**½/**** Image B Sound C+ Extras B
starring Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Ken Foree, Ted Sorel
screenplay by Dennis Paoli
directed by Stuart Gordon
Sei donne per l'assassino
****/**** Image A- Sound B Extras A+
starring Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner, Mary Arden
screenplay by Giuseppe Barilla, Marcel Fonda, Marcello Fondato and Mario Bava
directed by Mario Bava
by Walter Chaw Stuart Gordon's follow-up to his flat-awesome Re-Animator reunites that film's Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton with source material by H.P. Lovecraft for From Beyond1, a nominal splatter classic that lacks the energy and cohesiveness of Re-Animator, even as it establishes Gordon as a director with a recognizable, distinctive vision. A picture that arrived concurrently with Clive Barker's "The Hellbound Heart" (the source material for Hellraiser), it's useful as a means by which Lovecraft's and Barker's fiction can be paired against one another as complementary halves of a symbolist, grue-soaked whole. With the latter's cenobites, his most enduring contribution to popular culture2, consider that Barker's vision of an alternate, infernal reality shimmering just beneath the surface of the mundane has its roots in Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos--a dimension of Elder Gods lurking behind the doors of perception. Lovecraft and Barker give description to the indescribable, name to the nameless. They are in pursuit of the sublime and their quest underscores the idea that any such chase is, at its heart, inevitably a spiritual one.
More the exclusive domain of Gordon than of Lovecraft now, the further idea that sexuality is central to religious sublimity (concepts of "ecstasy" rooted in religious ex stasis) is ventriloquated through Barker arch-fiend Frank and, in a similar parlance, through From Beyond's hedonistic devil Pretorius (Ted Sorel). His mission statement is almost identical to Pinhead's explanation of itself--"Explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some, Angels to others"--and it's no syllogistic accident that both stories begin with blood in a dusty attic. At the heart of each is this idea that religion is completely the result of frustrated sexuality, that fucking is worship, that orgasm is transmutation and release... Not for nothing is the dominant religion in the United States a cannibalistic blood cult.Crawford (Combs) is Pretorius's Igor: witness to his mentor's depravity ("He used to bring beautiful women here...eat fine meals, drink fine wine, listen to music...but it always ended with screaming") and discoverer, eventually, of the breakthrough that allows a stimulation of the pineal gland to expose a layer of reality swimming below ours. Little does Crawford realize that Pretorius's goal in breaking through to the "other" side is to explore new pleasures of the flesh--a pursuit facilitated by the literal images of an engorged, inquisitive pineal gland breaking through like a priapic penis from the foreheads of true believers. It's a thorny, archetypal image of violent sex as the product of the masculine impulse, and by extension that masculine creation--by its nature unnatural--unsurprisingly manifests itself as aborted sexual creation. Freed from an asylum by earnest therapist Katherine (Crampton), Crawford returns to the now-missing Pretorius's lab with muscle Bubba (Ken Foree) in tow to try to suss his nightmares from the truth. What unfolds is only what can be expected: Pretorius's dimension-rending machine gets turned back on, Pretorius comes back changed and still turned on, and uptight Dr. Katherine doesn't get a penis to get her freak on, but does don a leather Merry Widow. Gordon's style is straightforward, flat--he's a non-fiction filmmaker who understands the best way to get to his thesis across about fucking and God is to portray it as something of a nature documentary.
From Beyond is exceptional pulp. Coded and sprung from a venerated source material (is it a thumb at notoriously racist Lovecraft that Foree is the Alpha?), it deals with the uncanny in an unabashedly Freudian way, conflating--as Barker is wont to do--kinky sex with torture in liquid junctures infinitely more graceful than the short-lived torture porn sub-genre would do some twenty years later. The creatures of the Id released by Pretorius's clockwork (not entirely unlike the function of Barker's Lemarchand Configuration) are, as they should be, toothed spermatozoa, the triumph of society taking shape in, of all things, the literal disarming of the black male followed fast by an inexplicable explosion from an inexplicable bomb. Much of the film is drawn from that sense of absurdity; it's a testament to the dream-logic Gordon imposes on From Beyond that its wild implausibilities are left for the post-mortem.
In that spirit, find the best of Italian arthouse slasher auteur Mario Bava's pictures, each taking the lead in one way or another from Hitchcock's Psycho in posing beautiful women in various aspects of sexy obliteration. But rather than use the centrality of voyeurism that is the chief concern of Psycho (and contemporary 1960 barrier-breaker Peeping Tom) for an excoriation of the audience, Bava's films exult in their exploitation, offering neither punishment nor, really, disapproval, except obliquely, for its slavering gallery, hands in lap, ever watching--turned on, tuned in--from the dark.
Unfurling in a production designer's wet dream of saturated colours and opposing motions, Bava's Blood and Black Lace is exquisite exploitation--"pulp" isn't the right word, even if it does mnemonically suggest the floridity of wet decay captured by Bava's gaudy eye. Although it's Psycho that inoculates the public's squeamishness and legitimizes that collective appetite for destruction, it's Hitchcock's daubing of genre in brilliant swatches of lavish Technicolor that ultimately feeds this little masterpiece--that, and his peculiar way of zombifying beautiful women, forcing them to hit their marks and, after making women into objects, fetishizing those objects.
Take a scene where a certain diary is secreted away in a black leather purse and how Bava puts it in the extreme foreground as our usual suspects (and victims) orbit around it like the venal celestial bodies they are. It's the poisoned glass from Notorious (almost better, because a purse is the more traditionally vulgar cinematic analog to a vagina3)--and, like the best of Argento's early "supernatural" pictures, Bava's film reinterprets Hitchcock's themes and obsessions with an angry, urgent, just-this-side-of-alien ugliness. It's a mistake to think that beyond that the violence of objectification is almost all there is to talk about. Blood and Black Lace is a fever dream that disciple Argento would take on in his own gialli, here receiving its blueprint in a non-linear procedural interrupted/punctuated by elaborate, grotesque murder sequences. In the film's fashion house, the gorgeous meat bags are no more nor less differentiated from the wallpaper, their skin silk parchment stretched taut, their blood the paint the director uses impressionistically to wondrous effect--especially in a bathtub murder, fabulous Claude Dantes its focal point. Part painting, part tango, the picture is meticulous depravity and rapture, from its Mod-fab tableaux vivant opening credits through to its escalating abomination.
It's the quintessential 1964 film alongside The Master's Marnie (and Godard's Bande à part), sexually obsessed and pointedly, fascinatingly artificial--commentary on how the plastic-fantastic Fifties were shiny lacquer over, among any number of cultural apocalypses, the gender war in particular. Blood and Black Lace is the non-verbal, non-intellectualized version of Vertigo, essaying a culturally-mandated pornographic segmentation of women into their basic "saleable" elements. It makes sense, then, that Blood and Black Lace is set in fashion house Christiana Haute Couture; that its MacGuffin is a tell-all book of sordid details; and that its Greek Chorus--mannequins in various states of undress and corporeality (part of Bava's visual genius, and background as a painter, is his penchant for framing things--in purse straps, for instance, or through the undecorated wire bodies of its fake chicks)--is mute.
The centrepiece (not the bathtub scene, which, after Les Diaboliques and Psycho, seems less taboo than exquisitely beautiful) is a pursuit through an environment lit, uncannily, by colour cels and flashing neons that ends with our first good look at the faceless killer and, more importantly, with the silencing of the owner of the abovementioned black leather purse. Without much in the way of linearity (as the film lives and dies on its rises and fallings), without much ratiocinative sense in its mystery's solution (or suspense in the film's "logical" resolution), Blood and Black Lace is a reinterpretation of Hitchcock, it's true, but more importantly it's a dazzling reinvention of the genre. It's one of those movies that changed a lot of things in hindsight, a lovely, kinetic, truly gorgeous picture that hums with something like animalism and religious ecstasy. It's unforgivable politically, sure, sure, yet it says something ugly and true about boys and girls--about the way we see, the way we look, the way we wish to appear to one another, and the way we wish to destroy each other to keep those secret glances secret.
THE DVD - From Beyond
From Beyond comes to DVD in a freshly-scrubbed anamorphic transfer that marks the home-video debut of the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Colours are good in that cheapo-Eighties-slasher way while scenes restored for this "Unrated Director's Cut" are branched into the film productively, if not smoothly. A particularly coveted moment where Combs's Crawford sucks the eyeball out of a nurse's head (played by director Gordon's real-life wife, oddly enough) merits gorehound attention. You could make something of this destruction of the gaze, but for me, it's just gaggy fun. Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna, and Combs and Crampton collaborate on an affable yak-track that has the erudite Gordon discussing the ins and outs of production and the actors mostly cracking wise. Trainspotting is kept at a minimum, thankfully, and there's little in the way of dead air as we go through the process of adaptation, casting, and the observation that for this film, Combs and Crampton's roles from Re-Animator are essentially reversed. Talk of the power-dynamic shift should probably lead to a deeper exploration of how From Beyond differs in the focus of its discomfort between the two films--but alas. "The Director's Perspective" (10 mins.) has Gordon recycling much of his best material from the commentary, though I did like hearing about his mother's dislike of the picture. Old beefs with the MPAA are dredged up again, but let's face it: it's unlikely this movie, even in its theatrical cut, would pass muster in these puritanical times. Unless it was about Christ.
The money for the fan of the flick is a brief "Editing Room Lost and Found" (4 mins.), testimony of the foresight Gordon showed in keeping the censored footage in a well-labelled tin for posterity, how those trims were restored and reintegrated into the film, and Gordon's opinion that every previous incarnation of From Beyond lacked "balls" until this one. An interview with composer Richard Band (4 mins.) is a pleasant rumination on the scoring process that doesn't go into much depth but is in its modesty a nice profile of what makes Band tick, for what it's worth. I like the passion in his voice when he talks about plasma balls and priapic glands. Five animated "Storyboard to Film Comparisons" are useless, of course, albeit not quite as useless as the "Photo Montage" that finishes off this MGM release.
THE DVD - Blood and Black Lace
VCI Entertainment reissues Bava's masterpiece on DVD in an exhilarating "Unslashed Collectors' Edition." Its animated root menu is delightfully lurid, with the choice to start the movie rewarded with a scream and a gout of blood. Actually, the real reward is the transfer itself: despite tepid contrast and a general fuzziness that bespeaks video generation loss, the 1.77:1, 16x9-enhanced presentation exhibits vitality, brightness, an almost supple fidelity, at least compared to VCI's previous release. A film like this especially depends on the trueness of its palette and, to that end, the reproduction of Bava's colour schemes is, frankly, outta this world. For the first time, too, we're privy on the audio side to an Italian dialogue track variously described as the "original" audio, although I'm a tad confused on that score. Was this, like Sergio Leone's pictures, privileged with an "original" dub? In any case, find here, in DD 2.0 Mono, mixes in Italian and French, reproduced with clean fidelity. An English DD 5.1 remix meanwhile delivers Carlo Rustichelli's amazing Mod score--extricated from the film in four bonus music tracks on the next disc--in generous, sonorous tones.
As if that's not enough, VCI includes a feature-length yakker by Mario Bava authority Tim Lucas (he literally wrote the book on Bava with his definitive Mario Bava All the Colors of the Dark) that is among the finest, most informative tracks of its kind. It's exhaustive, packed with scholarship and passion as well as a gifted read of the piece that opened it up in new, unexpected ways for me. It's a primer on not only Blood and Black Lace but on how to do commentaries, too. Lucas analyzes the purse bait-and-switch with aplomb and humour and provides a framework upon which to hang any number of reads for each subsequent kill. I don't want to spoil how Lucas sees the bathtub sequence, but sufficed to say it's a fresh and exciting take. Capping Disc 1 of this double-decker are the film's American trailer plus trailers for City of the Dead, Ruby, Horrors of the Black Museum, and direct descendant The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.
The second platter starts with an "Interview with Cameron Mitchell" (7 mins.), a vintage David Del Valle dialogue in which the turquoise "Members Only"-clad thesp reminisces about Bava's ability to improvise with a limited budget and sometimes-suspect screenwriting. He tells a good story and seems to know his place in the Bava canon and its success; surprisingly invaluable, I'll be honest. Running 12 minutes and dating back to 2000, Mary Dawne Arden contributes a different sort of talking-head (monologue, no interviewer), the actress divulging that she was tracked down through the Internet and had no idea of Blood and Black Lace's cult following. She fills us in on what she's been doing in the interim, recalls a multi-lingual shooting process that confirms my suspicion somewhat in that the picture was shot in English (sometimes phonetically, originally), and ends with the stinger that she's never gotten paid for her work on the film. An isolated French title sequence (2 mins.) looks a lot like the one that made it into VCI's restoration (it's fucking awesome, by the way), in stark contrast to a flat American Release Title (2 mins.) that shows a distinct lack of imagination. A comparison (25 mins.) between the cut and uncut versions of the film's kills reveals, incidentally, that the edited Blood and Black Lace doesn't follow the bathtub sequence through to its billowing conclusion. The set is rounded out with the film's Italian and French theatrical trailers in addition to trailers for Eric the Conqueror and The Whip and the Body, both of which were directed by Bava. Originally published: November 6, 2009.
2. Their leader "Pinhead" and the mask from Scream remain the last real additions to horror's Mt. Rushmore, though Craven's "ghoul face" is more jape than archetype. return
3. Hitch's empty glass vessels representing his idea of women aren't vaginas to be penetrated so much as vacant tabernacles to be filled. Note the empty Jagarundi display in Marnie as analogous to Bava's purse-play. return