The quality of the stories is a bit sporadic, with the worst coming in the third out of four -- it stars Ian Carmichael as a man who talks Cushing down on a snuff box. As Carmichael leaves the shop, Cushing says "I hope you enjoy snuffing it", which gives a hint that this story is going to be the "funny" one, which was unfortunately part of the routine, more often than not. The gist is that Carmichael now has an elemental hanging around on his shoulder. An elemental is an invisible and malicious spirit, and Carmichael's, upon his return home, tries to murder his wife (Nyree Dawn Porter). They call a clairvoyant (Margaret Leighton), who Carmichael met on the train home, and whose warnings about the elemental were blithely dismissed. Well, now who looks stupid. Leighton is given the sorry role of trying to be funny without having anything actually funny to say, and much of this story, breezy as it is, comes off as a chore. What's strange about it, though, is the ending turns out to actually be quite creepy, shifting from a light-hearted tale of haunting to, in its final moments, one of genuine demonic evil. It's hard to tell if this tonal shift really works, but it's nevertheless appreciated, as it makes From Beyond the Grave's weak middle-to-end pretty bracing, in a chilling sort of way..
Meanwhile, the best story, and by far the strangest, comes just before, and it stars Ian Bannen as a sad-sack office worker whose wife despises him. He shows kindness to Donald Pleasance, an old soldier selling a meager trade on the corner, and even seeks to impress the old man by claiming a military past for himself. This lie draws him to Cushing's shop, where he tries to buy a medal to prove his past, and claims, to Cushing, that he's replacing a medal he lost. But he needs a particular certificate to show he's due such a medal, and not having one, can't buy the medal. And he never gets it, but that doesn't stop the curse of Cushing's shop from dragging this already sad man down even further into the weird and blackish world of Pleasance and his daughter (played by Angela Pleasance), a grinning, big-eyed void of a girl who somehow draws Bannen to her, due likely to her general niceness and availability..
This one, the Bannen/Pleasance story, is, as I said, quite strange, and beautifully played by Bannen and the two Pleasances. There is something about Bannen that makes him seem particularly undeserving of his fate, and the idea that Cushing's shop might only punish those who've sinned (however small that sin might seem to us) is smashed to rubble here. Cushing's shop is called "Temptations, Limited.", but poor Bannen is tempted only to go outside of his family to find someone who might be nice to him. He just didn't know how deeply within his family the bad blood actually ran..
Spider (d. David Cronenberg) - Speaking, as I was recently, about transitional films in the career of David Cronenberg, Spider, his adaptation of the Patrick McGrath novel about a deeply disturbed husk (Ralph Fiennes in the film) newly released from an insane asylum only to find his past rising up to remind him why he was locked up in the first place, strikes me as especially important. If you've read McGrath's novel, you know that it's not entirely lacking in the kind of grotesque imagery that a younger Cronenberg would have made a meal of: for instance, there's a potato that, when you cut it, bleeds, and a jug of milk in which Spider finds a tiny, shriveled, lifeless fetus (he drinks the milk anyway). McGrath has said that when Cronenberg signed on for the film, he was very excited to see how the director would execute some of those images, but Cronenberg fooled everybody by not filming any of it. Instead, Spider is almost relentlessly quiet and patient, because while co-stars Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson, both excellent, kick up a storm playing two or three versions of their characters, every so often in the same scene, Fiennes barely speaks. At least, he barely says anything you can understand, instead communicating largely to himself in whispered mumbles, and scribbling in his diary, in an alien alphabet. His hallucinations are almost functional in that they deal specifically with who he is and why he is where is, and where that is. Cronenberg has stripped away the strong indications of madness McGrath supplied him with, and instead focused on evidence that is somehow both more clear and more obscure.
Spider is the kind of story that has a twist, but in this case, instead of rendering what's come before irrelevent, everything seems so much sadder at the end. Fiennes' stunning performance isn't a show-boat "I'm crazy!" piece of acting, but instead so completely removed from general humanity that unless the camera is pointing right at his face or nicotine-stained fingers, you might think he's simply bled out into the background. Cronenberg has dotted the film with a number of strong supporting actors -- such as Lynn Redgrave as Spider's unsympathetic landlady, and John Neville as his eternally fascinated and also-mad fellow tenant -- and has even made room for some of his often ignored humor ("I got a letter today from that Sophia Loren." "Oh, and what did she want?"). But most interesting of all is the realization that Cronenberg's previous film was eXistenZ, which was full of meat guns that shot teeth and fleshy game controllers whose penises you plugged into your spine. With that film, he seems to have washed his early work completely out of his system. I'd say "for better or worse", but Spider is one of his very best films, so I'm not sure there's an answer to give, or a choice to be made.