Eldritch Adaptations is a series of reviews of movies based on or heavily inspired by the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft—better known as H. P. Lovecraft—an American horror writer who produced numerous stories during the 1920s and ’30s. His works have influenced the horror genre and inspired major writers and directors like Guillermo del Toro, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more.
Last week, or Part 4 in the set of links above, I reviewed one of the most popular adaptations of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft’s works: Re-Animator (1985). In summary, I said that it was vaguely entertaining as a B horror movie—with significant issues in its portrayal of women potentially as a result—but a great adaptation of Lovecraft’s story because it captures the camp that Lovecraft imbued into it. A lot of people overlooked that, and so I thought that maybe director Stuart Gordon actually knew how to read Lovecraft’s work. So, this week I watched From Beyond (1986), which is the second of three adaptations that Gordon has done of Lovecraft.
A quick plot summary, at least of what I learned in the first half of the movie: Dr. Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) is working on a machine with a famous scientist, Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel), to develop the pineal gland, which supposedly gives human beings new senses. Unfortunately, the new senses allow people to see creatures in our plane of existence that can do some terrible things to us. Tillinghast goes mad after something kills Pretorius, but he is released into the custody of Dr. McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) and officer Brownlee (Ken Foree). They soon discover that Tillinghast is not only sane, but correct in his claims that there are terrible monsters in our world.
So, this plot seems fairly straight-forward, and although it diverges a lot from Lovecraft’s story, I was willing to consider that Gordon might tap into some Lovecraftian goodness. But, unfortunately, I was wrong in thinking that Stuart Gordon understands Lovecraft at all. In my review of Re-Animator, I railed on its wanton use of rape for (terrible) plot advancement and (horrifically ignorant, not to mention ineffective) character development. I was certain, though, that this was merely meant to be a misguided use of B movie plot devices. It makes me sad that something as terrible as sexual assault can be written off as homage, but I at least hoped that Gordon wasn’t doing it because he’s an awful director.
But lo and behold, I was wrong! Similar to the last article, I’m adding a TRIGGER WARNING because I’m gonna be discussing this in some detail. Halfway through From Beyond, Pretorius shows up as a monster from the other plane of existence and grabs Dr. McMichaels. Now, it’s been revealed that Pretorius had a dangerous sexual appetite (abusive, presumably), but all of the sudden he starts removing McMichaels clothing and fondling her with his deformed body. END WARNING Honestly, after that point in the movie, I have no idea what happens, because my viewing of From Beyond (with Second Breakfast writer Chris Melville and occasional guest columnist Will Standish) went something like this:
Chris: I swear, if they have another pointless rape scene, I’m just gonna leave.
Alex: I mean, the IMDB advisory didn’t say anything.
[Scene starts happening]
Chris, Will, Alex: Ah, god damn it!
Will: Nope. I’m done.
Alex: Alright, I’m turning this off. Let’s go.
And then we stopped watching. Honestly, I think that Stuart Gordon is a despicable filmmaker, not just because he clearly feels the need to add terrible, socially blind scenes to already subpar horror movies, but…actually, you know that? That’s the main reason. But even then, if I’m going to consider him as one of the biggest adapters of Lovecraft, I have a bone to pick. The rape scenes are atrocious enough, but he doesn’t even really get what makes a good Lovecraft story.
“From Beyond” is not one of Lovecraft’s best, but the changes that Gordon makes are clearly meant to fit the plot into a standard horror film and not at all consider the author whose name he puts in big letters in the credits and seems to pretend he has an affinity for. First of all, there is his treatment of the Lovecraftian protagonist, who is typically some kind of naive academic that learns too much about our universe and cannot bear the weight of this terrible knowledge. But more important than just that is the sense of isolation that bears down on his shoulders—and I do mean “his,” because almost all of Lovecraft’s protagonists are male. No one will believe him. Who in their right mind would? But no less, the narrator knows these things to be true; he is stuck with terrible information and a world that cannot listen.
So, what does Gordon do? He creates two sympathetic characters to buddy around with Tillinghast. They expect that maybe his insanity is because he’s right about the pineal gland, and so they all go to try it out. I mean, maybe this idea would work for a horror movie—and again, I’m not trying to say that all adaptations must be entirely faithful—but it’s certainly not at all creepy, and definitely not Lovecraftian. Gordon clearly likes the idea of Lovecraft’s monsters—and Lovecraft does describe some amazing monsters—but the eldritch beasties are not the point of the horror. The point of the horror is the knowledge that the universe is filled with things beyond our comprehension that do not care about us. It’s the fear of the unknown, the terrifying prospect that we cannot understand the world, and that any attempt to do so is misguided at best and apocalyptic at worst.
So what does Gordon do? He makes the horror about creepy, dead rapists that can occasionally show up and do weird things with their skin. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond” is unique in having an antagonist that is a regular dude, but Gordon can’t decide whether he prefers that idea or some kind of monster, and decides for a decidedly not creepy middle-ground. Maybe this works for a cheesy 80s horror movie, but if you’re going to adapt Lovecraft three times, I would hope you actually have some interest in…you know, adapting Lovecraft.
If I’m being totally honest, though, I could deal with the blatant disregard of a supposedly huge influence if Gordon wasn’t a lazy, hack director that would rather subjugate female characters than attempt to have any sort of actual power to his storytelling. There are a lot of directors that spend significant amounts of time with screenwriters and everyone else involved in the film to create a movie that best represents the story that they want to tell. Then, there are directors like Gordon, who take some story they think they understand, drown it in cheap cliches, and whip out cringe-worthy plot devices that disregard the humanity of its characters. And you know what? Screw them.
Next week, I’m considering a review of the last of Gordon’s movies: Dagon (2001). But, quite honestly, I don’t know if I can bring myself to do it. We’ll see.