Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Gate (1987)

Directed by: Tibor Tak√°cs
Screenplay by: Michael Nankin
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Christa Denton, Louis Tripp
Running Time: 85 minutes
Tagline: "...Pray It's Not To Late."

Kids are a lot tougher than most adults will give them credit for and stuff that parents are certain will scar ‘em for life may very well end up rolling off of them like water off a duck’s back. Personal example: when I was a wee little sprout, probably not too long after my family had purchased a VHS player, we ended up renting ALIEN to watch some weekend afternoon. Memory is a little fuzzy on whether or not somebody told me that the film would be too scary for me or I came to that conclusion myself but I had elected to sit out the movie and went to play in my room. However, curiosity would eventually get the better of me and so being a stealthy little ninja, I snuck out of my room and stood at the end of the hallway, peaking around the corner at the TV screen, my family unaware of my presence.

This, coincidently, happened to be right at the time in the film where that nasty little phallus monster announced itself by exploding out of John Hurt’s chest cavity. After taking a moment for the shocked crew of the Nostromo to take in what just happened, the wormy little critter let out a weird shriek and skittered across the dining hall table, scattering glasses and dishes as it exited stage left.

I laughed, which probably startled my parents and my sisters, and sat down to join them for the rest of the movie. No nightmares at all that night about H.R. Giger’s Xenomorph, though weirdly enough I do remember having bad dreams about another movie I watched right around the same time: THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN. Go figure on that one.

What does this have to do with THE GATE? Well, for starters, I was struggling with the opening for this write up for a bit and even if it ultimately fit into things a bit clumsily at the very least it worked that little writer’s block loose for me. More importantly though, my reaction to ALIEN as a kid does make me wonder how I’d have taken to THE GATE if I had caught it back then, back before I had even heard of H.P. Lovecraft*, as opposed to how dumbfounded I was when I saw it a couple of years ago via Netflix. How, I asked myself, even in the days when movies that had monsters getting exploded in the microwaves and guys getting their hearts ripped out in cultic ceremonies could be marketed as tentpole family entertainment and even R-rated gorefests like ROBOCOP and PREDATOR had action figures kids could sit on their shelves next to Transformers and G.I. Joe, had the makers of this movie managed to get away with making what amounted to a kid oriented Cthulhu mythos tale?

OK, now that I think about it, maybe this isn’t too weird. It was the eighties, after all, a lucrative time to be an effects-driven horror movie. At the same time, Spielberg and Joe Dante had made a ridiculous amount of money with a movie about a swarm of tiny monsters laying waste to suburbia. It wouldn’t be too far of a reach to suggest that some producer looked at screenwriter Michael Nankin’s script about kids being menaced by vicious little creatures and saw a chance to get some of that sweet GREMLINS cash. Heck, this is probably the only time a movie like this could have gotten made at all.

We’re introduced to the first of our three main characters, Glen (Stephen Dorff, in his first role) as he awakens from a nightmare. In it, he was trapped in his tree house as a violent storm blows up and the tree is cut down by a sudden lightning strike. You can imagine Glenn’s surprise when he wakes up the next morning and discovers that there was a storm last night that did tear that tree down. As the crew Glen’s parents hired to clean up this mess chop up the tree to be hauled off, a strange stone gets dislodged from its roots, which Glen’s heavy metal fanatic friend Terry (Louis Tripp) identifies as a geode. With thoughts of all the money they could make by selling it on their minds, Glen and Terry grab a shovel and start digging to see what else they can unearth. Their attempts pay off, even if Glenn does end up gashing his hand on a splinter from the shovel handle, with discovery of another geode, this one roughly the size of a basketball. Weird thing about that hole, though, it seems to be considerably deeper than it at first appears to be and despite repeated attempts to do so, can’t seem to stay filled in.

Glen and Terry don’t have time to dwell on that or the rather unnatural number of moths that have been gathering around his house since Glen found the stone the day before. Mom and Dad are going on a trip for the weekend and for the first time, Glen and his older sister Alexandra (Christa Denton) will not be having a babysitter. A couple of things undercut Glen’s excitement at this prospect, though. He’s grounded, for one, punishment for the burn mark one of his toy rockets left on the roof of the house, and while he and “Al” were close once, she’s reached that age where things like high school and boys take precedent over whatever little brother had planned. Once mom and dad are out of the house, Al gives in to her friends’ insistence on having them over for a party. For Glen it looks like it’s a weekend of nothing but sitting in his room and hanging out with Terry.

Then strange stuff starts to happen. First, Glen and Terry crack open that large geode, from which strange glimmers of light spill forth, and the metal shavings in one of their magnetic drawing pads arrange themselves in the shape of words and arcane symbols. Never a good idea to read strange words that just appear out of nowhere aloud, especially if you’ve have just dripped into a little blood in a strange, creepy hole, but that’s exactly what Glen does. It’s then that everything really starts to come unhinged. Glen is nearly hurt when a party levitation trick ends up working too well and after both he and Terry suffer bizarre dreams during the night, Angus, the family dog is found dead. (Whether the dog died due to natural causes or was some killed by Terry while sleepwalking isn’t clear.)

Just what is going on here? As good an explanation as any comes from an unlikely source. I mentioned that Terry is a metal head, an image he seems to be using to cope with the recent death of his mother and already distant father becoming even moreso. Well, one of his most prized possessions is a gift from his father on return from a trip to Europe, the sole album put out by British band Sacrifyx, died in a plane crash after releasing the album. Terry believes that there might be some sort of connection between what’s going on with Glen’s house and the song’s subject matter, which speaks of prehistoric evil that was banished long ago but can re-enter our world through interdimensional gateways. It’s looking more and more like that hole in Glen’s backyard is one of those rifts and they’ve cracked it open only tiny sliver; who knows what kind of nastiness will come boiling out if it’s thrown open all the way. They need a way to shut it, and while i doubt their local library has copies of The Book of Eibon and The Necronomicon stashed in the back, Sacrifyx helpfully provides one via an incantation that will close the gate if recited aloud over it backmasked into one of their songs. Unfortunately, it seems that the incantation is rendered useless if a sacrifice is sent through the gate beforehand and what Glen and Terry don’t know is that Al passed the responsibility of burying Angus to one of her friends before they all went to the that afternoon. Antsy to head out with everyone, he concluded that that hole in the backyard is as good of a place to dispose of the dog as anywhere. Hey, nothing said it had to be a human sacrifice…

Getting back to what I discussed earlier, I can see myself having had a much more visceral reaction to THE GATE than I did ALIEN as a child. While yes, big scary thing hiding in the shadows is a fear for all ages, where ALIEN really got under your skin was by clawing at things that were much more adult oriented; twisted phallic and rape imagery, and more importantly, body horror that took every bloodcurdling nightmare a woman has had about pregnancy and inflicted them on a man. No wonder that ALIEN didn’t quite get it’s hooks into me until I caught it again on cable TV during high school and had the everlovin’ bejeezus scared out of me; at age six or seven, whenever I had seen it, such things would have flown right over my head. THE GATE, by comparison, is a film all about childhood fears and anxieties, whether real, such as Glen’s anger and frustration that the big sister he’s been so close to now no longer has time for him, or imagined, like the first monster attack coming from under Glen’s bed. Those would hit much closer to home to someone my age at that time. The fact that the film is told entirely from the children’s point-of-view and there’s no adult presence for most its running time emphasizes all this.

None of that would work as well as it does if Glen, Al, and Terry weren’t believable as actual children, of course, so kudos to THE GATE to pulling that off. Dorff, Denton, and Tripp successfully sell the characters they're playing and it's nice to see, in a day when horror movies were passing off people in their twenties and even thirties as teenagers (I swear I remember one of the "teenagers" in FRIDAY THE 13TH Part 3 having gray hairs), actors cast who are the appropriate age. Credit must also go to the ways in which Nankin and director Tibor Takacs manage to communicate a very complicated personal dynamic between and personalities of the three main characters while saying very little. Moments like Alexandra, dressed in kid's pajamas, giving herself a fairly self-conscious once over in a mirror, or how Terry, dressed in denim and his wall's covered with heavy metal posters, using his rainbow colored blanket like some sort of cloak while singing along with his music. 

Of course, this is a review round-table devoted to bizarre and surprisingly hardcore kids movies, (At least it was when we started, priorities seemed to have shifted.) and now that I've established what makes this a movie for children, allow me to now go into what makes it so unsual. The film has an appropriate title because, despite the suburban California setting and protagonist's age, it really does feel like an unofficial entry into one of Lucio Fulci's "Gates of Hell" movies. When THE GATE gets down to business it has no problem going for the same kind of surreal, doesn't-give-a-damn-if-it-makes-sense-or-not nightmare logic that marked that trilogy of films. You might even be reminded of THE BEYOND's cranky undead sorceror when the reality warping powers of this particular hellmouth makes Terry's ghost-story about a dead worker walled up in Glen's house come unpleasantly true. Jesus Christ, in fine Fulci fashion, THE GATE even contains multiple examples of horrific eye trauma! THE GATE ends up being such a perfect little primer for the kind of batshit insanity and repulsion that you can find in Italian horror films, I'm honestly amazed that nobody from Italian film industry was involved in making it!

I imagine a good bit of this is what's leftover from what writer Nankin originally intended the film to be. He had written the script at a low point in his career following the collapse of a film project and, drawing on what he called "the nastier impulses from childhood," had envisioned it as a hard-R horror film starring even younger protagonists. Obviously that wouldn't fly at all, so when the project was picked up it was refashioned into a more family-oriented PG-13 movie with some year's added to the protagonist's age. However, these changes I think may be a major cause for what ends up being one of THE GATE'S big missteps: the monsters themselves.

THE GATE, as a stated, is a horror film cut from the same cloth as H.P. Lovecraft, where mankind is constantly threatened from reality warping alien gods and their spawn. When it came to visualizing his creatures, though, Lovecraft had the benefit of being a prose writer, and so therefore he all needed to do is provide a few vague hints at whatever squidgy tentacled terror from beyond currently threatening his neurotic protagonists looked like with a few greater implications hanging on the fringes of the narratives and his audiences imagination could do the heavy lifting for him. Movies have had a much more difficult time selling whatever eldritch creatures they create as an apocalyptic terror. Just being able to see the thing undercuts some of that, after all. And the problem with THE GATE is that it never quite successfully sells its creatures as the world ending threat that it wants you to believe they are. These things seem to have a difficult time bringing down three kids no matter what form they take and the chief demon that appears in the final act, impressive looking as it is, doesn't seem to do that much. Which is disappointing because the techniques used to create these creatures are absolutely fantastic. The aforementioned boss demon is an amazingly well done piece of Harryhausen-esque stop motion animation and its imp-like minions are realized through a combination of men-in-suits and some of the most seamless forced perspective cinematography I've seen. It's no surprise that the film's FX supervisor would go on to work on Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS films.

THE GATE had a successful run at the box office but really took off once it hit home video and cable, which convinced the studio to green light at sequel, though behind-the-scenes troubles kept THE GATE II: TRESPASSERS from being released for nearly two years. The film is considerably different from the first and involved a teen aged Terry (Louis Tripp again) summoning up and binding one of the little imp creatures so that he can use its wish granting abilities to help his alcoholic dad. There's some interesting things going on in the sequel; Terry's increased interest in the occult is a logical enough step for the character, the finale features yet another impressive stop motion monster and the film takes some stabs at dealing with a home broken by the loss of a loved one in the same way the first dealt with childhood anxieties. However, it never quite comes together and later developments in the movie feel like the filmmaker's couldn't quite decide what they wanted the sequel to be about. There was talk of a remake not to long ago, directed by Bill S. Preston, Esq. himself, Alex Winter, that used Nankin's original screenplay and creature designs by ALIEN's H.R. Giger but nothing ever came of it and Giger's recent passing probably means nothing ever will. Oh well, what could have been.

This review is part of the "You Know, For The Kids" round table hosted by the Celluloid Zeroes blogging cabal, dedicated to both the weirdest movies aimed at kids and movies that serve as gateway drugs for future cinema junkies. If you're itching for more, click on the links: THE MAGIC SERPENT at Micro-Brew Reviews, THE 5,000 FINGERS OF DR. T over at Web Of The Big Damn Spider, TIME BANDITS at Checkpoint Telstar, GAMERA Vs. VIRAS at The Terrible Claw Reviews, and SPIDER-MAN at Seeker of Schlock. 

A Little Something Extra:
Obviously, I couldn't write up a review about a movie where heavy metal music plays such a big role with out throwing in something at the end? So here's arguable one of the most metal tunes of all time: "Number of the Beast" by Iron Maiden.