The Gate (1987) dir. Tibor Takács.
Written: Michael Nankin.
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Louis Tripp, and Christa Denton.
CWs: Eye injury, bugs, homophobia.
Just the other week, Stranger Things premiered on Netflix and binge-watchers everywhere were blessed with what is, at its core, a finely crafted love letter to all things 80s horror. With everyone so abuzz about this really great show (seriously, go watch it!), I found myself going back to the past and perusing some real period gems. One that I’d never seen before, but had certainly heard about, was The Gate from 1987, a cult classic lauded for its special effects above all else. And I won’t lie, the effects in this flick are stellar and well worth the price of admission (or no price at all – thanks, PutLocker!). But just how great is The Gate on the whole? Read on, creature of the night, and find out!
The plot is beautifully simple: a tree removal service has left a big hole in some kid’s backyard. That kid is named Glen (Stephen Dorff), and when he decides to check it out with his friend Terry (Louis Tripp), they accidentally summon demons who used to rule the universe to take over the world. With the help of Glen’s sister Al (Christa Denton), the kids team up to vanquish the invading demons and plug the portal they’ve opened before all the forces of Hell can get their apocalypse on. The whole premise is the kind of “just run with it” concept that succeeds because it doesn’t overcomplicate itself. There’s obviously some thick religious lore at play, but nothing too out-there or convoluted. There’s some kids, there’s some demons. Grab your popcorn. It’s good.
If you see this movie, you’re probably going to love Terry. Out of all the characters in the movie, he definitely has a the most depth – not only is he dealing with a recently deceased mom, but one scene provides a very brief, candid glimpse into an apparently rough home life – but even without it, he could skirt by on simply being the most punk rock preteen to walk the face of the Earth. Terry doesn’t need a reason to be romping around his room reciting satanic verses from his heavy metal records. That’s just what Terry does! Unfortunately, there’s hardly as much that’s memorable about Glen. He’s a pretty testy kid who really likes model rockets, and that’s kind of it. Glen is brave, all things considered, and very resourceful, but so is every other “lonely 80s kid protagonist” you can think of. He’s the main character of the film, the character on which most of the time is spent, and he’s as interesting as a pile of copy paper. His sister, Al, is nothing but a stock character, too, a familiar model of the “older teenaged sister in the popular clique who actually really does love her little brother deep down” type. She definitely could have benefited from more screen time, especially if it could have been used to flesh out her relationship with Glen, but it seems like the writers couldn’t decide whether they wanted her to be a main character or not and only included her in the plot when they felt like it. Even the parents are disappointingly flavorless; being poorly written must be hereditary with these people.
The poor writing doesn’t stop with the characters. There’s a very noticeable lull halfway through the film – and for very good reason, and I appreciate the suspense – but there’s so many cheap fake-outs and anti-scares in this lull that the whole thing feels pointless and insulting, like a waste of time. When exposition is delivered, and boy is it ever, it’s very clumsy and drawn-out. Characters that could be important get thrown out in a way that reeks of wasted potential. The film’s writer, Michael Nankin, has a baffling portfolio. Aside from The Gate (and its 1990 sequel The Gate II: Trespassers), the most notable thing he’s penned is the late 90s revival of Flipper. Maybe these films were just cries for help from a man who wanted to write not about satanic demons, but sitcom dolphins all along? Ha, I kid. And to Nankin’s credit, he has a very illustrious career in television directing. Go Mike!
On that note, let’s switch gears to where the film succeeds: first off, The Gate is pretty funny. It’s funny in a childish and cheesy way – lots of “there’s no way that’ll happen!” jump cuts – but they’re done so well that they get me every time. The film also has some powerful, surprisingly poignant scenes in it, especially towards the end as the stakes get higher than I think I’ve ever seen them in a kid protagonist film. When all seems lost, Glen just kind of surveys the damage, and it’s a heavy, somber scene. These quieter scenes are very well spaced throughout the film, and provide good juxtaposition to the off-the-wall fright strewn throughout.
This film goes hard, and what’s great is that the kids keep up. Hell, these kids get wrung through some pretty gruesome stuff. No Oscar-worthy performances, but the child actors handle a lot of intensity and are able to carry a seriously scary movie without treating it as a joke – think Monster Squad played straight. The Gate doesn’t pull its horror punches on behalf of this adolescent cast; it’s maybe not scary enough to keep you up at night but definitely enough to get you engrossed and excited (disclaimer: afraid of moths? Maybe don’t watch this movie!). Unfortunately, these scares are undercut by awful over-editing that throws wrenches into countless scenes, jumping away at what must have been exhaustively deduced as the worst possible time because editing this anti-climactic can’t possibly happen by accident. It’s all so frustrating because something really cool or really creepy is happening on screen but you can’t even appreciate it because they keep cutting away from the payoff. Too many scenes are chopped up at a breakneck speed or far more all-over-the-place than they should be, and it really detracts from the quality of the film.
Another excellent touch that really strengthens the movie is its phenomenal score. The music in The Gate, composed by prolific genre contributors Michael Hoenig (The Blob, Class of 1999) and J. Peter Robinson (Return of the Living Dead II, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn), perfectly fits the film, shining through (or lurking in) every scored scene. It’s sometimes light and whimsical, other times dark and eerie, but always absolutely awesome. It sounds like a dream and utilizes all the best staples of 80s synth to build a soaring, twinkly atmosphere of magical mystique. When the film cranks up the suspense, the soundtrack is right there with it, easing out low, looming, cavernous tones that oh-so-very-gradually transform into high-string cacophonies never heard better on this side of Psycho. I love scores like this that complement their film so well; it really adds to the film’s identity, making it so much more effective and memorable. Plus, The Gate manages its score without ever beating it over your head and wearing itself thin – looking at you, A Nightmare on Elm Street! Seriously, take a drink every time you hear that same Bernstein leitmotif, and you may never sleep again but you’ll sure as hell pass out.
Anyway, let’s wrap up with the absolute best thing about The Gate: the effects. The effects in The Gate are, literally, good as hell. The eponymous portal glows with an otherworldly array of colors and a perfect amount of fog. There’s even a spectacularly musty zombie, some gouged eyes, and a really disgusting melted face at some point. Seriously, that face is gruesome. The visuals in The Gate are so inspired and well done that it’s actually a flaw: due to the excellence of the practical effects, there are certain sequences of late 80s CGI that come off as laughably egregious.
And oy, what about the demons? Well, the antics of these pint-sized possessors are accomplished on-screen with stellar stop-motion, courtesy of Frank C. Carere – y’know, the Videodrome guy. They’re really neat creatures, in a quirky kind of way, but unfortunately, they feel a little underutilized. The film offers a mere taste of their powers – everything from lowly ankle biting to high-level reality warping – and while it’s entertaining, I was really left wanting to see more of what they could do. Obviously they couldn’t just release three whole hours of demons harassing suburban children, but hey, I’d have seen it. Maybe that’s what the aforementioned sequel is for? I oughta give it a look sometime…
If your ten year old loved Monster Squad but wants something with a bit more bite, The Gate is perfect for scratching their adolescent horror itch. Fittingly, it’s a prefect gateway film for kids looking for more serious horror fare that isn’t rife with too much blood or nudity, and they won’t mind the flaws as much. It’s also a shining example of a great non-slasher horror movie set in the suburbs (although it does have a systematic body count). Adult horror fans may be distracted by the unorthodox editing, weak characters, and occasionally flimsy plot, but they should still be dazzled by The Gate’s gruesomely great practical effects. The Gate is a perfect “kids versus evil” flick that’s like an amusement park haunted house ride: not too deep, but scary when it wants to be, and very thoroughly enjoyable. Three stars out of five.
When writing a review, I avoid describing the whole film scene by scene. To that end, that means that there are sometimes stray observations, specific reactions, and noted reflections that just can’t make it into the review proper, for the sake of either efficiency or so as not to spoil it. That said, a spoiler alert is in full effect for the various hot takes listed below…
- One word of warning about The Gate, just like in Monster Squad: a couple real problematic words are thrown around like they’re nothing. It’s a bit jarring to modern viewers, but that’s just how kids talked in the 80s. Hell, it’s how some kids still talk now, unfortunately. It’s uncomfortable, but as far as the language of “80s kids with attitude” go, it’s not like it’s inaccurate.
- The funniest lines in this movie tend to be the kids’ reactions to the nature of demons and demon-quelling. There’s a great mixture of quizzical curiosity and nonchalance at so many dramatic aspects of demonic lore, the funniest example of which is when Glen comments on the charged language of an expulsion spell: “Isn’t that kind of insulting?”
- One more thought about the face-melting scene mentioned earlier: it comes out of absolutely nowhere. Like, the biggest scare before that point is probably a hallucinated person turning out to be a dog. This movie’s wild and refuses to let you adjust. That’s a good and bad thing, it keeps you on your toes but it results in the movie lacking a distinct overall tone.
- I think I need someone to explain the ending to me. What was the deal with that model rocket? How does it take out what’s effectively Satan in one shot? Was it a holy model rocket? Did I miss something?
- I lied earlier: the naïve dialogue is good, but the hands-down most hilarious part in this movie is when Glen blows up the big demon and the explosion sends him – no joke – frontflipping through his front door like a human pinwheel. I literally cried laughing. The egregiously bad CGI effects don’t kill the movie too much, in some cases they make it a whole lot better for all the wrong reasons.