Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: From Beyond the Grave

 Review originally appeared in 2010.

 "Now Cap'n," you say, "are you really going to keep telling me the From Beyond the Grave is a good movie when we all know that it's too tame, too comical, too scattershot, and worst of all, not scary?"

 And I will continue to say "Yes, I am."

 Do I admit that your description of From Beyond the Grave, the Amicus Production's 1973 horror anthology, is reasonably to very accurate? Sure, I'll cop to that. The film is rated PG, keeps most of its violence off-screen, the "Elemental" story is far goofier than I might have led on, the stories aren't all consistently great, and yes, it's not creepy in the way that Tales from the Crypt is. On the other hand, may I refer you to my review of The House That Dripped Blood from this time last year.

 These are all elements inherent to most anthology films: not just anthology films from the era (and specifically, most Amicus productions), but of the subgenre in general. I point you in the direction of Creepshow, The Twilight Zone: The Movie, Trick 'r Treat, Tales from the Darkside, or Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. You'll find that with some consistency, every criticism lobbed at From Beyond the Grave is fair in each case.

 What I love about anthology films is that not every story works, that the tone varies from graphic to goofy, and that sometimes the parts don't add up to the whole. And yet, I come back to them over and over again. It's the cinematic equivalent of a short story digest; if you don't like what's in front of you, the next one isn't far away, so just relax.

 From Beyond the Grave is a lot like The House That Dripped Blood, save for a less successful consistency in tone, but the cast is game to make the stories that shouldn't work palatable, and the ones that do carry the weight for everything else.

 Like that old review, let's do a breakdown of segments, all held together by a frame story featuring Peter Cushing as the Proprietor of Temptations Limited, an antique shop that sells innocuous seeming items with supernatural repercussions.

1. The Gatecrasher - David Warner plays an antique collector who swindles Cushing out of a mirror, only to discover that it hosts a particularly hungry ghost with a grave deal for his new partner in crime.

2. An Act of Kindness - Ian Bannen plays a ho-hum middle manager looking for more excitement in his life, and finds it when he steals a medal from Temptations, Ltd. and befriends Jim Underwood (Donald Pleasance), a street beggar. When he discovers that Underwood's daughter Emily (Angela Pleasance) dabbles in a bit of witchcraft, he gets more than he bargained for.

3. The Elemental - Ian Carmichael is a well-to-do businessman that switches the price tag on one of Cushing's snuffboxes, only to be warned by a clairvoyant Madame Orloff (Margaret Leighton) that he's picked up an "elemental," an invisible creature attracted to the pleasures of the flesh, on his shoulder. He ignores her, only to see the elemental's effects firsthand when it attacks his wife (Nyree Dawn Porter). Can Madame Orloff successfully cast the creature out of their country home?

4. The Door - Ian Ogilvy buys an ominous looking door from Temptations, Ltd., only to discover that when he shuts and reopens it, his storage cabinet becomes an entrance to a massive blue room, one that may house a man who used the occult to draw victims into his "trap."

 It's fair to note that the moral of From Beyond the Grave is "don't rip off Temptations, Limited," as the only character who isn't killed as a result of his visit to the shop lives because he paid in full for his door. Every other person who swindles the Proprietor ends up murdered, although not always in ways you might expect.

 As a matter of fact, the second story, involving a stolen medal as a pretense for befriending an old soldier, doesn't head in the direction one would expect at all. Typically, in anthologies, the ironic twist is the plot du jour, and while "An Act of Kindness" does have a twist ending, it's not at all one you're going to see coming, even if you are paying attention.

 The ending of "The Elemental" only falters because its grim tone follows the exaggerated Madame Orloff "casting out" sequence, which cannot be taken as anything but laughable. Had it been played like - and this is jumping forward quite a bit - a similar scene in Drag Me to Hell, there's a chance that the "twist" (which you can see coming a mile away) might be easier to accept.

 Of the stories, "Gatecrashers" works the most, and benefits from the film's rather tame PG rating. Forced to keep most of the killings off-screen, director Kevin Connor settles on a slightly hallucinatory tone as David Warner sets about killing girls to "feed" the mirror spirit. That we don't see the first kill at all, and are only hinted to what actually happened later makes up for the unbelievable behavior on Warner's part in the middle of the story (would he really not change clothes, or wash the blood off of his hands?). The ending is suitably eerie, even if it's not hard to suss out where the story is heading.

 From Beyond the Grave really suffers from the frame story, which never has the impact you hope it will. In part it's because "An Act of Kindness" and "The Elemental" really have nothing to do with what their respective protagonists take from Temptations, Ltd. The other factor (and it's a big one), is that Peter Cushing's kindly looking Proprietor has no sense of menace, of mischief, or really any presence at all until the film's coda, involving a thief that was casing the store all day. Cushing's make-up leaves him appearing older than he did four years later in Star Wars, and there's no real surprise to the "supernatural" - and undercooked - revelation about Temptations, Ltd. at the end of the film. By the time he addresses the audience directly (which isn't really new for Amicus), we're miles ahead of the "twist," so all that's left is the title card to end the film.

 So, like most anthologies, From Beyond the Grave has the not-so-good, the pretty-good, and the entertaining-in-doses components. Sometimes it's a little silly, yes. It lacks a persistent tone of dread, unlike Tales from the Crypt or even The House That Dripped Blood, and it's not going to knock any gorehound's socks off. But taken on its own merits, I'd say From Beyond the Grave is as watchable as any anthology I've seen, and better than quite a few in the last twenty years or so.

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