Can exploitation be art?
While that question was probably not in the forefront of director Lucio Fulci's mind when he made THE BEYOND, it is nonetheless a question raised by the Italian splatter king's masterpiece. Few horror films can succeed so well on such different levels, providing the cheap exploitation thrills of gore and excessive violence and still retaining enough integrity and intelligence to be genuinely chilling. It is certainly not an easy task, nor is THE BEYOND a film that appeals to everyone, but for those who are up to the challenge, Lucio Fulci's greatest work presents one of the most finely crafted, thought-provoking, and beautiful horror films of all-time.
In the face of modern horror, there's a very fine line between gimmicky exploitation movies and serious horror, and THE BEYOND walks that line like a tightrope for the entire duration of its -minute running time. The film's opening scene alone - in which the cursed painter Schweick is torn apart with chains, crucified, and bathed in acid - is bountiful with an over-the-top explosion of gore, beautiful and eerie cinematography, and a truly unnerving prophecy; a prophecy that, before the film has ended, will be frighteningly fulfilled. In fact, so thin is the boundary between the two sides of THE BEYOND that one isn't quite sure how to take it when first watching it. Portions of the film are so cheesy and gratuitous, but they are often followed up immediately with disturbing images and ideas that quickly drain the smile from your face.
One of the reasons for how THE BEYOND manages to pull off this duality between cheesy and chilling lies in its very surreal nature. It is not a film where everything is to be taken as literal truth, but certainly not one of those works where the characters awake to find that, 'everything is just a dream!' The plot is about as bare-bones as they come. In truth, the 'plot' hardly exists at all. Instead, what you see for the hour and a half you spend watching THE BEYOND is a dreamy flood of images, one after another after another, all of which follow a certain string of continuity, but all of which stand independently as simple excursions into either excessive blood and gore or eerie mental displacement. A ghostly woman appears, disappears, reappears, then disappears again - all with no real pattern. Spiders inexplicably come out of nowhere and attack. The real world becomes a dream world, and vice versa, and there are no seams to show where the transition takes place, nor is there any explanation as to why. The film careens down a surrealist racetrack towards a bloodbath of a climax, then concludes with one of the most unnerving and disquieting endings of modern horror.
Having such an unorthodox nature could easily alienate viewers - and it has many times, as horror fans are often deeply divided on the subject of THE BEYOND. Those that really 'get' Fulci's vision are quick to call THE BEYOND a masterpiece, while those who cling to narrative coherency and 'believable' special effects are usually turned off by the film. What the film's detractors fail to see is that the irrational chain of events that make up the film's continuity and the blatantly outrageous gore effects are all part of the film's charm. Make no mistake about the intent behind the film: though Fulci was quite obviously looking to make a truly thoughtful horror film, he was also crafting a movie specifically for the Italian gore audience. The merging of the two extreme opposites is what gives THE BEYOND its charm, what sets it apart from the rest of Fulci's work, and the rest of Italian horror. Not even Italian maestro Dario Argento could merge the two worlds together as well as Fulci does here.
Aiding the master of Italian gore films in his quest to create a truly remarkable film are an outstanding musical score by Fabio Frizzi, stunning effects from longtime Fulci collaborator Gianetto De Rossi, and some of the most beautiful cinematography in the history of horror. Standing alone, each of these elements works wonderfully. The score is both hauntingly serene and unsettling. De Rossi brings to the screen some of the most deliciously disgusting gore effects of his career. The gorgeous camerawork serves as a perfect compliment to the story that has no real story: picturesque and creepy all at the same time. THE BEYOND is a combination of them all, a masterpiece in the truest sense of the word.
Like a rich painting come to life, THE BEYOND truly is a work of art, from each of its single frames to its overall completed form. Leave your rationale behind and just let yourself be consumed by this truly amazing combination of awesome, gratuitous gore and eerie, unrelenting horror.