Update late 2018: After a Halloween rewatch, I stand all the more in awe of Fulci’s truly irrational editing scheme and his almost unholy skill not simply dropping us into an unraveling narrative but demolishing the presumption of rational sense-ordering in horror to begin with. The Beyond remains a truly scrambled, egg-beaten (or brain-beaten) perceptual experience, even in the already demonically playful realm of giallo-inflected fear, let alone the wider horror genre.
It is a truth undeniable that Lucio Fulci’s 1981 Grand Guignol The Beyond lacks a capable narrative or characters, but this is true only in the way that L’Avventura and Breathless lack much in the way of conventionally sufficient narratives or sensible characters. They are all anti-narrative, anti-character films, and the deficiency is fully intentional in each case. They are films precisely about the deconstruction of narrative, the characters intentionally maneuvering themselves through their worlds in contrived, abstract ways to illustrate a point about the artifice of narrative, the performative nature of human activity, and the absurdity of film and its relationship to the human condition.
Fulci’s vision is no different, although it is filtered through a different texture. Just as Breathless is about the artifice of ordered narrative and the triviality it instills in filmic storytelling, The Beyond is too about the way films define order and conventional narrative. Except while Godard’s works cheekily and cunningly ask us to read between the lines with finesse to explore the master manipulator ironizing the characters’ search for order, Fulci’s film takes the broadest brush it can find and cuts through the order with a giant blood-red stroke. While Godard’s work undermines order, Fulci’s denounces it entirely.
Which, incidentally, is the core logic of any horror film, exposed in an uncommonly pure and distilled form here. The destruction of normativity and everyday life, the disruption of social order with pure, untamed chaos, is Fulci’s game, as it is the core goal in any horror playbook. It is not for nothing that the film’s narrative is rambling and that the twitchy editing throws character, consistency, or continuity out of the window; the center is not any one character, but a space, the Seven Doors Hotel in Louisiana, where consistency and continuity no longer exist as hell makes play with those who inhabit it. When Liza (Catriona MacColl) inherits the hotel, which happens to be built on a portal between the underworld and Earth…
…”death happens” may be the only way to conclude the plot description. That two-word summary, “death happens”, is the narrative of The Beyond, and it needs nothing else. The film episodically jumps between sequences and characters, never staying with any one human for a lengthy period, the film’s semblance of structure rapidly untethering before our eyes in uncommonly expedient fashion. It is not a work about a character arc, but about the disruption and destruction of character, arcs, and everything that calls those words neighbor. For The Beyond to have a single main character or a narrative thrust would reduce the film to the order of the mundane, and Fulci wants to do everything he possibly can to the mundane except play by its rules.
How lovely, and something so few films empower and take up: making a film “about” disruptive, spiritually shocked, disjointed chaos and turning out a film that is, as an object, all of these things. So many works that attempt something sinister or revolutionary fall back on conventional filmmaking as a fallout shelter, but not Fulci. He is committed to realizing the ambitions of his film in the texture and grain of the film itself. The end result is a work of unconventional editing and supremely nightmarish imagery that never for a second feels lucid. If horror is about the invasion of the mundane by all-consuming otherworldly forces, Fulci’s film sees those forces infringing on the very structure of the film, the very beat-by-beat, minute-to-minute semblance of film logic that constantly uncoils through every second of this film’s existence. He gives us a shockingly pure form of psychological horror, where-in the film itself corrupts the audience and recreates in that audience the feelings of its characters, a sense of the world undone.
Now, this naturally means The Beyond is not likely to be to everyone’s taste, especially when the particularly unforgiving structure – which literally boils down to “different people are menaced in an environment by all manner of screenwriter conjurations” – is matched to the undeniable gruesomeness and repugnance of these conjurations. Make no mistake: this is a repellent film, not so much sickening as sickened itself. It is brutal and knows nothing for its audience except difficulty and hurt. The practical effects, of which there are a great many, are uncommonly grisly and transformative, in that we witness them in full glory and observe a particularly unadorned physical deconstruction of human flesh and viscera. There is an unfortunate dichotomy in horror between the respectable “psychological” variant of horror and the chagrined, shunned physical variety, as though bloodletting is an active repellent for depth, beauty, and crawling dread. The Beyond is case to the contrary and evidence of the fallacy of this false horror dichotomy; raw, curdled gore is often a cover-up for a lack of skill, but skill can beget gore. And gore can beget beauty.
And beautiful, in a particularly macabre, morbid sense of the word, The Beyond most certainly is. Fulci’s mastery of the camera is in full effect from sepia-toned beginning to diced-up ending. He has an uncommon eye for composure and raw geometric symmetry that is often overlooked and misunderstood. After all, people do not often equate horror with intricate, perfect framing. Yet, upon closer inspection, the relationship is not only mutually beneficial but perhaps essential. What better to carry a film down a stream of the uncanny than a perfectly realized, stifling sense of order and composure at the beginning of the film, a sense of order and composure that when so carefully established, is all the more effective when the film proceeds to disassemble this perfection and symmetry. Horror is all about order thrown into chaos, and to sell the chaos, you need to sell the order, and what better way to do this than to literally undo the order of the editing and framing mechanics of the screen as the film progresses?
It is easy, too easy, to crutch around on the word “nightmare” when describing a horror film, but few films themselves inhabit the space of nightmares quite like The Beyond, a work that holds as its manifesto a rapidly propagating nightmare logic. Everything about the film enhances this overwhelming sensibility, from the ghastly imagery to the anti-flow of the film’s hallucinogenic structure where-in the time and space of the hotel bend in on themselves without the characters ever calling attention to this fact, to the way the characters do not in any way resemble human beings (that’s Fulci turning a weakness of horror, dumb characters, into an eminent strength by conforming to nightmare logic and not formal logic). In every sense of the word, The Beyond is a difficult film, but it is also an uncommonly perceptive, textured film that uses the very bones of filmmaking – stringing images together to be watched – to uncommonly potent, entropic effect. It is brutal. It is magnificent. And it could not be one without the other.
Sc ore: 9/10