THE BEYOND. Dare to open the gates of hell
I must admit that I considered Lucio Fulci a long time ago as an inept and kitschy filmmaker whose horror movies not only didn’t scare me but often bored me. When I was a teenager, I saw Zombi 2 and The House by the Cemetery, and I immediately despised the Italian director’s horror works for their complete lack of logic, stupidity, cheapness, poor execution, and shoddy storytelling. It took a good decade before I gave Fulci a second chance by watching The Beyond, also known as Seven Doors of Death in the US and internationally.
That viewing of surprised me in two ways. Firstly, I genuinely enjoyed the film, which I didn’t expect, giving me hope that I might also appreciate other works by the man considered the godfather of gore. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I could have accused The Beyond of exactly the same shortcomings as the previous titles, yet I had to acknowledge the director’s vision’s superiority over these shortcomings. Over the years, my perception of Zombi 2 and The House by the Cemetery has also become much more positive.
Even now, it’s difficult for me to explain the greatness of Fulci, who made his horror films quickly and cheaply, prioritizing the most spectacular and gruesome death scenes over realism and the principle of probability. Dario Argento could often face similar criticisms, but the stylistic precision of Suspiria set him apart from his older colleague, who allowed for much greater concessions to logic. Before I delve into the plot of The Beyond, I’ll recount a scene from the film to give a better sense of Fulci’s typical narrative style.
After one of the doctors attaches electrodes to the head of the deceased to check for brainwave activity (it’s worth mentioning that the poor man has been dead for over half a century), the widow of another deceased arrives at the morgue to prepare her husband for burial. Her visit is suspicious, given the absence of any hospital staff, and she seems unfazed by the sight of other corpses. That is until she sees something terrifying (likely the equipment indicating brain activity in her husband’s neighbor) and begins to scream, thereby alerting her daughter waiting in the corridor. When the daughter rushes in, her mother is unconscious on the floor, and a corrosive substance pours out of a jar onto her face. The acid mixes with blood, and a bright red stain starts advancing toward the terrified girl. Eventually, she manages to open the refrigerator door, only for a pile of someone else’s remains to spill out onto her. Nothing in this scene makes sense – we see liquid pouring out of a bottle, but we don’t know how the container fell; the stain somehow chases the girl no matter where she goes, which is absurd; the doctor who attached the electrodes to the corpse didn’t even check the results of his experiment. Nevertheless, the entire sequence works surprisingly well.
Those seeking logic in horror cinema should prepare for a minor cognitive shock when they first encounter Fulci’s work. In his so-called Gates of Hell trilogy, which includes The Beyond, City of the Living Dead, and the aforementioned The House by the Cemetery, the Italian director treats horror as the absence of a rational explanation for terrifying situations. The disturbing images are the result of the work of people responsible for makeup and special effects (led by the great Giannetto De Rossi), but they equally provoke intellectual disquiet, challenging our common sense and the need for a rational explanation. Even as I write this, I wonder if I’m attempting to sensibly justify Fulci’s nonsensical style.
The Beyond ‘s plot, although not without its plot holes, can be relatively succinctly summarized: a young American, Liza (very good Catriona MacColl, the star of the entire trilogy, who appears in a different role in each film), oversees the renovation of a Louisiana hotel she inherited. A series of strange incidents compels her to investigate the history of the building, which was constructed on one of the seven gates leading to hell, the opening of which will unleash a plague of the dead upon the earth. Liza tries to save herself with the help of a doctor (the heroic David Warbeck), but wherever they turn, an even greater danger awaits. There’s also a prologue set in 1927, depicting a lynching of one of the hotel’s guests by the locals, and a blind girl attempting to warn the main character about the consequences of staying in the city. However, these scenes do little to explain the rules by which the real world and the fantastical world intersect in the film.
The nightmare has already come true—the gate has been opened, the dead are rising, and the laws of logic and physics work against the characters. In one scene, a shot through a window causes it to explode, with shards of glass flying into the room like projectiles, embedding themselves in a supporting character’s face, ultimately killing him. Fulci also doesn’t explain how it’s possible for tarantulas to infest the city library, attacking an architect lying on the floor, eating his mouth, nose, and even his eyes at one point. There’s a macabre celebration in these scenes, with detailed descriptions of the cruelty, but as soon as it ends, it ceases to have any further significance for the plot.
Interestingly, there was a time when Fulci, after many years of directing comedy films, adhered to logical reasoning. In the early ’70s, he created highly regarded gialli, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) and Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), then returned to the genre later, making the supernatural thriller The Psychic (1977). Up until that point, it was hard to accuse his works of incoherent storytelling and a focus on gory sequences, but that changed during the production of his subsequent films. It’s not coincidental that these films became his most famous productions, achieving international cult status, which he himself was unaware of for years.
In The Beyond, Fulci’s nightmare is expressed most fully because where there’s no sense, there’s no hope. In the film’s finale, when the main characters reach a point where further escape is impossible, the earlier lack of logic finds its justification. I wouldn’t go as far as to call Fulci’s film surrealist, as many do, but the last strangely poetic and moving image suggests the filmmaker’s intentions go beyond the realm of living dead and man-eating spiders horror. It doesn’t equate hell with a threat to our bodies but rather with the awareness of the insufficiency of our minds. Should we, too, acknowledge during a viewing of The Beyond, that we’re unable to comprehend what we see on the screen? If so, Fulci may indeed be a greater genius of cinema than I would like to admit.