by Steve Habrat
I had never heard of director Tibor Takács’ 1987 demons-in-suburbia horror flick The Gate until a buddy at work recommended it and let me borrow his copy on DVD. Made in the heyday of stop-motion special effects and flashy explosions, The Gate is what you would get if you combined the rollicking adventures of The Goonies, the spacey wonder of E.T., and the funhouse scares of Poltergeist. Borrowing heavily from early Steven Spielberg, Takács crafts a solid little eighty-five minute sleepover distraction that will send the kiddies off with a few nightmares and the adult viewers away inebriated on drive-in nostalgia. In addition to all the goofy fun you’ll have, you’ll also marvel at how well the film has held up through the years. Only once or twice do the incredible effects look dated or slightly cheesy. Even more incredible is that the film was made for a measly $2 million, which makes it even more astonishing that it has barely aged a day. The Gate is also worth a look to check out the performance from a young Stephen Dorff as our pint-sized hero who has to face Hell on earth in mundane old suburbia. And you thought searching for lost pirate treasure was stressful!
The Gate introduces us to Glen (Played by Dorff), a nerdy suburban kid who passes the time with his heavy metal loving buddy Terry (Played by Louis Tripp). After Glen’s parents have a large tree dug out of their back yard, Glen and Terry find a mysterious rock in the hole that looks suspiciously like an egg. Meanwhile, Glen’s sister, Al (Played by Christa Denton), is busy trying to convince their parents that she is old enough to babysit Glen while they are away for the weekend. After a lot of pleading and begging, Al is allowed to look after Glen but as soon as their parents leave, she kicks off a big party for her friends. What the kids assume will be a fun-filled weekend takes a sinister turn when they find a rotten corpse buried in the walls of their house, suffer from bizarre hallucinations, and are stalked by miniature demonic creatures that crawl out of the hole in the backyard. As the paranormal activity increases, Terry and Glen begin to suspect that the hole in the backyard is really a gateway to Hell and if it isn’t closed soon, the world will be reduced to ashes.
The Gate does start out a bit choppy in its opening moments, with awkward editing and lots of silly dissolves. It doesn’t help that the acting has trouble finding its groove but things start to click when the special effects kick in. Once the little demonic critters start wrecking havoc all over the house, things start to be a little more fun and surprisingly eerie. The Gate also has a number of hallucinatory moments that are capable of scaring the crap out of both younger and older viewers. A scene in which Terry comes face to face with his deceased mother is a major creep-out as is the one where Glen embraces a demonic form of his father, only to pull his head off and gouge his eyes out. There is also an eyeball in the palm of Glen’s hand, bedroom walls bending in on themselves, and a demonic version of Terry emerging from a closet and trying to take a bite out of Glen’s hand. It’s through these otherworldly moments that The Gate achieves a fairly creepy atmosphere that lingers until the final frame of the film. The creature effects add more of an action element to all the insanity and I have to say that they have held up better than you think. If you think the alien-like demons that scamper around are spooky, wait until you get a look at the rat like creature that bursts through Glen and Al’s living room. It’s actually better than most of the computerized monsters that Hollywood comes up with today.
Considering that The Gate is a kiddie horror flick, our protagonists are all below the age of seventeen. The young Dorff is passable as rocket-obsessed Glen but he does very little to really blow us away. When combined with Tripp, the two convey a legitimate friendship that is heartwarming, especially since Tripp’s Terry is nursing a broken heart. I’d honestly have to go with Tripp’s performance over Dorff’s since there is a bit more depth there. Then there is Denton’s Al, who is handed lots of 80’s slang that is sure to nab more than a few unintentional laughs from those who didn’t grow up then. If her slang doesn’t get you, her style and variety of friends will certainly have you chuckling. Deborah Grover and Scot Denton drop in briefly as Glen and Al’s worried but loving parents. There is a very fine scene that finds Glen and his father discussing Terry and how he is coping with the loss of his mother. It is a scene that actually made me want to see more from their father but if he remained in the picture, we wouldn’t have all the funhouse horror that we do.
While The Gate has some mighty fine monsters and some surprisingly disturbing images, the film is the victim of its own plot cheese. I supposed that if The Goonies and Poltergeist never were made, The Gate would have had a bigger impact than it actually had. Still, if your someone who really enjoys a good stop-motion special effect over rubbery CGI, you’re going to go wild for this one. Even if all this madness shouldn’t work, I’m still a huge sucker for these types of films, the ones where extraordinary events break the peaceful tranquility of the idyllic American suburb. These films are almost like comfort food, especially since I can remember checking out films like The Goonies and E.T. when I was just a squirt. It’s the rollicking adventure that wins out and makes The Gate a fun Friday night barging bin watch. Overall, the kids will find it scarier than the adults, but The Gate still keeps the entertainment light and accessible, something that you just can’t argue with. A forgotten B-movie gem that will do the trick when you’ve exhausted all the other horror classics the video store has to offer.
The Gate is available on DVD.