In Horror Bucket List, I fill in gaps in my horror film knowledge based on recommendations from friends on Twitter. We then have a back and forth discussion about their history with the film.
Next up: 1987’s The Gate with Bryan Christopher, @eviltaylorhicks.
Plot: Kids, left home alone, accidentally unleash a horde of malevolent demons from a mysterious hole in their suburban backyard.
Obviously – due to the nature of this project – I had never seen The Gate before this (all that I knew was that it had stop-motion in it). When did you first see it?
I couldn’t have been much older than four or five years old. It’s one of those movies that has always just been in my consciousness. I had a rotation of films that I watched ad nauseum as a kid, including The Gate, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Howard the Duck. Now I’ll stand by Temple of Doom all day, but I know that Howard the Duck isn’t exactly a high point for films of the 1980s, so I actively avoided The Gate for years because I was worried I’d have a similar realization with it. When I finally took the plunge for a revisit I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I still really love it, not just for the nostalgia factor but because it’s a solid film.
It’s definitely the kind of “family friendly” horror that was pervasive throughout the 80s, but that is few and far between nowadays. In all honesty, it was a lot creepier than I expected it to be. What is it about the film that you like?
Well, as I kid it was because it scared the crap out of me and because I had a huge crush on the older sister, Al (Christa Denton). But seeing it through adult eyes I appreciate that it’s a film centered on children, but it never talks down to its presumably adolescent audience and is actually quite dark. It deals quite a bit with loss, as Glen (Stephen Dorff)’s best friend Terry (Louis Tripp) is coping with the death of his mother. As we see Terry struggle with his grief, Glen’s dealing with premonitions of a similar doom heading for his loved ones. This, of course, is a fear that becomes more and more likely as hordes of demons start coming out of a hole in his backyard.
That fear of loss permeates the film, with an atmosphere that is appropriately melancholy and ominous. And, unlike most kid-focused horror, those fears actually come to fruition. Usually with gateway horror the various baddies are ultimately dispatched without many casualties beyond maybe a few background characters. But everyone is fair game in The Gate, and by the film’s climax Glen is all by himself as his best friend and sister are both dead. Granted, they return in the end, but not in a way that feels cheap. Ultimately that’s what I really appreciate about the film. Nothing feels cheap (aside for perhaps a couple dodgy effects). It trusts young viewers to take on subjects that scare them without falling back on silly humor or hokey tropes.
I, too, appreciated how serious the film treats its threat of harm and danger, right from the very first scene which finds Glen being stuck in a burning tree house that’s been hit by lightning!
Do you have a specific scene or scare that you like to revisit or that comes to mind when you think of the film?
I’ll forever be traumatized by the scene where, in the midst of the chaos going on in the house, the kids try to flee out the front door and find what looks to be Glen and Al’s parents in the yard. A relieved Glen runs into his dad (Scot Denton)’s arms, only for the dad to grab him by the neck and bellow “You’ve been bad!” in a demonic voice. When Glen tries to push away from his dad’s face, it proceeds to melt in his hands as his mom (Deborah Grover) cackles in the background. Yikes.
It’s such a potent scene as it screws with the role of parents as a source of security for kids. Most horror movies featuring younger characters find ways to remove adults from the equation. So to dangle that false sense of security only to turn it into something malevolent is really jarring, and Stephen Dorff’s acting is so spot on as he truly looks as terrified as any of us would be if the goo that used to be our parent’s face were oozing off our fingers.
I’m glad you mention that scene because it’s not only terrifying, but it features some really outstanding practical effects. Ultimately the film seems to be divided equally between practical squishy/icky/melty effects and CG effects like the miniature demons and then the big multi-armed demon at the end.
Which effects hold up the best for you? Does the dated or dodgy FX affect your viewing experience?
There’s an awful lot of really creepy effects for a PG-13 movie. The makeup effects for the undead worker are still damn effective, especially when he’s leering at poor Al through the reflection of her bedroom mirror. And poor “demon” Terry taking a Barbie doll in the eye is really gruesome for a kid’s movie. But I think the unsung hero of the film is the brief moment when Glen looks at the family photo and everyone around him in the picture is a bloody mess.
And honestly even the visuals that don’t hold up so well still have a fair amount of low-budget charm. It’s fun watching the different ways Randall William Cook’s team portrayed the film’s pint-sized demons, from stop motion to forced perspective. And while the scenes where men in rubber suits are superimposed on-screen with the actors isn’t exactly seamless, it’s not enough to ruin the movie.
I’m a bit on the fence for the giant demon in the finale. On one hand, I appreciate the Ray Harryhausen-style stop motion used for the effect, but I think it did lack a little of the grandeur that more modern effects could have pulled off for something like that.
The film has some intriguing mythology with regard to the process for opening and closing the gate, and the impact of these demons spilling out and potentially conquering the world. At the same time, this is a fairly self-contained story about an average trio of kids in generic suburbia. What’s your take on the scope/size of the narrative?
That’s a big part of why I love this movie so much. I love smaller stories with large-scale ramifications. Some of my favorite movies do this, like The Thing, where there’s a potentially world-killing alien threat but all of the action takes place in an Antarctic outpost, or Pontypool, where a sound-based infection threatens to wipe out the whole planet but it’s told through this rinky-dink rural radio station.
What makes The Gate so interesting is that these high-level stakes rest on three kids, and by the end only the youngest one of them is left to literally fend off hell on earth. That scene where the gate has fully opened and Glen sees that column of smoke bursting into the sky is terrifying as he (along with us) finally sees the full scope of what they’re dealing with.
It’s also worth noting that writer Michael Nankin and director Tibor Takács take care in reminding us that these are kids and that they really don’t know what they’re doing. Sure, we get the heavy metal album that serves as an instruction manual for how to close the gate, but when that’s lost the best they can think to do is read scripture out of the Bible and, in an act of desperation, just throw the thing into the gate and hope for the best. And it doesn’t work!
Another movie might have just had that been the end of it, but I respect that Takács fakes us out with a false ending only to realise that it’s not over and that the biggest dangers still lie ahead.
From what I’ve gathered from research, The Gate is a relatively beloved, albeit somewhat overlooked classic of the 80s. Why do you think it doesn’t get the same attention as some other (gateway) horror films of the 80s? And, if you were given the chance, how would you pitch a remake of the film?
I think when we talk about gateway horror, most of them are going to be cult films, at best. Even The Monster Squad, which is probably the go-to example for gateway horror, tanked when it first came out and only built its fanbase in the following years through home video and cable. With The Gate, I think the fact that it is so committed to being a horror film makes the audience for it that much more niche. It doesn’t really lean into humor the way a lot of kid-friendly horror would, so there’s not as much potential for a crossover audience.
If I were going to remake The Gate, I think the main change I would make would be to pull back on the physical demons and really focus on the ways demons would mess with the kids’ sense of reality to get what they want. I’d save the reveal of the demons for the final act, and make sure they have a truly frightening look, as I’d be making this for those kids who want genuine scares like we did when we were their age.
I had a lot of fun watching baby Stephen Dorff battle stop motion demons. This is a solid 3.5/5 for me.
What’s your final rating (out of 5) for The Gate? And where can people get in touch with you if they want to follow up?
I know this might seem crazy, but this movie is a 5 for me. Even though it suffers from some dated effects, I actually find that I enjoy it as much as an adult as when I was a kid. Sure, there’s a nostalgia factor there, but that doesn’t change the fact that I really do love it.
Anyone who’s interested in keeping up with my work can do so via Daily Dead where I write the monthly columns “Catalog from the Beyond” and “Let’s Scare Bryan to Death.” I also cover short horror films at the Rue Morgue website and write the Shadowlands column for the magazine. As for social media I’m pretty much just on Twitter, so give me a follow there for updates on any new work.
Next time: we’re travelling back in time again to 1955 to check out The Night of the Hunter with Talk Movie To Me’s Ms. Sinclair