By Brian Lafferty
March 6, 2012 (San Diego) – Anthology films are like short story collections and concept albums. Like the former, they offer an eclectic selection of stories. Like a concept album, an anthology film’s stories can sometimes be connected to a certain theme or share similar qualities.
From Beyond the Grave consists of four tales of greedy customers cheating or presumably cheating the unassuming antique shop Proprietor (Peter Cushing) out of a valuable item. The wrongdoers are then punished in twist endings that combine the droll uncanniness of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and the sinister ghostly underbelly of Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan.
The first story is about Edward (David Warner), a bachelor commanded by the ghost in his antique mirror to kill. The second features an unhappily married businessman named Christopher Lowe (Ian Bannen) falling for a young woman (Angela Pleasence, daughter of Halloween actor Donald Pleasence) who practices witchcraft.
The third entails a man (Ian Carmichael) who, with the help of an eccentric psychic (Margaret Leighton), tries to rid himself and his wife of an elemental. The fourth tells of a young man (Ian Ogilvy) who purchases an antique door that leads into a hellish dimension. It concludes with a thief – seen prowling around the shop throughout the film – trying to rob the old man but getting his just desserts.
Warner – who three years earlier played the pivotal role of the village idiot in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs – instills in his character an eligible bachelor charm that masks his murderous intentions. The bloodthirsty, hungry look on his face as he takes his first victim to his flat is as disturbing as the murder he commits.
Edward’s progressively disheveled appearance symbolizes his descent into madness; he starts out clean-shaven, his clothes spotless, and his hair perfectly combed. By the end, however, he resembles a murderous ragamuffin. His blood-soaked apparel, messy hair, less-than-refined facial hair, and dirty face are the signifiers.
The violence itself is bloody, but tame by today’s standards. But the effectiveness of violence cannot be adequately measured solely by the amount of blood. The barometer for me comprises the characters’ emotions and the tastefulness and artistry of the execution. Here Warner’s deranged performance, director Kevin Connor’s strategically placed and non-leering camera, the carefully thought-out editing, and the restraint from reveling in bloodbaths coalesced to send chills running through me.
The second story functions more as a moral lesson than as a vehicle for scares. That’s not to say there aren’t any of them. Some are cheap, as in the “it was all just a nightmare” cliché when Christopher’s unpleasant wife Mabel is apparently attacked in her bed. Others, not so much, like when Emily pokes a Mabel look-alike doll in the eye with a needle. Is it real? Is it make believe? Will Mabel really die?
Angela Pleasence is as beguiling as Edward, but in different ways. She’s pale-faced and mousy, mysterious and bewitching. Donald Pleasence is a kind soul and seemingly harmless. Unfortunately, everyone else excepting Christopher and Mabel’s son is annoying and shrill, with Mabel the worst offender.
This morality play is succeeded on a lighter note by the third tale, The Elemental. I say lighter, but I’m not quite sure it was intended as such. It’s at times laugh out loud funny. However, half of me thinks the humor is unintentional and the other half believes it’s by design. Whatever the case, it offers some needed comedy relief. Much of it resonates from Margaret Leighton. Her character is an amalgam of Mrs. Drysdale from The Beverly Hillbillies and Aunt Bee from The Andy Griffith Show.
When I wasn’t chuckling at her exaggerated performance – she constantly speaks in similes like, “Sucking up the fluids like a baby at his mother’s breast” – I couldn’t help laughing at such foolishly composed effects shots of objects flying – more like floating – across the screen and dishes exploding. It’s campy, although previous scenes with a more serious tone temper this feeling of levity, like when the Elemental attacks the wife while she sleeps.
The fourth story is the weakest overall. It’s thin in plot, but what it lacks in narrative is made up for in atmosphere and cinematography. It is the best-looking of the four tales. Cinematographer Alan Hume and production designer Maurice Carter’s design of the netherworld oozes with ethereal spookiness. The blue colors lend it an otherworldly, hellish, and cold appearance.
The transfer is fine. It’s not great, but that doesn’t mean the viewing experience suffers. Oddly, the sound emanates from the center speaker only, at least on my 5.1 surround sound system; most other Warner Archive collection titles I’ve encountered use the right and left speakers. The sound is good, although you might need to turn the volume up a little higher depending on the quality of your speaker system.
From Beyond the Grave is available only through the Warner Archive Collection via manufacture-on-demand. You can order it here.
A Warner Archive release. Director: Kevin Connor. Screenplay: Raymond Christodoulou and Robin Clarke, based on stories by R. Chetwynd-Hayes. Original Music: David Gamley. Cinematography: Alan Hume. Cast: Ian Bannen, Ian Carmichael, Peter Cushing, Diana Dors, Margaret Leighton, Donald Pleasence, Nyree Dawn Porter, David Warner, Angela Pleasence, Ian Ogilvy, Lesley-Anne Down, Jack Watson, Wendy Allnutt, Rosalin Ayres, Tommy Godfrey, Ben Howard, John O’Farrell, and Marcel Steiner.