Few Italian horror film directors are as polarizing as Lucio Fulci. His run of late ’70s/early ’80s shockers function today as a sort of Rorschach test for horror fans, testing their ability to accept films that willfully break the rules of storytelling and allow the obsessions of the filmmaker to hold sway over conventional entertainment concerns. The Beyond is Fulci’s key title, a film where his ability to mix brutal violence, haunting surrealism and an impressive sense of stylistic design hit its all-time peak.

Beyond-posThe Beyond is set in New Orleans, with the narrative built around a hotel recently inherited by the rootless Liza (Catriona MacColl). Immediately, those working to renovate the hotel and other related people begin dying violent deaths, all depicted in lovingly shot and scored form by Fulci. With the help of mysterious, blind local Emily (Cinzia Monreale), Emily learns her new home has a violent history involving the murder of an artist who discovered a supernatural secret about the hotel. Liza tries to stop the chaos with the help of a local doctor (David Warbeck) but the more they try, the stranger and more lethal things become at the hotel.

The resulting film draws from a lot of familiar sources – the haunted house film, the zombie film, Lovecraft-era pulp horror, etc. – and yet The Beyond has a style and a mood all its own. The story operates at a level of setpiece-driven violent surrealism, with Dardano Sacchetti’s script laying out just enough archetypal elements for horror fans to follow but gleefully toying with the characters’ (and the viewer’s) perception of reality as it goes along. By the last twenty minutes, it achieves a kind of blood-drenched delirium as it pursues its own path to nightmare logic and one of the great “no escape” endings in ’80s horror.

This kind of sadistically playful, “free association” approach to horror is not for all tastes but those who can roll with its approach will be rewarded with a film who approaches its grim tableaus with an elegant sense of stylization. Sergio Salvati’s cinematography is gorgeous, offsetting lush natural tabBeyond-01leaus from the exteriors with chilly yet colorful lighting in the interiors, Vincenzo Tomassi’s editing gives the free-form surrealism a sense of tempo and Fabio Frizzi’s score offers a singular mixture of delicate, often lyrical orchestrations with prog-rock grandiosity.

Fulci weaves the work of these craftsmen together into a fever dream that feels like nothing else in horror from that era. The director’s fans make a big deal of Fulci’s setpieces in this film, and with good reason: sequences like a hapless soul being butchered by shards of glass from an exploding window and a scene in a mortuary involving a sulfuric acid facial turn gore effects intBeyond-02o feats of macabre showmanship. Even a much-criticized sequence involving a tarantula attack takes an inherently ridiculous conceit and pushes it to the limits of splatter-infused delirium.

However, there is much more to The Beyond than gore effects. Some of its most striking moments are the ones where Fulci applies his gift for reality-disrupting imagery to scenes that don’t involve shocks: for instance, there’s a haunting image of Liza stopping her car on a bridge that seems to stretch into infinity when she sees Emily standing in the middle of the road with her dog. Also notable is the film’s final tableBeyond-03au: without getting into spoilers, it creates a feeling of existential despair without shedding a drop of blood. Fulci’s ability to interweave moments like this with shocks is the secret to The Beyond‘s dreamlike appeal for its fans.

It’s also worth noting that The Beyond has a trio of fine lead performances that don’t get the notice they deserve. MacColl brings a quiet dignity and a down-to-earth humanity to her heroine role here, giving the audience an identification figure to hang onto when the story dips into insanity. The same could be said for Warbeck, who cuts a heroic figure even as the story defies his heroism at each turn. Finally, Monreale has the haunted elegance of a Poe heroine, combining ethereal beauty with an ability to convey fear in an expressive way that complements Fulci’s style.

In short, The Beyond finds Fulci taking his mixture of vicious horror elements and unexpected artistry for the genre to its ultimate extreme. If you can appreciate this combination, you’ll discover it offers one of the most distinctive experiences imaginable on the extreme side of horror cinema.