BOOTLEG FILES 438: “Beyond and Back” (1978 pseudo-documentary produced by Sunn Classic Pictures).
LAST SEEN: Unauthorized postings are all over the Internet.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A VHS release in the 1980s.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An elusive gem from a celebrated exploitation production company.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Oh, that would be fun!
At the beginning of the 1978 production “Beyond and Back,” a stocky, bespectacled man with a very thick head of hair, an equally impressive beard, and a crisply tailored three-piece suit looks directly at the camera and declares in a deep voice worthy of a Biblical prophet, “You are about to see one of the most extraordinary films of our time!” And, then, for the next 90-odd minutes, we discover that this man was correct – albeit not for the intended reasons at the root of his declaration.
“Beyond and Back” was part of the zany parade of pseudo-documentaries created by Sunn Classic Pictures, also known as Schick Sunn Classics. This small Utah company happily littered movie theaters in the 1970s with films that promised to unlock the secrets of cryptozoology, paranormal activity, historical conspiracies and the more opaque corners of Biblical text. Each film produced by the company was distributed with a blaring, carny-worthy marketing campaign that saturated local television stations and newspapers with bombastic advertisements that greatly exaggerated the depth and scope of the presentations.
In the case of “Beyond and Back,” the subject under consideration was near-death experience (or NDE for those who prefer acronym-speak). An NDE occurs when a person is initially thought to be clinically dead, but is revived and brought back to full life. During the brief period of clinical death, the person supposedly experiences sensations and visions that include out-of-body motion and travels into realms of great light and peace.
Or, at least, that’s what “Beyond and Back” wants to promote. In the course of the film, a series of alleged NDEs receive dramatic recreation, with the adventures of the briefly deceased individuals presented via POV sequences that try to imagine what was experienced.
“Beyond and Back” insists that NDE theories have been the subject of historic speculation for centuries. Among the advocates of this theory were the Greek philosopher Plato (who sounds as if his dialogue was dubbed by Leo Gorcey) and the colonial patriot Ben Franklin (who looks as if he and the British pop star Adele share the same wigmaker). The film offers famous dying words from the likes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Thomas Edison and Eddie Rickenbacker, which are framed as evidence that these notables were on the cusp of an NDE before they officially kicked their respective buckets.
Throughout the film, the aforementioned hirsute man with the booming voice wanders about an office and addresses the camera about the shenanigans going on around him. He is never identified on screen – he’s actually Brad Crandall, a former New York disk jockey – and the film curiously fails to offer any distinguished scientist or medical professional willing to face the Sunn Classic camera and confirm the NDE odyssey.
Actually, Mr. Crandall is not visibly upset that there are no eminent thinkers joining him on-screen. “The cold, clinical nature of science rejects the soul,” he says – and that’s the catch. “Beyond and Back” was partly based on a 1977 book by the evangelist Ralph Wilkerson, who used his own brand of theological reasoning to insist on the presence of a soul within the human body. Some of this carries over into the film – most notably when Mr. Crandall informs us that Louisa May Alcott and two relatives witnessed a little cloud of vapor floating skyward when the “Little Women” author’s sister died. “Could all three of them have seen the same optical illusion?” asks the hairy narrator.
And speaking of optical illusions, “Beyond and Back” goes through great lengths to dramatize the NDEs of “lawyer Dan Wilson” (who drove off a cliff, briefly floated above his near-death scene, and then returned to his body), a World War II soldier whose spirit ran around town after he briefly passed away in a military hospital, and an Indian youth (who looks like a white kid in greasepaint) who claims to be the reincarnation of a dead man. In most of these cases, the NDE sequence is identical: out-of-focus visuals, followed by a rush of bright lights and vaguely classical music filling the soundtrack. Each person may live a unique life, but it seems that the road to death is the same monotonous routine for everyone.
Are you impressed? The marketing mavens at Sunn Classic Pictures realized that they faced skepticism, which they trumpeted in their advertising. “Some will believe – others will not. DECIDE FOR YOURSELF!” the film’s print advertisements blared.
The few critics that bothered to sit through “Beyond and Back” had no trouble deciding. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin sneered, “Do you know real malarkey when you hear it?” Roger Ebert went further, using his Chicago Sun-Times review to slam both the film and its creators.
“The movie’s another one of those pseudo-scientific laundry lines of half-baked psychic theories,” Ebert wrote. “There may be something to the theories, all right, but there’s never anything to the movies. They’re booked into half the theaters in town and promoted with a hard-sell TV campaign, on the theory that enough suckers…ah, victims will be parted from their money before the word gets out that it’s a turkey.”
Well, Ebert nailed it. “Beyond and Back” harvested nearly $24 million in its U.S. theatrical run, which was pretty big for 1978, and it turned out to be one of the most commercially successful releases of that year.
But after its theatrical run, “Beyond and Back” became a somewhat elusive commodity. There was a brief VHS video release in the early 1980s, but the film – along with the rest of the Sunn Classic Pictures canon – has fallen out of circulation. To date, there has been no commercial DVD release.
However, the full film can be found online at a variety of websites. It appears that the “suckers” that Ebert wrote about still have fond memories of the cheesy Sunn Classic Pictures offerings, and the Internet has brought “Beyond and Back” home from the dead for a new life as a bootlegged offering.
And to steal a line from “Shrek,” if you see any long tunnels, stay away from the light!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!