them out of their sockets.

The repeated use of blindness in the narrative goes beyond simple shock tactics and adds to the overall unnerving theme of the film as characters are forced to face an unknown entity on multiple levels – one that they cannot see as it does not reveal itself, and then again as it takes their vision and forces them into eternal darkness.

While Zombi may feature the eye gore scene Fulci is best known for, The Beyond seems to be a personal challenge for the director to top it as he experiments with multiple scenes of graphic ocular violence.

Incoherence and bewilderment also forms an integral part of the narrative here, making the film unfold like a lucid nightmare you cannot wake up from. Rather than following a linear plot, it unfolds like a fever dream, propelling us from one tableaux to the next, strung together with intricate set pieces and lashings of extreme violence. Characters question the strange events almost as much as the viewer, as we bounce from one moment to the next in whiplash fashion.

Even the presence of the undead within the film is utterly surreal. There are a number of iconic zombie films within Italian horror, including some of Fulci’s own works, though the ghouls in The Beyond seemingly come out of nowhere in the onslaught of terror the residents of the hotel are subjected to.

Similarly the film ends in a bewildering, haunting fashion, with Liza and John desperately trying to find a way to escape the undead pursing them through the basement of the hotel, only to end up transported into Hell through one of the gateways.

As the pair take in the barren wasteland in front of them, their eyes turn white as if to shield them from the horror enshrouding them. It epitomizes the beauty, bafflement and brutality of the film in one final, fatal blow as our lead characters are propelled into a nightmare with no rhyme or reason, forced to face abject terror ‘beyond’ their comprehension.

Fulci himself spoke of his ambition with The Beyond to create a film that embodied a hellish experience. In the booklet for the 2000 limited edition release he wrote:

“What I wanted to get across with this film was the idea that all of life is often really a terrible nightmare and that our only refuge is to remain in this world, but outside time.”

It is something that saw the film criticized upon release, polarising both critics and cinemagoers alike, with the lack of narrative cohesion causing many to brand it ‘thrown together’.

However, the lack of explanation contributes to the overall horror of the piece, perfectly exemplifying how terrible things can happen for no reason and people get hurt – and sometimes lose their lives – with us struggling to reach closure. We never truly find out why one of the gateways was opened, or why the terrible events of the film unfold, and it is something that will haunt many viewers as they try to reason why. Even more than 40 years on, The Beyond remains one of Fulci’s most disturbing, transgressive works.

After years of film fans being subjected to low quality cuts of the film, Sage Stallone, the son of Hollywood icon Sylvester Stallone, oversaw a major restoration of the movie, and Quentin Tarantino, who distributed it, made sure The Beyond was seen in its full glory.

The initial and subsequent success of The Beyond has seen the film go on to be studied in various documentaries and inspire wider popular culture. A clip from the infamous spider scene was featured in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), and rock band with Europe retold the plot of the film in popular single Seven Doors Hotel.

Made on just a $400,000 budget, the film developed a loyal cult following in the ensuing decades. Time Out London placed it at number 64 on their top 100 Horror Film list, while film critic Steven Jay Schneirder ranked it at number 71 in his 2009 book  101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die.

It seems so impossible, so absurd that The Beyond remains such a relevant piece of work four decades later, but it’s a testament to the surreal savant that is Lucio Fulci and his Gates of Hell trilogy.

© Becci Sayce

Enjoyed this article? You can check out our podcast episode on The Beyond here, whilst over on Patreon we discuss other two entries in Fulci’s Gates of Hell Trilogy, City of the Living Dead and The House By The Cemetery.

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