From Beyond, Stuart Gordon, and MPAA censorship

Feature Ryan Lambie 4 Feb 2013 - 06:59

With the uncut version of From Beyond out on Blu-ray later this month, Ryan looks at the ongoing battles between filmmakers and the MPAA...

First released in 1986, Stuart Gordon's From Beyond is a work of gaudy, chaotic brilliance. Based very, very loosely on a short story by HP Lovecraft, it takes a sci-fi story about a scientist fiddling with the boundaries of human perception and extrapolates it into just under 90 minutes of gooey monsters, kinky S&M gear and splattery violence.

Like Gordon's earlier movie, Re-Animator, From Beyond revelled in its boundary-pushing humour - and the director's maximalist approach to nudity and gore caused particular problems with the MPAA when it came to classification. Originally running at around 85 minutes, From Beyond was submitted approximately 12 times as Gordon attempted to get an R-rating for his movie (then, as now, an NC-17 rating spelled financial death).

Each time, the MPAA rejected the film, insisting on numerous trims to various scenes of bare flesh or outlandish bloodshed. By the time Gordon had the rating he needed, From Beyond was several minutes shorter than its original cut - resulting in an entertaining yet rather less full-blooded film than the director intended.

For almost 20 years, it seemed that the MPAA's insistence on cuts had permanently damaged Gordon's movie; once removed, the offending snippets of footage were apparently lost when From Beyond's original distributor closed in the early 90s. It was the chance discovery of some rough-cut film in MGM's archives more than a decade later that made a definitive, director's cut of the movie possible, and this month sees the release of a full, uncensored version of From Beyond for the first time in the UK. 

Among the interviews on the disc, Gordon talks about the nightmarish process of getting a satisfactory cut of From Beyond past the MPAA. For the most part, the board only demanded that brief snippets of gore or nudity be cut - Barbara Crampton's teeth clamping down on Jeffrey Comb's distended pineal gland, or the repeated bashing of an ambulance driver's head against a concrete floor, for example - but one scene in particular horrified the examiners.

In it, Jeffrey Combs' character - the now bald and crazed Dr Crawford Tillinghast - displays a ravenous appetite for raw human brains. As he squats on an institution floor munching on a chunk of grey matter, he's interrupted by a stern Dr Bloch (played by the director's wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon). Tillinghast, still hungry for fresh brains, lunges at the unsuspecting victim, bites out her eye, and starts sucking her brain out through the cavity. The MPAA was not impressed.

“It was like going to the principal’s office to get scolded," Gordon recalled. "They sat me down, and the woman I was meeting with said, ‘This is disgusting. Instead of pulling away, you keep pushing in and pushing in and pushing in!’ and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry!'"

With the film's release date fast approaching, almost 30 seconds was cut from the scene, robbing From Beyond of what was intended to be its most shocking moment - and from a storytelling perspective, marking the final stage in Tillinghast's transformation from ordinary nice guy to rampaging monster.

"They really took out some of the best stuff" was how Gordon put it. "This process just went on and on, and the distribution people were screaming, ‘We’ve got a release date, you’ve got to make those cuts.’”

Gordon was no stranger to censorship of one sort or another. As a young theatre director, his stage version of Peter Pan got him arrested for obscenity. His taste for both genre storytelling and boundary-pushing extended to his debut feature film, Re-Animator. Shot for just $900,000, it was full of gory excess and knowing humour, fashioning one of the most memorable horror movies of the 80s from HP Lovecraft's 20s tale of terror. 

Perhaps knowing that Re-Animator would horrify the MPAA, Empire Pictures released the film without a classification in October 1985, since in America, unrated movies can still be shown in cinemas, albeit at the theatre owner's discretion. A relatively low-budget movie, Re-Animator was released in 129 theatres in the US, and made a healthy $2million - not bad for a film whose popularity spread largely through word-of-mouth.

(When Re-Animator appeared on video in the UK a year or so later, several scenes, including an infamous moment involving a naked Barbara Crampton and David Gale's disembodiedhead, were cut to achieve an 18-rating. These snippets were later restored in Anchor Bay's DVD version of the film.)

Gordon's circumvention of the MPAA with Re-Animator may have been partly why the board came down so heavily on From Beyond ("They were very upset and, I think, trying to get revenge for the unrated Re-Animator," the director later reflected). Whatever the reasons, From Beyond simply had too much riding on it to dodge certification - with a budget of around $4.5 million, it was considerably more ambitious than the grungy Re-Animator.

From Beyond may be more than 25 years old now, but the same duel between boundary-pushing filmmakers and the MPAA still exists. In late January this year, we heard the news that director Fede Alvarez's promising Evil Dead remake would be cut to achieve an R-rating - in an unedited state, the MPAA said, the movie would be slapped with the dreaded NC-17 certificate, immediately reducing its potential audience and its chances of making a profit.

Although Alvarez has said his film will be a "Hard-R", it's not yet clear just how much footage will have been snipped out of the theatrical version, or whether we'll see an unedited release on disc in a few months' time. 

Whatever happens to Alvarez's Evil Dead, From Beyond presents us with a timely historical case study. Not only does the film's story show us just how damaging enforced edits can be - were it not for that chance discovery at MGM, and some painstaking restoration work, the original version of the film would have been lost forever - but how pointless they are.

What is shocking to a classification board in one decade is deemed utterly harmless to another board in the next. Just look at how the UK version of Re-Animator, considered to be too extreme for home release by the BBFC in the 80s, was later passed without cuts a few years later. With the passing of time, it's not the films that raise eyebrows, but the decisions of the classifiers themselves.

Fortunately, Gordon's tussle with the MPAA over From Beyond had a happy ending. On Blu-ray, the lovingly-restored film positively shimmers, with the screen bathed in violet light, crimson blood and acres of flesh. But as the classification system in America currently stands, filmmakers are forced to choose between two depressing options: either release their movie with an NC-17 rating, meaning that fewer people will go to see it - and worse, that fewer cinema chains will even agree to show it - or cut their movie into a form acceptable for a younger audience.

If the NC-17 rating were as widely supported by theatre owners and movie-goers as the 18-rating is in the UK,  the decision would be an easier one; as it stands, directors including Stuart Gordon, Fede Alvarez, and too many others to mention, are being forced to choose between butchery or obscurity.

From Beyond is out on Blu-ray and DVD on the 25th February in the UK.

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