Written by: Stephen Scarlata, Jackson Stewart
Directed by: Jackson Stewart
Starring: Graham Skipper, Chase Williamson, Brea Grant, and Barbara Crampton
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Press play...and pray.
After being subjected to years of strip mining, our 80s and 90s nostalgia reserves have to be running somewhat low, so hats off to Jackson Stewart and Stephen Scarlata for honing in on a very specific, idiosyncratic corner of it for Beyond the Gates. Not content to be the umpteenth film to simply toss viewers back to the bygone video store era, theyíve plucked out an especially obscure trend from those days in VHS board games. Despite being practically raised in and around video stores for over a decade, itís something I never encountered until learning about them years later, long after the format was practically dead. Here, it makes for a great ďJumanji Goes to HellĒ hook: what if one of these games acted as a gateway to the beyond and its twisted souls?
The result is essentially the halfway point between Kevin Tenney and Lucio Fulci, another point of distinction for Beyond the Gates. Where so many modern horrors tend to evoke the obvious giants like Carpenter or Cronenberg (which, of course, is fine), this one takes a different cue altogether by blending these lesser evoked auteurs, who probably always had more in common with each other than we ever realized. It just took Stewart and Scarlata mashing them together to really make that clear, and itís such an inspired pairing that I canít help but be taken by Beyond the Gates right off the batóand thatís before I even mention the participation of Barbara Crampton.
The credits keep pushing the nostalgia buttons, opening on happy times for the Hardesty family in the early 90s. We watch as they proudly open a videos store with a faÁade adorned with the Mount Rushmore of monsters. A mother and two sons look on happily, but thereís something unsettling about the fatherís (Henry LeBlanc) gaze as the credits abruptly end and usher in a sobering update. About twenty five years later, that father has mysteriously disappeared, leaving his now estranged son to rummage through his belongings, including the husk of the anachronistic video store. Cluttered with old tapes and memorabilia, the store is a natural curiosity for Gordon (Graham Skipper) and John (Chase Williamson). Especially enticing is their fatherís office, a once forbidden room that they discover is full of junk, save for Beyond the Gates, a particularly alluring (and heretofore unknown) video board game that sends the two brothers on an unexpected, supernatural journey to possibly reunite with their father.
Beyond the Gates is clever in more ways than one. Obviously, its hook is downright irresistible, recalling the likes of Night of the Demons and Witchboard; however, Stewartís refusal to bask in that nostalgic glow is also commendable. His film is perhaps lightly couched in enough retro vibes to coax your foot into the door, but he doesnít just coast off of them. While your eyes canít help but scan the video store for familiar VHS spines and artwork, you donít spend the entirety of Beyond the Gates singling out references and spare parts of other movies. Ultimately, itís very much its own thing, and quite committed to weaving actual character drama out of a seemingly silly premise that could have easily degenerated into a winking, gory romp.
Not that there would have been anything wrong with that, of course. Itís just that itís nice to see one of these retro exercises have a life beyond its influences and actually get out of those self-made shadows. In fact, I can see some balking at the Tenney comparisons early on since Beyond the Gates doesnít take on the raucous tenor of those films at first. Instead, itís quite reserved in its exploration of the brothersí shared guilt and regret over how their lives have unfolded since those halcyon early-90s days. Gordon has settled down with a mortgage and a steady, sweet girlfriend (Brea Grant), while John is a fuck-up with a heart of gold. Unable to pin down a job, heís drifted through his twenties surrounded by unseemly friends, a point of contention for his older brother.
Tension naturally arises, hinting at the hidden, dark side of their seemingly perfect childhood that slowly unravels as the brothers confront figurative and literal demons. Askew glances and portentous dialogue further suggest that Gordonís current life is similarly deceptive in its perfection, and Skipperís nuanced performance becomes the face of the filmís shiftiness. Between this and The Mindís Eye, it seems like heís found a niche playing well-meaning but dangerous men, and, Beyond the Gates eventually dares to be about one manís quest to confront his childhood trauma. Itís treated like a communicable disease that continues to haunt himself and his loved ones until he has the courage to stare it into the eyes and rip out its heart. You perhaps donít expect that from a film that hinges on a supernatural board game, nor do you expect it to consume over half of the runtime.
Of course, once the game begins to assert its sinister clutches on the brothersówhose attempts to dispose of the game are predictably futileóthereís no mistaking the presence of its influences. Heads explode and entrails are splayed with gruesome, practical aplomb as the hostís (Crampton) instructions for the game begin to blur the line between fiction and reality. Eventually, their basement becomes a conduit for whatever lurks in the world beyond when a set of mysterious gates appears out of thin air, waiting to unleash an entire fucking Eurohorror movie for the climax. Itís fair to say that this is when Beyond the Gates best lives up to its potential: when Brian Sowellís lensing is awash in fluorescents and Wojciech Golczweskiís score goes full Fabio Frizzi as Stewart scrappily indulges his premise with a flurry of stylish violence.
At this point, Beyond the Gates becomes a certified blast, almost as if its cast and crew have just been itching to show off their horror bonafides. Many of these faces and names are familiar, having had a hand in other recent, similarly scrappy genre productions, and thereíd be little doubting their enthusiasm anyway. Itís most obviously evident in the mythology surrounding the Beyond the Gates game itself. Lovingly crafted with pitch-perfect artwork and hosted by the devilishly alluring Evelyn (Crampton plays her as an eerier, more unsettling Elvira), it naturally draws a lot of curiosity from both the characters and an audience wanting to know more. Whatís its story? Where did it come from? A trip to a local antique shop owned by a cryptic weirdo (Jesse Merlin) yields more questions than answers, which feels correctófor now at least.
Predictably, Beyond the Gates ends with a tease for an already-announced sequel that will apparently take its cue from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 (be still my beating heart!). I am just as predictably all for it: this first outing teases just enough of a mystery that can be unraveled by later movies that will hopefully feature even more from Merlin and Crampton, who emerge as the most indelible figures here. Donít get me wrong: the main cast is certainly compelling enough, but something tells me itíll be these enigmatic foils will prove to be the true draw once this becomes a full-blown franchise. After all, itíd be fitting if a film inspired by 80s horror efforts eventually indulged itself in its own mythology and villains. Considering what Stewart accomplished on this budget, I canít wait to see him continue to explore and revel in the mythology he and Scarlata have introduced.
Beyond the Gates is now available on Blu-ray courtesy of IFC Midnight and Scream Factory. It does so with an abundance of special features, including three separate audio commentaries, a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes, a Q&A from the filmís premiere, a short film from Stewart, a theatrical trailer, and a retro-themed commercial for the Beyond the Gates board game itself.
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