AKA E tu vivrai nel terrore! L’adlilà, Seven Doors of Death. Directed by Lucio Fulci, 1981. Starring Catriona MacColl (as “Katherine MacColl”), David Warbeck, Cinzia Monreale (as “Sarah Keller”), Antoine Saint-John, Veronica Lazar. 89 minutes.
In 1927, an eccentric artist named Schweick was brutally murdered in room 36 of Louisiana’s Seven Doors Hotel by an angry, superstitious mob who believed him to be an “ungodly warlock.” Over fifty years later, the run-down hotel has been inherited by a New Yorker who intends to restore and reopen it. Little does she know that the hotel is built on a gateway leading to Hell itself…
The important thing to remember about The Beyond is that co-writer/director Lucio Fulci idolized surrealist playwright Antonin Artaud and intended the film to be an homage to Artaud, his approach and philosophies. Artaud is perhaps best known for conceiving the “Theater of Cruelty,” a set of philosophies meant to guide theatrical writing and performance. I’m not going to go too much into that here, mainly because all I know about Artaud and Theater of Cruelty comes from the Wikipedia articles, but suffice it to say that Artaud advocated less of a dependence on plot and structure, and more emphasis on striking, shocking imagery meant to “shatter the false reality.”
If you don’t see how this has an application to horror fiction in general and horror cinema specifically, you’re not paying attention. Certainly when you watch horror movies—and especially if you watch Italian horror movies of this particular vintage—you’re going to have to get used to the idea that you’re going to have at least two or three things that are included in the film because while they fit perfectly into the film’s visual aesthetic, in terms of story and plot development, there’s no credible reason for them to be there. (Which means you can draw a path of development starting at Artaud and ending at giallo and the modern slasher movie. Makes you want to treat Sean Cunningham with a little more respect, doesn’t it?)
So if Fulci was being truthful about this—and as the Australian band Root has demonstrated, it’s very easy to anything that looks like a deficiency and claim it as an artistic statement—the “oneiric incoherency” (as Wikipedia calls it; in layman’s terms, it means “dreamlike and makes no fucking sense whatsoever”) of The Beyond is a feature, not a bug. In its original form, it was reportedly little more than a group of gore sequences, only linked by a single plot element, that of the hotel being built on a gateway to Hell. Later on, the film’s financers got involved; European audiences were still cuckoo for zombie movies and the backers asked Fulci to rewrite the script, which he did. (Ironically enough, a similar thing happened during the development of Fulci’s most infamous film, Zombie—or Zombi II, or Zombie Flesh Eaters, or whatever we’re supposed to call it—which started off as a movie about voodoo.)
Even after the interference the plot structure of The Beyond is still pretty messy. I wouldn’t call them “logical flaws”—there are a couple of scenes, particularly the meeting between Liza (the inheritor of the hotel) and Emily (a blind girl who knows much about the hotel and has a connection to it she isn’t telling Liza about), that would come off as ridiculous in a film more steeped in realism. But taking into account the film’s internal logic, the meeting makes perfect sense. (Plus, the photography is fucking amazing.) In this case, the only thing that really counts as an inconsistency is Liza, played by English actress Catriona (here doing business as “Katherine”) MacColl, never being quite sure whether she’s from England or New York. (At one point, she talks about her English breeding. At another point, she tells someone she’s lived in New York all her life—a line she delivers in an English accent.)
It’s more of a case of things happening that, for all intents and purposes, don’t strictly need to happen. A great example is the celebrated “spider kill” scene, in which a supporting character takes a nasty fall off a tall later, whereupon he is set upon by tarantulas who appear out of nowhere and proceed to eat/rip his face apart while he’s still alive. You know, because dying of a broken neck after a fall just isn’t interesting enough.
There’s also any number of instances where the film doesn’t give us much concrete information to go on (there’s a lot of stuff that can be interpreted or inferred, but very little actually outright explained). How, exactly, does the autopsy room kill happen? What about the character who stops being in scenes about halfway through the film, only to show up as a zombie without explanation fifteen minutes later? What exactly causes the gateway to open? And I could easily write a thousand words about the confusion over whether the hotel is situated in a rural area or in a city. (Quick synopsis: all the dialogue seems to suggest a rural setting, but the footage of the hotel’s immediate environs were shot in cities—Liza describes Emily’s residence as “the old house by the crossroads” as if it’s the middle of nowhere, but the actual shot is of a house in an urban area. At another point, an obvious if minor New Orleans landmark appears in the second-unit work.)
So, with structure and plot de-emphasized, one would hope that The Beyond is visually impressive. On that count, there is no disappointment. Fulci had an amazing sense for composition. I’ve already mentioned the meeting between Liza and Emily, but I also want to single out the opening sequence, Schweick’s murder, which is filmed in sepia tones; Fulci demonstrates here a beautiful sense for monochrome and shadow here. The final sequence, which is suitably awe-inspiring (such a shame that you have to slog through a sluggish zombie shoot-out to get to it), is also brilliantly done.
(Incidentally, while it’s true enough that the gore sequences here are well-executed—it’s Lucio Fulci we’re talking about here, after all—I didn’t find them particularly engaging, chiefly because they’re very obviously being performed on dummies. Note how Schweick becomes completely stationary when the locals throw the quicklime on him—not even his lips are moving—and yet you can still hear his screaming on the soundtrack!)
Overall, even when I had trouble getting into it—intentional or not, the lack of focus on structure alienated me a bit—I never felt that The Beyond wasn’t worth the trouble. In the end, the only thing that really disappointed were the dummies and the climax at the hospital. It just needed a little bit more work to appreciate fully.
Moment of Zen
The final scenes.