Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Beyond the Beyond

Growing up in Anchorage, there was a distinct lack of arthouse theatres. We weren't lacking for theatres in general, as I can recall 5 within a reasonable distance from where I lived growing up. That may not sound like a lot, but it was more than sufficient for a population the size of Anchorage. But these theatres were multiplexes, albeit smaller than the 16 or 18 screen behemoths that would come later. As a budding cinephile, I was confined to whatever titles became big enough to play in these cinemas (and whatever I could convince my mom to let me see), or I had to wait- sometimes years- for a sought after title to make it to video. This could be a sort of hell for a young man developing an interest in moving beyond the mainstream, into the deeper, murkier waters on the fringe.

My discovery of the Capri Cinema in my Junior year of high school (which would have been 1995) came as a great boon. The Capri is one of the things I miss most about my teen years, despite the fact that I only saw a handful of movies there, and discovered the place just 5 years before it eventually closed down. It's no secret why it took me so long to find the place; the Capri was a single screen theatre, with a maximum occcupancy of less than 100 people, located in a strip mall near the edge of town, a place I never had a reason to visit unless I was heading north out of Anchorage. It also, for the 70s and 80s, showed porn films on the weekends, which probably kept it off my family's radar when it came time to find a movie to see. By the time I discovered the place it had transitioned to almost entirely foreign or arthouse films, with some retrospective screenings thrown in, though these were also usually cult or indie films.

The screen was small, even for what you might be expecting, and the seats were often threadbare. There was a small cafe attached to the screening room, where you could purchase your snacks, peruse lobby cards for various old movies, or play a game of chess by the shopfront window. The place was modest and empty, is what I'm trying to say. But before I give the impression that this was a quaint, old-fashioned movie house, I should confess that there was an air of dinginess about the place. A residual seediness left behind, possibly, from the Capri's former life as a porn theatre. The place was small and had that clean-but-dirty feel, and the bathrooms were located inside the actual screening room, down a short hallway right next to the middle row of seats.

The Capri, circa 1995 or so.
The first film I saw there was The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls In Love, a coming-out and coming-of-age micro-budgeted comedy that a friend invited me to. While I remember enjoying its modest charms, I have a more distinct memory of feeling slightly uncomfortable at being the only man in the almost sold out theatre. That isn't incredibly bizarre, though, considering how small the occupancy of the place was. At least the men's room was empty. The final film I saw there was probably the deeply odd John Holmes film Disco Dolls in 3D, and yes, it was in actual 3D. Faded and faulty at over 2 decades old, but still in 3D. I did not check on the status of the men's room that night. There were a few more pictures in between, including the life changing weeklong run of Lost Highway, but the one I want to write about today is The Beyond, the 1981 magnum opus of Italian schlockmeister Lucio Fulci.

The Beyond was originally released in 1981, but garnered a re-release in 1998 through Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder distribution company. At the time Tarantino was honoring the exploitation films that had inspired him, while also distributing a pair of current films from directors he loved(Sonatine and Chungking Express). It was clearly a labor of love, not money, and after only 3 years and a mere 6 films Rolling Thunder shut down in 1998, At the time I was in my first of college, and a diehard zombie fan, seeking out any and all zombie films regardless of quality, and loving them all. If you were to tell that 20 year old man that within a decade he would be sick to his bones of zombies, he would have laughed in utter disbelief. Hard to imagine, but yes, we have reached saturation point for zombie entertainment. Back then, though, zombie movies were still largely the purview of the hardcore horror hounds. Zombies were definitely not the cool monster of the moment, which meant that a bad zombie movie pre-2000 was made, typically, by people with a love for the genre. A lack of resources and talent, maybe, but still a genuine love, which made even the worst films somewhat enjoyable to watch. And so 20 year old me was happily devouring the classics, like Dawn of the Dead, while also gleefully digesting the schlock, like Redneck Zombies. Seeing in the Anchorage Press that the Capri would be playing an infamously gory Italian zombie film from the genre's earlier renaisscance was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. The Beyond is bad, make no mistake about it, but it's also incredibly distinct and hauntingly bizarre. A real good-bad movie.

The plot of The Beyond is a bit difficult to summarize, not so much because the plot is complex, but because the manner in which it all hangs together is not very well conveyed to the audience. I've seen the film well over a dozen times, and I'm still struggling with how to piece it all together in a way that makes sense. What I can say with some certainty is that the film concerns a rundown hotel in New Orleans that is situated over one of the seven doors to hell (there is a similar door to hell in Fulci's earlier film, City of the Living Dead, which is otherwise not connected at all to this film). When a young woman, Liza (played by Catherine McColl) inherits the hotel and decides to renovate and reopen, she inadvertently wakes the ghost of a painter who had been killed in the basement by an angry mob. The ghost begins opening the door to hell, causing a small but bloody zombie infestation, along with several other odd incidents which may or may not be supernatural.

Lucio Fulci was never a subtle filmmaker, and he never allowed budgetary restrictions to keep him from committing to film whatever crazy, ambitious special effects shot that came to mind. In the film Don't Torture a Duckling a man falls off a cliff, and lands face first on every sharp, gravelly, rocky outcrop on the way down. If that sounds gruesome, imagine that instead of a realistic fake corpse, he's filming what is clearly a department store mannequin with blood packs on its head. The budget is larger in The Beyond, but that level of effects work remains, and it appears that the extra money went into quantity not quality. And to top it off, Fulci shoots all of this in direct, bright light. Where another director would try to use shadows to mask some of the shoddiness of the effects, Fulci constantly puts them front and center.The effects are fake, but go so over the top and are so in your face that they attain a strange level of fascination and disgust.

When I first watched The Beyond at the Capri, my friends and I had the entire place to ourselves, save for one lone movie lover in the front row. We sat in the back and had an uproarious good time, laughing hysterically at much of what was onscreen. The other patron, I found out later from Rand, the Capri's owner/projectionist/ticket taker/concession-stand operator had left the movie at one point to complain about the noise we were making. I was grateful to Rand for not giving us a talking-to at the time, but age and wisdom have led me to sympathize more and more with that guy, out alone for a fine time at the movies, only to have his evening ruined by a quartet of loud know-nothing college kids. At the time, however, it seemed like a completely justifiable response to a film where a character researching at a library falls off a step ladder hard enough that he is paralyzed and unable to fend off a dozen or so tarantulas that look too cheap for dollar store Halloween sales. When these fake spiders begin clicking and squealing as they chew on a cheap foam head, what is the appropriate response, if not laughter?

As soon as The Beyond was announced on a DVD release, I snatched up the limited edition collector's tin from Anchor Bay, and invited every friend I had over for a night that turned out to be just as raucous and enjoyable as the theatrical experience, only now with pizza. The next night I invited over friends again, and had another screening for those that couldn't make the initial viewing, or who just wanted to hang out again. The night after that, as soon as I got home from work, I made some dinner and popped in The Beyond as I ate, and I watched most of the film before falling asleep on the couch. At the time I lived alone, and this became my routine for about a week. I would self-hypnotize myself by putting on The Beyond and just drifting off to sleep with the film's odd, dreamlike rhythms and bizarre Danny Elfman goes Prog Rock soundtrack. The music may be what really dragged me under the film's spell, as I also found myself listening to the CD while on my daily commute to work. A gradual shift began to happen in my attitude towards the film. At first I was simply trying to recreate that original fun-filled atmosphere, but increasingly I began to fall under the film's sway.

The defining moment where I realized the film had won me over from ironic enjoyment to authentic love was on the 3rd night watching it alone, when something in the movie legitimately chilled me. The moment comes when mysterious blind woman Emily, who has been warning Liza to stay away from the hotel, actually comes to the hotel to explain some of the plot to her. They speak of Schweik, the artist/warlock who had been murdered in the hotel. Emily touches one of his paintings, a grey, mist-filled landscape full of low rock formations that look like bodies trapped in the ground, and her hands begin to bleed. She screams in terror, and runs from the hotel. The scene sounds eerie on its own, but the way it's edited together is inexplicably bizarre. First we see Emily run out the door, then we get the shot again in slow motion, with all sound taken out of the film. The film repeats closeups of Emily's feet running across the carpet, still in slow motion and without sound effects, but intersperses them with shots of a man's feet running towards the camera at regular speed and with heightened sound effects. The final shot is a slow motion shot of Emily running away followed, finally, by her seeing eye dog (who has not been in any of the preceding shots). For some reason on this night, after seeing the film a half dozen times, I was finally seeing how bizarre this scene was. I found it completely inexplicable and utterly nightmarish, and that feeling never went away.

[For those curious, I now believe the scene described above is implying that Emily's seeing eye dog has been possessed by Schweick's spirit, as much later in the film Emily is mauled to death by the dog while surrounded by the other resurrected corpses and spirits from the film. But this is also after a strange speech where she says she doesn't 'want to go back' and that they cant take her back. We can assume 'back' means 'back to hell', but there's nothing else in the film that addresses this, so it's still a bit mysterious.]

At their best, Fulci's films push their excesses into the level of sublime, dreamlike unreality. He's not the most artful director, and many of his films can be a chore to get through, but when he's firing on all cylinders his work succeeds almost in spite of itself. In The Beyond, many scenes appear unrelated to anything going on before or after, and though there is nominally a plot, the main characters seems strangely unaware of it. Liza knows creepy stuff is happening in her hotel, but doesn't seem to be aware of the body count or the supernatural nature of many of these deaths. David Warbeck, playing a local doctor who falls in with Liza, is closely connected to the zombie plotline, but even he remains blissfully unaware of the deaths occurring among his coworkers until almost the very end.

When I first encountered The Beyond I felt like this randomness and lack of connective tissue was accidental, the sign of amateurish filmmaking. Certainly the rest of Fulci's filmography did little to dissuade me of that belief, as things like plot and reality often take a backseat to mood and shocking gore. But as I watched the film repeatedly, I began to sense a certain intent behind the surrealism, a sinister dreamlike logic where scenes seemed to lead into each other even if the script didn't wholly support that idea. Researching the film today for this piece, I find that my assumptions were entirely correct, as the film began as an homage to Fulci's idol Antonin Artaud, the French playwright and sometimes surrealist. The movie was originally going to be a haunted house film where the carnage within the hotel was the only strand linking the narrative digressions. The German backers of the film wanted a zombie film, as zombies were considered the hot property of the time, so Fulci rewrote the script and made it more linear, though clearly some of that surrealism stayed in. Towards the end the film starts to go all in on the surrealism, as things like time and space begin to fall apart. Characters leave rooms only to end up in locations on the other side of town, and things finally end with Liza and her doctor friend trapped in hell, blindly returning to the same location no matter which way they run. It's amazing that I found this stuff funny when I first saw it.

After a week of constant viewing, my desire to watch The Beyond cooled, and my pace slowed to once every couple years, more often if I have a friend interested in watching it. The soundtrack remains in semi-regular rotation, jumping up in the charts every Halloween season. Today the film remains a cherished part of my own personal cinematic pantheon. Though it may not get the attention or respect that others in that company receive, it's still a strong and important reminder that every film is worth a deeper look, and that even the crappiest looking schlock can have it's strengths and secrets to tell. You've just go to be ready to listen.

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