Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Beyond the Gates: 1980s VHS Horror Love

This retro 1980s horror film just might make you nostalgic for a short-lived category of games you probably never played. Remember VCR board games? Probably only vaguely from seeing them on the shelves. It turns out you were right not to play, but two bickering brothers will have to learn that the hard way in Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Gates (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

It has been months since the disappearance of Gordon and John Hardesty’s binge-drinking father, so they are finally facing the inevitable and closing down his anachronistic video store. This is a bad time for Gordon to return to his home town, because he is still working out issues that very nearly severed his relationship with the slightly out-of-his-league Margot Jones. In contrast, the couch-surfing John never left—and he sure seems to have plenty of time. While cleaning out the office, they come across a strange looking VCR board game called Beyond the Gates. Naturally, they are going to try playing it. In retrospect, this looks like a bad idea—one their father made before them.

Evelyn, the bossy Elvira-like hostess seems to be talking directly to them, especially when she offers them an opportunity to save the old man’s soul. All they have to do is collect the game’s four keys, but to do so they will have to complete four comically gory tasks. Eventually, they will also to journey through the spooky graveyard-style gates that suddenly sprung up in the basement, because that is literally the name of the game.

Gates is just gleefully entertaining for genre fans, both for its VHS nostalgia and the casting of nearly a dozen contemporary horror movie regulars in featured and supporting roles. Chase Williamson (John Dies at the End, SiREN) does some of his most engaging work yet as the irresponsible Hardesty brother. Likewise, Graham Skipper (Mind’s Eye, Almost Human) finally gets to play it straight and normal (and rather engagingly so) as the Hardesty with a girlfriend. Brea Grant (Best Friends Forever) dos as well as could be expected as the understanding Jones. Justin Welborn (Southbound, V/H/S Viral) and Sara Malakul Lane (Sun Choke) add further color and energy as John Hardesty’s erratic drifter friend Hank and his put-upon girlfriend Dahlia.

However, it is Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond) who really makes the movie as the appropriately vampy Evelyn. She chews the scenery and looks the part—in spades. Even though she has been a genre cult favorite since the eighties, it isn’t so creepy when the younger Hardesty bro starts going on about her hotness. Seriously, its not, right?

Throughout Gates, the effects always look vintage eighties straight-to-video, but in the right way. Far from feeling cheap, the film is really a triumph of cleverly detailed production design. Stewart and co-screenwriter Stephen Scarlata infuse the proceedings with sly attitude, but they never let winks and hat-tips distract from the fundamental genre movie business. Jolly good fun, Beyond the Gates is enthusiastically recommended for horror movie lovers when it opens this Friday (12/9) in New York, at the IFC Center.