Tagline: They have opened The Gate. Pray it’s not too late.
Director: Tibor Takács
Writer: Michael Nankin
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Christa Denton, Louis Tripp, Kelly Rowan, Jennifer Irwin, Deborah Grover, Scot Denton, Ingrid Veninger, Sean Fagan, Linda Goranson, Carl Kraines, Andrew Gunn
PG-13 | 1hr 25min | Fantasy, Horror
Budget: $2,500,000 (estimated)
Back in the late 1980s, the ‘kids in peril’ concept was the template for theatrical success. Steven Spielberg would set the ball rolling with 1982‘s E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, a movie whose impact would send a thematic tremor throughout the industry. E.T. saw a group of kids take matters into their own hands, championing the importance of family and togetherness as the best recourse for overcoming an oppressive evil, and therein lay one of the decade’s most successful formulas. Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist would follow a year later, a film that possessed more than a dash of Spielberg’s DNA, while Joe Dante’s Gremlins and Richard Donner’s The Goonies were also marked by his inimitable thumbprint. Even Spielberg’s Indiana Jones sequel, The Temple of Doom, would adopt this tried-and-tested formula, featuring a cast of juvenile slaves and a peewee protagonist who would act as Indy’s plucky young sidekick.
Outside of Spielberg we also had Stand by Me, The Lost Boys, The Karate Kid, and a whole host of smash hits that put kids front and centre, stories that positioned their bite-sized protagonists in difficult, often unfathomable situations that isolated them from the conventions of day-to-day life. It was this ability to tap into the minds and imaginations of a preteen audience that sent families to the cinema in their droves. It was a great time for movies; or, more accurately, a great time to be a movie-going kid.
This formula was not restricted to the mainstream. Soon filmmakers from all walks were tapping into Hollywood’s money-spinning phenomena. One of those filmmakers was Tibor Takács, a relative unknown who would go on to direct Sabrina and the Teenage Witch: The Movie almost a decade later. His 1987, juvenile-led fantasy The Gate would have a similarly fantastical formula. Strangely, it would place a stronger emphasis on horror, earning it a 15 certificate in the UK, a decision that would surely effect box office numbers, and in that regard The Gate is an odd card. It certainly seems to be a movie for kids, but it’s not as black and white as all that.
Ultimately, that’s what made this movie such a great draw back in 1987, at least on VHS where kids could get their mitts on movies that they didn’t get to see in theatres. Unlike similar practical effects heavy tween flicks such as The Neverending Story and Labyrinth, The Gate refuses to pussyfoot around its target audience, riding a tenuous line between fantasy and terror that really got to me as a youngster. Sure, it may be tame by today’s standards, but it features a series of striking, often graphic images which are sure to lodge in the corner of an impressionable young mind like a demon’s thorny nail clipping.
The Gate is very much a film of two halves. For a while the plot meanders as a watered down version of Poltergeist, as nightmares and crackling lights and all kinds of strange occurrences take hold of an everyday suburban residence. Predictably, the family’s parents are heading out of town for the weekend, leaving their two children and a friend home alone. Older sister and temporary adult Al (Denton) is planning a party, but when creepy silhouettes and mysterious floating objects begin to close in on our juveniles, responsibility rears its ugly head and genre familiarity begins to set in like rigamortis.
Thankfully, it is then that events become rather more interesting, rabid zombie dogs and insidious apparitions hinting at the presence of something much more tangible. Though miniature demons and melting heads may seem a little tepid through adult eyes, there is a reason why the film has something of a cult following for those children of the ’80s, the very same reason I still had vivid memories of a scene in which Glen (Stephen Dorff) stabs his hand with a shard of glass after a roving eyeball appears on his palm. I saw this movie only once many years ago, but this moment had been enough to convince me that this was in fact an all-out horror flick, and a recent re-watch left me feeling somewhat perplexed. To categorise this as a straight-up horror now is downright ludicrous, but it speaks volumes about the effect of its imaginings on a younger mind that this one image has stayed with me all these years.
In terms of plot, the titular gate is actually a portal which leads into a realm of demons, a fact that Glen’s geeky friend Terry discovers after listening to a Spinal Tap style record and realising that the cheapo etch-a-sketch daubing that appeared the night prior is actually an invitation for the old Gods to wreak havoc on Earth. Add to this a drop of blood and the death of the family dog and the boys and their spirited teenage sister are one sacrifice away from eternal damnation. This is all a transparent parody of America’s ‘Satanic Panic’, a moral hysteria that swept the States during the latter part of the 20th century, one that led some parents to believe that certain rock musicians transmitted evil to their audience, rumours having them believe that one only had to play a record backwards to communicate with Satan, but as the late, great comedian Bill Hicks once said, “If you’re at home playing your records backwards, you are Satan. You needn’t look any further.”
The movie is somewhat predictable at times, but The Gate is all about its practical effects, which are pretty darned impressive for a movie made on such a relatively minuscule budget. Highlights include a lumbering blue collar zombie intent on cross-dimension kidnapping and a feral-faced incarnation of pseudo rock God Terry, while the living room’s transformation into the realms of Beelzebub still holds up today. The movie’s miniature demons, swift and frenetic and deliciously rabid, are also quite the attraction, landing somewhere between Gremlins and Critters, proving the perfect recipe for the movie’s target audience. Those demons were played by actors in rubber suits who were shot in forced perspective, an optical illusion that manipulates an audiences’ visual perception. These were different times, but I dread to think what a generic CGI creature design would have done to this movie. As primitive as such a technique may seem all these years later, it works a treat.
In the end, it’s all a little confusing. As I’ve said, this movie terrified me as a kid, but I was roughly seven when I saw it. By the time I was fifteen I’d graduated to horror that was much more graphic, gravitating more toward the mad man in the hockey mask than ghoulish fantasy, and this kind of fare I would have imagined was already beneath me. This begs the question, why the 15 certificate? In a world where Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell received a PG-13 rating, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone over 9 who wouldn’t laugh out loud watching this movie today, regardless of a few moments that are still genuinely gruesome. At the risk of sounding old, what is it with kids today?
Perhaps they’ve been sitting at home playing their parents’ records backwards.
Most Absurd Moment
After firing a bottle rocket through the heart of a giant demon, hero Glen looks on in awe as a spectacular firework display bursts into life above the roof of his dilapidated home, clearing the sky of an insidious purple vacuum and bringing his friend, sister and dog back to life again. All of this, and not a single neighbour to check on the cataclysmic raucous occurring right on their doorstep.
Best Demon illusion
A presumed-dead workman supposedly buried behind the walls of Glen’s house suddenly appears in an avalanche of plasterboard, pulling Terry back through the wall with him. Taking the initiative, the resolute Al smashes him in the face with a ghetto blaster, causing the zombie to fall and shatter into a gang of sperm-like demons, an energetic rabble who then form to scurry forth like shards of smashed glass.
Most Cringing Moment
Snatched into the realms of hell, a feral-faced version of Terry appears in the closet and begins gnawing on Glen’s hand. Fortunately for him, his heroic sister then intervenes, ramming the leg of a Barbie doll through his eyeball.
I’m sure Mattel’s public relations were over the moon with that one!
Most Absurd Dialogue
Discovering the truth about Glen’s garden porthole in a convenient five minute sequence, bespectacled wiener Terry rushes off to inform his friend of his findings.
Terry: The lyrics in the album tell you how to summon the demons, and there’s this certain time when the constellation’s are aligned and you can open the gate and let the Old Gods – those are the demons – come through. Well, I checked…and, it’s like, now!
What are the odds!