Fem Goddesses of Horror: Liza Merril (Catriona MacColl)

THE BEYOND (1981) is smack dab in the middle of Lucio Fulci’s GATES OF HELL trilogy. First came, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980) and last was THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981). Catriona MacColl graced the screen in all three films solidifying her permanent place as a Fem Goddess of Horror.

Admittedly, I love every one of her roles. Though, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981) is my personal favorite of the trio, her portrayal as Liza Merril in THE BEYOND reigns supreme in strength, tenacity, perseverance and courage. All of her characters uniquely shine, but Liza is fiercer and more in-control of herself than the others. She exhibits more knowhow and self-determination, all the while expressing her kind-hearted and comforting side.

For those who haven’t seen this classic gem yet, it’s a bit like BURNT OFFERINGS (1976) meets THE SENTINEL (1977). Liza inherits a hotel that sits upon the seven gates of hell. Decades prior, an artist had been killed there which opened up a portal allowing demons to run havoc and take victims.

Liza is unaware of the paranormal forces and begins renovations. Near immediately, one of the construction workers is seriously injured when he falls from a scaffold after seeing an unsettling white-eyed woman in the window. Liza jumps into action and sits with him. The bloody sight is terrifying and enough to unnerve anyone, but she keeps her cool. She demands another worker to check on the location of the doc, but never leaves the side of the wounded gent. She offers a nurturing soft hand and is most definitely concerned, but she remains rational. Her emotions do not get in the way of her decision-making.

Later on, another repair man rubs her the wrong way. She doesn’t hide her irritation with niceties. She is matter-of-fact when questioning him on his whereabouts in the house, and when his answer is somewhat satisfactory, she moves on. She doesn’t yell without cause and she’s not one for dramatics. She’s just a tough, no-nonsense fem that doesn’t allow her forceful demeanor to make her cold or uncaring. She’s just the perfect mix of matriarchal tenderness and power. RAWR RAWR RAWR

As unusual and terrifying events occur around Liza, it takes a lot to really freak her out. She’s a bit put off when she comes across the white-eyed woman, Emily (Cinzia Monreale) and her guide dog in the middle of the road. Still, she doesn’t run away. In fact, she goes for a walk and has a sit-down conversation with Em.

When Emily tells her to stop renovating the hotel and shut it down, Liza doesn’t fold. Hell, Liza even goes into the one room, she’s warned against. It isn’t until she sees the cursed book and the corpse of the artist that she gets the hell out of dodge and leaves the room.

Liza is no dummy. She’s intelligent. She can’t walk away from the hotel because it would leave her in financial ruin, but she knows something is seriously wrong in Denmark. That said, Dr. John McCabe (David Warbeck) unknowingly gaslights the fuck out of her. He convinces her that everything is in her head and Emily doesn’t exist. Admittedly, John’s not a bad guy. He’s just a skeptical man of science, but the dynamic between the two characters is significant. John is wrong and Liza is right. The climax of the film shows exactly how right she is. Had John listened to her early on, perhaps the bleak conclusion could have been brighter.

The reason I point this out is the same reason I write this column. Critics will often point to horror as a genre that speaks to the lowest common denominator and counts on sexist, dumb caricatures of women to move their plot along. That just isn’t true and this is one of the countless examples that shows this.

THE BEYOND is a thought-provoking venture into a surrealistic intertwining of tangible and intangible, the real world and spirit realm. It is direct and in-your-face with visuals and storytelling, but subtle in response and action thus creating the perfect pace.

As for Liza, she is no caricature. She’s a fully developed, multidimensional, unaffected and intelligent character. Each step of progression relies on her in near totality. She is an independently minded, well-rounded character who exemplifies true feminism. Her moves make sense and are understood by the viewer, as she is grounded in the same sense of reality John is until faced with a series of events too fantastic to deny a supernatural explanation.

In the end, Liza’s fate may not be an uplifting one, but that takes nothing from her legacy as a horror icon and fem goddess.

MacColl is perfect in the role and in conveying Liza’s motivation and instincts. Though hardcore fans recognize both the actress and her performances within the genre, she is underappreciated by much of the mainstream. Thankfully because of streaming platforms, these amazing movies are being seen by a wider audience and obtaining the recognition they and she deserve. She’s a goddamn rock star of horror, and all you younger cats need to know it!

Now, I have to thank my boyfriend for the suggestion of Catriona MacColl. He has such respect, love and appreciation for women. He knows how important this column is to me and is always supportive in what I do. When he brought her name up, it was obvious that she belonged here and that her roles personified what I want this series to celebrate; so, thanks to my love, Ian Healey.

In that same vein, I’d like to stand on a soapbox for a moment. Dismissing the contributions of men and shouting them down for daring to exist is a trend that I see more and more. I saw it this week on Twitter to a really good friend of mine, and to someone who has always been an ally and proponent of women. That train of thought helps no one. Women do not need to make men disappear to shine. To think that not only devalues men, but it also devalues women!

There are so many tremendous fem goddesses of horror that I look forward to honoring. I’m pretty certain that most of the audience regardless of gender will be honoring them too, simply because they’re brilliant.

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