Plucked from the vault of dear ol’ Zombie Hamster, Matty takes a look at John Eyres’ rollicking, straight-to-video riff on Wes Craven’s Shocker; the surprisingly poignant From Beyond the Grave.
1989 was a busy year for supernatural serial killers, specifically those that’d somehow survived their stint in the electric chair. Feeding off the post-Krueger demand for psychos as quick to crack a joke as they were to crack a skull, first came Jim Isaac’s The Horror Show, which landed in US theatres in April. Produced by Sean S. Cunningham and retitled ‘House III’ for the European market (to capitalise on the modest success of the Friday the 13th (1980) helmer’s latest cash cow), The Horror Show starred genre vet Brion James as ‘Meat Cleaver’ Max Jenke; a vicious murderer turned malevolent monster, whose death at the hands of the penal system only intensifies his bloodthirsty rampage. Meanwhile, Cunningham’s old Last House on the Left (1972) collaborator, visionary fright master Wes Craven, unleashed Shocker a few months later, during the year’s Halloween season. Designed as a prospective franchise starter, Shocker thrust Horace Pinker (a pre-X-Files Mitch Pileggi) upon the world; a homicidal TV repairman whom the late Craven, the Father of Freddy, hoped would prove as lucrative as his most famous creation. While that ultimately never happened, Pinker, like Jenke, was a fairly formidable bogeyman; a vicious murderer turned malevolent monster whose, erm, death at the hands of the penal system only intensifies yadda, yadda… You know the rest.
Alas, neither The Horror Show nor Shocker fared particularly well with audiences or critics (although the latter did manage to pull in an impressive $16million at the US box office, against a $5million budget). However, in the years since, both have amassed a fervent cult following. And as we all know, the true measure of a picture’s impact is not how well it performs during its initial run, but how many imitators it spawns. And The Horror Show and Shocker – whose dual existence is already rich in overlap – have fostered plenty, with The First Power (1990), Sleepstalker (1995), Fallen (1998), Heartstopper (2006), Seed (2007), and even Craven’s subsequent My Soul to Take (2010) borrowing from them with varying results. Perhaps the most potent cash-in, though, is John Eyres’ FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1996); a straight-to-video production as achingly poignant as it is rollicking good fun.
A former delivery van driver, British producer and director John Eyres began his filmmaking career in 1987 with Lucifer (a.k.a. Goodnight, God Bless), a hackneyed but fleetingly disturbing slasher flick shot in and around Cardiff. Inspired by the then thriving VHS market, Eyres and production partner Geoff Griffith followed Lucifer with a string of equally threadbare, tailored-to-tape features that they produced as EGM Film International; Eyres’ sophomore directorial offering, the snail’s paced crime drama Slow Burn (1989), and the utterly worthless Xtro II: The Second Encounter (1990) among them. Bargain basement fodder at best, Eyres finally hit his stride with his third go at wielding the megaphone, on 1992’s Project: Shadowchaser. An awesome amalgam of The Terminator (1984) and Die Hard (1988), Project: Shadowchaser was a prime slice of rough and tumble sci-fi; a diverting programmer that, alongside Albert Pyun’s Nemesis (1992) and Sam Firstenberg’s Cyborg Cop (1993), rode the robo-schlock zeitgeist of the early ’90s and span into a series that would litter video stores for the remainder of the decade (Eyres would direct two of the three further instalments).
A successful rental property, Project: Shadowchaser proved artistically triumphant as well, legitimising Eyres as a dependable craftsman and demonstrating what now – nearly a quarter of a century later – should be identified as the nascent trademarks of a burgeoning auteur. Building upon Shadowchaser‘s rousing blend of surreal humour, pulse-quickening spectacle, and surprisingly involving character drama, Eyres’ would imbue the likes of Monolith (1993) and the excellent Conspiracy of Fear (1995) with similarly striking ideas and flourishes; recurring notions that would come to full fruition in From Beyond the Grave.
Conceived and released across other territories as ‘Judge & Jury’, From Beyond the Grave has never had a title that completely suits it. The two it’s got are both accurate, certainly: Judge & Jury ties nicely with the film’s themes, while From Beyond the Grave – the Amicus-aping moniker that adorns its British VHS and DVD – neatly underlines the supernatural bent of Eyres’ screenplay, which he co-wrote with John Cianetti and long-time associate Amanda Kirpaul (who’s edited almost every Eyres and EGM production since Project Shadowchaser: Night Siege (1994)). After all, like Max Jenke and Horace Pinker before him, From Beyond the Grave‘s sharp-tongued wacko, Joseph Meeker, has indeed returned from the ice-cold clutches of the grim reaper. The problem is that the pair of them don’t entirely represent Eyres’ swaggering cross-genre mish-mash; each playing only to either the film’s action or horror trappings when, in truth, you’d be pushed to find a better blend of adrenaline-laced terror.
But From Beyond the Grave shouldn’t be measured against such action horror landmarks as Aliens (1986) or Predator (1987) or From Dusk till Dawn (1996). Rather, it belongs in a nicher bracket. A nicher bracket alongside such berserk motion picture experiences as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) and Death Machine (1994).
Films that are concentrated blasts of unadulterated energy.
Films that start in fifth gear and refuse to slow down.
From hero Michael Silvano (essayed by direct-to-video regular Martin Kove, reuniting with Eyres after Project: Shadowchaser and, effectively, playing the same character) being pursued across woodland by Meeker’s salivating hellhounds; to an utterly bonkers set piece in which Silvano and his estranged son (a pre-American Pie (1999) Thomas Ian Nicholas) have to boot a burning ball into a gas-filled classroom, From Beyond the Grave piles incident upon incident with ferocious, demented gusto. It’s a whirlwind to ride through, to the point where it’s almost too much to absorb with a single viewing; a fever dream in every possible way. And it’s as such that Eyres’ mesmeric, darkly comedic vision is best interpreted.
At the risk of giving it all away – spoiler alert! – during the film’s closing moments, Eyres suggests that the preceding ninety minutes have all unfolded within Meeker’s own mind in the seconds before his execution, a la Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Basically – and to paraphrase Bierce’s subtitle – the entirety of From Beyond the Grave is the dream of a dead man. It’s a plot device about as hoary and non-ending as they come, but it actually works here. Incredibly well, in fact. And that’s because of the captivating level of emotion Eyres fills his villain with in what is, essentially, his final blink.
Played with ghoulish relish by David Keith (who can do ‘nutjob’ in his sleep, witness: White of the Eye (1986) and Distant Cousins (1993)), Meeker is a fascinating creature. Initially presented as a vicious thug, over the course of the film’s running time Eyres reveals him to be a shaded and sympathetic creation; twisting him from a mugging, real-life cartoon (replete with powers of ex nihilo object manifestation and reality warping) into a tragic figure. For instance, at several points we’re shown brief flashes of Meeker’s childhood. It’s nary more than a snapshot, but it’s heartbreakingly obvious that the type of man he is was the type he was doomed to become; his fate sealed by aggressive parenting and, it is hinted, a fixation on American junk culture. Neither Eyres nor Keith ever explicitly declare it, but it’s a tantalising and irresistibly audacious theory, especially when one considers the numerous wacky, Theatre of Blood (1973)-esque ‘disguises’ Meeker pops up in – Elvis, a gameshow host – as he wreaks his merry mayhem.
Of course, as it turns out, such mean-spirited japery as Meeker notches up the body count is really him processing his own guilt. As Kelly Perine’s taxi driver, Roland, explains to an exasperated Silvano: “If a guy got fucked over in life, his spirit kind of hangs around ’til he can get his revenge”. With technical bombast, Eyres stages Meeker’s “fucking over” in a convenience store, during an attempted robbery. Cheered on by his pregnant goth bride, Mary (Patricia Scanlon), Meeker struts his criminal stuff; only for Mary to wind up eating a bullet. The Crow (1994) by way of Natural Born Killers (1994), it’s a sequence Eyres delights in replaying throughout the film, forever trapping Meeker mentally and spiritually in this grocery-laden purgatory. Swearing revenge against Silvano – the purported shooter – and the curmudgeonly Detective Lockhart (Paul Koslo, another Project: Shadowchaser alum), Eyres masterfully delivers a gut-punching blow in From Beyond the Grave‘s final reel: It was actually Meeker’s fire that took his girl down.
The sight of Meeker crippled with remorse – weeping into the ground of the elaborate store mock-up he’s conjured in an old auditorium, as he finally accepts what he himself has done – is disarmingly powerful; a lusciously sombre way for Eyres’ to bring his exhilarating film to an elegant and delicate close. And as Eyres segues from Meeker’s full-throttle revenge fantasy into From Beyond the Grave‘s true present – wherein he’s strapped into ol’ sparky as Silvano and Lockhart look on – it’s a disquieting and weirdly profound reminder that even the most over-the-top of bad guys are still only human.
Previously published on Zombie Hamster
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