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From Beyond

From Beyond, 1986

Crawford (Jeffrey Combs) is working as an assistant to scientist Edward Pretorius (Ted Sorel), attempting to finalize a machine called the Resonator. The machine enhances the pineal gland in the brain, allowing one to see creatures. But things go wrong and Dr Pretorius ends up dead and Crawford lands in a local hospital, accused of both murder and madness. Psychiatrist Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) is called into help determine Crawford's sanity, and she decides to return him to the site of the experiments so that he can relive the events. But when Crawford complies and rebuilds the Resonator, things go very, very wrong . . .

I absolutely loved this film, and loved it in so many ways.

In many ways, this movie made me think superficially of Hellraiser, only a version where Kirsty kind of likes what she finds in the box.

What I loved the most about the film was the way in which it pulled off two equally strong character stories/arcs with both Crawford and Katherine. Crawford serves as an interesting foil to Pretorius, he is spooked by what he's seen and is afraid of what it might do to Katherine, himself, and a detective named Brownlee (Ken Foree) who has come to supervise events in the house. In many ways, Crawford takes on a role that would more normally be reserved for a female character--maybe the wife or girlfriend of the mad scientist. He has an admirable strength of spirit and a sense of right and wrong, but at the same time is more passive than you might normally see in a male lead. The portrayal of this more gentle masculinity (in contrast to both Brownlee's physical dominance and Pretorius's sexual aggression) is interesting.

Then there's Katherine, who gets the obsessive scientist trope that is almost always reserved for male characters while a girlfriend or wife frets about the way that he is changing. Katherine's character arc is more than foretold in her large glasses and precise french braid---both items that just scream "I am repressed and just wait until something happens that makes me take off these glasses and undo this hairstyle". But I still really enjoyed watching this version of that trope. To begin with, Katherine starts from a genuinely good place: she had a father who was mentally ill, and she begins to believe that the Resonator could have significant impact on the treatment of people with schizophrenia, a disease whose "treatment" often ends up zombifying its sufferers. But the Resonator unlocks something deeper inside of Katherine, and she finds herself drawn to its power and sensual pleasures.

There are a ton of monster mythologies in which men and women become affected and then release their inhibitions. Vampires and werewolves in particular often serve as paper-thin analogies for the inner-monsters of lust and desire. In the wrong hands, this can come off as really cheesy and exploitative.

The use of sex and sexual dynamics in this film is, to its credit, really thoughtful, in my opinion. Almost inescapably, sex and power are intertwined. Issues of control and dominance and power exist in some way in most sexual relationships, and in this film these are amplified. Pretorius, even pre-Resonator, is very into dominance. While it is unclear from a sequence we see of him dominating a female partner just how consensual his relationships are, there are two hints that his encounters are more abusive. IMDb notes that there was a cut scene in which Pretorius drove a nail through a woman's tongue against her will. In describing Pretorius and the women he brought around, a clearly upset Crawford relates that their nice dinners and conversation "always ended in screaming." It seems pretty clear from the way he talks about it that he wasn't just upset from hearing some edgy sex---it sounds more like he was witness to abuse or assault. And Pretorius-as-monster is obsessed with not only pleasure but consumption of others, conflating sexual pleasure with absorbing their bodies.

Several scenes take place in Pretorius's sex room. (One of my favorite touches here was that Crawford gives Katherine his bedroom and he ends up sleeping in the sex room on a little cot under a giant photograph of a nude woman). Katherine's transformation, in which she puts on a dominatrix outfit, also seems to align with her need for control. She talks a lot about control, repeatedly asserting that she just needs to be able to focus, and that she is confident that she can control the events if she is left to her own devices. She rejects warnings from Brownlee and Crawford about the obsessive and addictive signs of her behavior. I thought that it was interesting that Brownlee and Crawford do not seem to have that same hang-up about control, and while they are both *ahem* affected by the Resonator, neither goes to a place of aggression or dominance.

And building on that arc with Katherine, I liked the way that her persona post-Resonator reflects the exact accusations leveled against her by Dr. Bloch (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon). Bloch is clearly meant to be a villain who barely disguises her hatred for Katherine and gleefully threatens her with all manner of retaliation for stealing Crawford away. But some of her concerns and anger seem pretty well-founded. She accuses Katherine of exploiting people with mental illness and using them in experiments. Under the influence of the Resonator, Katherine does exactly this. In one of the most disturbing sequences of the film, Katherine sexually assaults an unconscious Crawford. She endangers both Crawford and Brownlee through her unwillingness to walk away from the Resonator.

The themes of dominance extend even to the visuals of the film, and it's not a mistake that the color and style of the wrist restraints used in Pretorius's sex room are almost exactly the same as those used in the mental hospital to restrain Crawford and later Katherine. There's an uncomfortable charge to a scene where a male doctor leers at Katherine as he prepares to administer electroshock therapy to her against her will.

And while the character work was my favorite thing, a close second would have to be the effects. Loved 'em. A mix of practical effects and some neat computer imagery. I read in the trivia of the film that they ran out of the budget before finishing the finale, but I thought the effects looked great from beginning to end.

I do wish that the film had been willing to play the character of Bloch a bit more straight. On the one hand, yes, the film is about control and domination, and I like that we see this play out in multiple contexts. And there is something to the idea of masking personal dislike behind moral outrage. But I also thought that many of Bloch's concerns about Katherine's professional behavior were valid. And just speaking personally, I find the idea of someone doing something horrible to you because they think they are helping more frightening than someone just being out to get you. Despite this, it was still pretty cool seeing an 80s horror film with a diverse collection of male and female characters with distinct personalities.

Lastly, I just adored the ending. It was bold and memorable and really fitting for the disturbing story it was telling. I probably liked this one a good deal more than Re-Animator, and I'm surprised it's not mentioned more often.