Release date: May 15th 1987
If there’s anything that one remembers about 1987’s The Gate, it’s that it beat mega-dud Ishtar at the box office twenty-four years ago. Well, that and it had one of the creepiest video covers ever to adorn a PG-13 flick. Any kid that ever walked into a video store in the late 80’s must surely recall those evil red eyes staring up out of that gaping dark pit with the tagline ‘Pray it’s not too late.’ About eight years old at the time, I had nightmares generated from that image alone.
It’s funny then to return to Tibor Tackacs’ The Gate all these years later and try to imagine what it’s effect must have been upon release. I never saw the film in the 80s, and caught it on cable sometime in the mid 90’s where I was mostly indifferent to it. Watching it now is an unusual experience; it’s not really scary at all, even when you consider that it’s actually a horror picture designed for kids. At the same time, there’s a disconnect between The Goonies meets Gremlins innocence and the demonic theme that includes satanic rites, blood sacrifices and the unleashing of Hell on Earth. But that’s the 80’s for you, after all.
I actually enjoyed The Gate on my most recent viewing, while acknowledging that it’s an incredibly slight little movie that gets by mostly on some clever writing and wonderful visual effects. It’s hard not to like a film that tries this hard, playing off the appeal of bigger-budget supernatural thrillers like Poltergeist while cheerfully exploiting a timely moral hysteria over satanism and heavy metal. It helps that Glenn and Terry, the adolescent best friends at the heart of the story, are convincingly written by Michael Nankin and well acted by Stephen Dorff and Louis Tripp. Christa Denton has good chemistry with them as Dorff’s older sister, Al, who’s begrudgingly babysitting the two boys until their misadventures require she help fend off a Lovecraftian apocalypse.
When you describe it like that, The Gate sounds a bit more intense and grown-up than it actually is. The subversive elements of the script are there mostly for over-protective 80’s parents, who would have found a mocking finger (not likely the pointer) waving back at their own judgmental one. Glenn and Terry accidentally unleash demons out of a hole in Glenn’s backyard—it’s sitting where the tree-house used to be—and must then consult Terry’s underground metal album for instructions on sending them back where they came from. Ironically, this scene plays off the irrational fear that rock bands were ‘backmasking’ hidden, demonic information on their records that could only be heard if they were listened to in reverse. When the record plays backward here, it gives the kids important info on saving the world from evil. Take that, PTA!
Also picking at a prickly conservative climate, The Gate features a hilarious and telling sequence that riffs on the cluelessness of horror characters when it comes to spiritual warfare. Terry attempts to quell the occult assault of little monsters by reading passages from the New Testament of the King James Bible. When the hellish activity doesn’t look to slow, he physically lobs the bible into the hole as if it were some kind of holy hand grenade. Even better, it temporarily does the trick. Later still, Glenn fires up a kit-rocket infused with love (and a few practical household substances) to dispatch one of the really cantankerous hell lords. In between all of this, The Gate plays like a fairly standard ooga-booga pic where the kids try and outrun a tribe of minature stop-motion ghouls and zombies that climb out of the walls.
It’s almost a shame I didn’t see The Gate when I was a kid, as it would have arguably more to offer me then. Despite the monstrous flourishes and the hokey devilry, the ultimate gist of The Gate is that children are more reselient and morally intuitive than their adult counterparts give them credit for. Glenn and Al resolve their sibling rivalry and bond not because they are thrust into a life-threatening predicament, but because they come to value each other as brother and sister. There’s a surprising amount of empathy directed towards Terry, a nerdy, slightly sinister problem child with a tumultuous home life. Glenn’s dad encourages him to treat Terry with care, and Glenn does so even when it’s difficult, ultimately bringing the best out in Terry too. These themes aren’t forced in the same way an afterschool special would jam them down your throat, and as a result they are more effective.
The real reason to see The Gate, though, is for the monsters that come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are surprisingly well rendered for a cheap, over-twenty year-old horror film. My favorite beasts are the little goblins that creep up out of the ground and then march in small garrisons through the dark corridors of the house. They aren’t very menacing individually, but the combination of stop-motion models and forced perspective create some decidedly creepy compositions. The eye peering out of a hand, the workman zombie that seems to grow right out of the wall, and the enormous leviathan that rips its way right through the middle of Glenn’s house are clever and imaginative dalliances with dark fantasy.
If only they were in a movie that had a bit more gumption in regards to tension. The Gate’s biggest malfunction is that it never rises out of the kid-friendly mindset, and exists in an audience limbo. Despite the positive elements, it’s still fairly dark for children of a certain age, and it’s not tense enough for older viewers. It certainly doesn’t have the fright factor necessary to captivate adults and the comedy, while mostly clever, doesn’t take over enough to define it that way either. It’s fun, but there’s just not much there. In fact, Tibor Tackacs seems to be trying out the genre here, and it’s interesting to note that his follow-up I, Madman was a more successful and thrilling horror entry. Stiil, the modern-day Tackacs, directing tripe like Mansquito and Ice Spiders for the SyFy Channel, must look back on The Gate with something approaching hallowed reverance.
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