By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 9, 2019
Released Dec. 9, 2016
Unrated (equal to rated R for graphic violence, gore, and language) – 1hr 24min
Directed by Jackson Stewart
Starring Graham Skipper, Chase Williamson, Brea Grant, Barbara Crampton
Months after their father has gone missing and is presumed dead, estranged brothers Gordon (Skipper) and John (Williamson) must work together to settle their dad’s estate, which includes his video rental store. There, they – along with Gordon’s girlfriend Margot (Grant) – find a mysterious VCR board game, hosted by an ominous enchantress (Crampton) that may hold the key to their father’s disappearance.
From the central plot device to the musical score to the creature design, Beyond the Gates is obviously a lovingly nostalgic throwback to the 1980’s. However, that’s not without a considerable serving of character drama first.
Narrative: The core of Beyond the Gates is very entertaining, as long as it’s involving itself with the namesake game and its various elements. However, the plot pushes that back to the latter half, choosing instead to focus on exposition of the brothers, Gordon in particular. It doesn’t make great use of that time, and we don’t really learn more than we otherwise could have in just several minutes – instead, we get a series of scenes that are on the duller side of things. As a result, the mechanics of the game come across as exceedingly simple and rushed, which is a shame because that’s where the lifeblood of the movie resides.
Acting: The three leads all turn in solid performances. In fact, the interplay between them was suitable enough to provide the dramatic subtext without devoting so much runtime to exploring it at length. In short, they each do a lot with characters that, despite the script’s efforts to deepen them, remain fairly shallow. Regardless, the film springs to life whenever Barbara Crampton appears, camping it up as the mysteriously prescient game host Evelyn. Again, the game really shines as the film’s backbone and Crampton brings it all together as the personification of it. Somehow, someway, the movie needed her in it more.
To aspiring filmmakers: your horror movie will always score bonus points if you cast Barbara Crampton in it.
Direction: It’s a no-brainer that writer/director Jackson Stewart has something of a soft spot for the 1980’s with his debut feature. The opening credits bring a new definition to ‘VHS porn’, as the sequence plays over intricate close-ups of the mechanical components of a functioning VCR – a montage of spinning wheels, flipping switches, and moving levers that lovingly elevates the obsolete piece of entertainment hardware to industrial marvel. So obviously, there’s numerous callbacks to ’80s horror throughout – specifically of the demon/ghoul variety with an emphasis on splattery gore. Also, it needs to be noted that the movie is something of a triumph considering its $300K budget; it looks great at a bargain, yet that may explain the slow first half.
Horror Elements: When Beyond the Gates gets to them, it gets to them with enthusiasm. A disemboweling, an exploding head, a ripped-out heart – the gory moments are fleeting, but they do serve as a proper calling card to the type of movie experience to which it is paying homage. The look of the ghoul makeup also conjures up that same ’80s aesthetic. Again though, it could have really used more of these things.
Derek always took Trivial Pursuit a little too seriously, but this was still rather unexpected.
Sound: Here, there’s no complaints to be had. Wojciech Golczewski’s score is really good and does exactly what was needed from it – to thoroughly establish a retro vibe while being inspired enough to not come across as generic. It’s a standout effort.
TL;DR: Beyond the Gates could have really used more Beyond the Gates in it. When that key premise isn’t there, it’s a rather bland and listless character drama about two brothers who don’t much like each other, yet for reasons never adequately explored despite the time dedicated for it. When the film is focused on its giddy nostalgia, it’s quite fun, but those proceedings feel rushed. In all, it’s solid but underdone.