"[T]he final product is considered by many fans to be one of Fulci's best films and has even been praised for its oneiric incoherence."
Praised for its incoherence! In a sepia-toned prologue, we find ourselves in Louisiana circa 1927. An artist named Schweick is killed in gradiose fashion by an angry mob of intolerant Southerners—he's scourged with chains, then doused with acid and nailed to a wall for good measure. One of the things that interests me about The Beyond is the way it shows an outsider's perspective on America, Fulci being Italian, of course. In this early scene, there's the film's only glimmer of Southern racial tensions, as the mob passes a nervous, sweating black guy on their way to kill Schweick.
I'm Catriona MacColl as Liza and I'm so pretty and concerned! Now it's 1981 and Liza has inherited the very hotel where Schweick was done in. There are omens that things might not turn out great—the alarm in an empty room keeps going off, the plumbing is a wreck, and a workman falls from some scaffolding after being frightened by something.
The warnings soon become literal verbal warnings, courtesy of blind girl Emily, who hangs out in the middle of the 20-mile bridge over Lake Pontchartrain.
When even more things go wrong and corpses still piling up, Liza enlists the help of local doctor John McCabe (David Warbeck). It eventually emerges that the hotel, which resides in Mandeville, was built over one of seven gateways to hell. This leads to all sorts of unpleasant happenings. By the way, I used to live in Mandeville and I can totally believe that it is the home of a gateway to hell.
This film definitely does not proceed according to anybody's rules or logic. Allegedly, Fulci took a deliberately surrealistic approach, crafting a story that works more like a chaotic nightmare than a movie with a linear A-B-C plot. Far-fetched elements, like a machine that can monitor a corpse's brainwaves, are introduced without explanation. You either accept it or you don't, whatev. Just as with Suspiria, a narrator appears out of nowhere for a line or two. Even things that are products of accident or ineptitude, like the DO NOT ENTRY sign below, add to the movie's dreamlike feeling.
Being a Fulci film, the effects are admirably effective and blood galore gushes out. In one memorable scene, a huge spider burrows inside someone's mouth and bites out pieces of that person's tongue with its fangs. Flesh in general gets abused and ripped away, but the violence always has a bizarre quality, like even it's affected by the film's weird atmosphere. We get close-ups that are too close, threatening to show the rigidity of makeup, and they contribute to The Beyond's unique feel. Given how much control Fulci exerted over this one and how well-mounted other aspects of the film are, it's tough to imagine that these scenes weren't intentional. No matter what Roger "Strictly speaking, it is a scene of spiders eating makeup" Ebert believed.
This will be loved or hated, depending on your taste for the strange. That said, there are flaws that will irk anyone. I loved Catriona MacColl's performance overall, but she does have some issues with maintaining her accent, especially in the film's second half. Some of the dialogue sounds like a European wrote it, portions resembling the speech of TV Southerners and other portions not even trying to adapt to local speech.
But I can't help but praise a film that tries so hard to innovate and is such a successful product of its creator's intentions. For adventurous viewers, this is a deeply involving and rewarding horror film, a special moment in the genre and proof that it pays to fight for a vision.