I recently read someone over at the Criterion Forum message board describing Lucio Fulci’s films as undeniably nonsensical, but so visually striking that it’s possible to slip into a particular mindset while watching them—one in which the viewer simply becomes lost in the images and forgets about the incongruity of the plot. It’s an interesting theory, especially because, as I’ve been suggesting throughout my recent posts, psychotronic films almost always require us to adopt unusual viewing methods. We don’t watch a psychotronic film in the same way that we watch an Oscar-winning historical epic or a Judd Apatow comedy. We’re in some weird other viewing space, where we’re alternately horrified, amused, disturbed, bored, perhaps confounded. Which is where Fulci’s The Beyond (1981) comes in.
Like so many of the psychotronic films I’ve seen over the past few weeks, The Beyond is a particularly difficult film to assess. Does it merit praise for being so completely, almost willfully, unconcerned with the laws and continuities that govern mainstream cinema? Or is it simply dumb, clumsy moviemaking? It certainly needs to be contextualized within the rich history of Italian horror. Fulci’s work is in the tradition of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, both of whom jettisoned the tropes of Hollywood horror (creaky haunted houses, spiderwebs, lurching monsters) in favor of a more stylish, glittering surrealism. The clunky plots and bad dubbing in Bava and Argento’s films are excused by their dazzling visual appeal—particularly in Argento’s masterpiece Suspiria (1977), which sports masterful use of color, light, art direction, music, and camerawork.
We see bits of Argento’s stylistic flair in Fulci’s The Beyond, as in the beautifully lurid composition below. Fulci’s storytelling is even clunkier than Argento’s, though, and he’s less impressive in delivering payoffs. His gruesome set pieces—acid melting people’s faces off, a spike coming through the back of a woman’s head and exiting through her eye, tarantulas devouring a man’s lips, and so on—are handled almost perfunctorily, while music churns monotonously on the soundtrack. We don’t feel drawn into the kind of sensuous nightmare-worlds of Argento’s best films, nor do we feel any sense of urgency or surprise. There’s no reward here for our suspension of disbelief, only some shots of oozing wax dummies, and that’s not enough to carry an 89-minute film, even for someone who likes this kind of thing.