(The Beyond/The Seven Doors of Death)
Synopsis: A woman attempts to renovate an old hotel in Louisiana, unaware that it sits over one of the seven gates of hell. A series of nasty "accidents" befalls many of the people connected with the hotel; a strange blind girl appears and gives enigmatic advice; a strange tome called the Book of Eibon keeps popping up in unexpected places; and in the apocalyptic finale, the dead rise and all hell breaks loose.
...the public will believe in the theatre's dreams on condition that it take them for true dreams and not for a servile copy of reality; on condition that they allow the public to liberate within itself the magical liberties of dreams which it can only recognize when they are imprinted with terror and cruelty.
Notes: This is widely regarded as Fulci's best horror film, especially when seen uncut in its original scope format (as it was released to theatres in 1998 by Quentin Tarentino's Rolling Thunder company, and as appears on home video & DVD thanks to Anchor Bay and Grindhouse Films). In many ways it resembles Dario Argento's earlier movie Inferno, which also concerns a building over the gate of hell. Fulci succeeds where Argento fails in building a convincing film out of a series of dream-like episodes.
The opening flashback, set in 1927 (the year of Fulci's birth), is shot in sepia tones. This does not detract from the brutal effectiveness of the action in relates: the vigilantes' murder of the artist Svejk. Svejk insists that only he can save the townspeople from the opening of the portal to hell; but he is butchered anyway, in a scene that echos the murder of the witch in Non si Sevizia un Paperino.
Svejk is at the heart of everything we see as "reality" in L'Aldilà. It's not unusual to see artists in horror films: for instance, in most of Argento's films, the protagonist is a creator or manipulator of images -- an artist of some sort, a journalist, or in the case of Inferno a musicologist. The cliché is that the line between artistic vision and insanity is thin and easily crossed. Argento's artists are usually pawns in the hands of something much greater than themselves, whether demons or psychoses. But Fulci takes a major step away from Argento by putting his artist in complete control of the nightmare.
It's tempting to see a little attempt at autobiography here, a foretaste of Cat in the Brain: Fulci, the artist, suffering at the hands of his critics, who hate him for revealing their darkest dreams. But the punishment does not destroy the artist. Instead, it makes him stronger, and he returns with visions even more ghastly than the originals.
Fulci's detractors are usually quick to pont out his habit of cadging ideas from other films, including his own. The Shining is frequently mentioned as a source for The Beyond, but aside from the fact that both films are set in a haunted hotel, the two really have nothing in common at all. Fulci was outspoken in his dislike for Stephen King; The Beyond is far closer to the classic pulp horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, August Derleth and Clark Ashton Smith (who first described the Book of Eibon).
The film to which The Beyond bears the strongest resemblance is probably Michael Winner's The Sentinel (1977), in which we once again have a haunted house built over the gates of hell. In The Sentinel too, those who have seen into hell have their eyes turn blank, blind to this world. But where Winner's film (and Jeffrey Konvitz's sub-Exorcist potboiler novel) hinged on Catholic mysticism, Fulci's film has absolutely no religious trappings at all. There is no sense of justice or retribution in The Beyond: life and afterlife are arbitrary at best, and ultimately meaningless.
In this film in particular, Fulci displays a complete disregard for a traditional sense of time. While the film is unfolding, events follow each other fluidly enough that the viewer is caught up by them, without realizing that something has gone badly wrong with the timeline. Events that should take several days to unfold seem to happen in quick succession, and things that should be finished right away seem to go unfinished for days. We find ourselves in a universe where, for example, a woman can go out for groceries, and before she returns, a man is killed in her basement, a sixty year old mummy is discovered, both corpses are brought to a hospital, and an amazing variety of horrible things happen (evidently a universe in which there are also no police).
It's all done with such absolute assurance that it comes as a shock to realize how little of it makes sense. It's as though we've become lost in a Jacob's Ladder-like netherworld, where demons wait to tear us apart. Maybe this is what is happening: perhaps this whole movie is Liza's dying hallucination. In any case, there is no escape either for Liza or for us.
Fulci himself appears in the film as a disgruntled librarian. The American version of this movie, The Seven Doors of Death, is trimmed of several minutes (which, while not very long, make a surprising difference in the rhythm of the film), and uses different music.