The Gate (1987)
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.
The Muppets (2011)
by Steve Habrat
I’m going to remember 2011 as the year that retro dominated at the movies. We have seen multiple releases throughout the year that have embraced a throwback aesthetic, ones that were evocative and nostalgic. They were all quite good too. We’ve had the candy-colored madcap The Green Hornet, 80’s horror nod Insidious, the Goonies/E.T. mash up Super 8, the dreamy pulp and Raider’s of the Lost Ark tribute Captain America, the ultra violent 80’s crime/actioner Drive, the arty silent film wonder The Artist, and we will soon see another Raider’s valentine when The Adventures of Tintin hits theaters. Many have been direct nods to the heyday of special effects and when escapism really dominated. In the late 70’s, Jim Henson’s Muppets took over television and went on to rally a group of loyal fans that have supported them through the years. After a long hiatus and being largely forgotten by pop culture, gargantuan funny guy Jason Segel, who is also said to be a huge fan of the felt critters, penned a fresh new screenplay along with Nicholas Stoller, wrangled director James Bobin and together they have delivered a winning piece of family entertainment that attempts to rally a new generation of fans while also making the adults who so enthusiastically watched their sketch-comedy mischief way back when inebriated with nostalgia of their youth. The Muppets is retro without being retro. It’s hilariously self-aware and willing to crack jokes on their absence. This world isn’t meant for the optimistic band of creatures ranging from the ringleader Kermit the Frog all the way to Sam the Eagle. And trust me, every Muppet you can think of pops up at least once. The movie almost isn’t big enough to contain them all. The best part of all of this is that The Muppets keeps things unadorned, making it even easier to love them.
The Muppets kicks off with the knee-slapping introduction of their newest member, Walter, a happy-go-lucky little puppet that is best buddies with his human brother Gary. The young Gary and Walter live in the perfect community of Smalltown, USA, and they both sit in their matching stripped pajamas and grin over The Muppet Show. Walter becomes a massive fan of Kermit and company, and as life gets tougher for the little Walter, he finds comfort in The Muppet Show. The film speeds forward to present day where the adult Gary (Played by Jason Segel) and Walter still live in Smalltown and are now shacking up together. They are still best buds and still do everything together, even hilarious musical numbers. We also learn that Gary is dating Mary (Played by Amy Adams) and they have been together for ten years. Gary plans a trip to Los Angles in celebration of their anniversary and he invites Walter to tag along to see the Muppet Theater. Mary is less than enthused but she understands how important Walter is to Gary and Gary to Walter. Once they arrive to Los Angles, Walter discovers that the world has left the Muppets behind and moved on. Their theater and studio lie in ruin and there is a plot by an evil oilman named Tex Richman (Played by Chris Cooper) to destroy what is left of their studios in an attempt to drill for oil. Horrified, Walter pleas with Gary and Mary to help him reunite the Muppet gang and help save the Muppet Theater.
It’s easy for us to wave off The Muppets and call it square. It features quirky puppets rather than fancy CGI creatures and, yes, it does seem a bit dated. It’s also heavy with musical numbers, which is also the furthest thing from hip. Yet that is what makes this film so irresistible. It’s simple and old fashioned, with a whole slew of cameos from big Hollywood names. Get ready to double over when Modern Family’s Rico Rodriguez shows up and inquisitively asks Kermit if he’s one of the Ninja Turtles. Wait until you see Kermit’s reaction. Oh, and Neil Patrick Harris turns up too to deliver a real zinger. Truth be told, I’ve always been intrigued by the Muppets and how they convey so much emotion. When Kermit is sad, we can see it in his plastic peepers. It does fill you with a sense of wonder. It helps that the puppet work is punctilious and detailed. And yet this film is content with being square and a bit dated. In fact it is delighted by the very implication of it. It gives it fuel to crack joke after joke and believe me, the jokes come fast and furious. It’s a nice balance to Pixar’s films and the bizarre offerings like Alvin and the Chipmunks, where real actors interact with annoying CGI animals (Hollywood is forcing the annoying Chipmunks on audiences AGAIN! They showed the trailer before this film. I guess with every good thing, there has to be a bad.). With The Muppets, at least there is something palpable for the actors to work with.
The actors here all do a fine job playing old fashioned. Segel brings a gee-whiz energy with him and he really seems to be genuinely in awe at what is going on around him. It helps that he has a heart for this sort of thing. Adams steals the shows as Mary, as she just radiates girl-next-door charm. She looks like she stepped out of the 1950’s. Parks and Recreation’s Rashida Jones turns up as a straight-shooting television executive named Veronica who, in the words of Fozzie Bear, could shoot “a little more curvy”. Cooper’s oilman Tex Richman also provides some big laughs, especially his love of maniacal laughter. He also steals the show with a musical number so bold, I didn’t laugh until after it ended and I could register what had just happened.
The Muppets does have a handful of flaws that knocks it down a letter grade. The director handles some of that cameos carelessly, some are so brief; blink and you may miss them. There are some that shine (Emily Blunt turns up in a nod to The Devil Wears Prada) and some that should have been developed better (Sarah Silverman’s wasted potential as a diner hostess). Some of the Muppets themselves could have used a bit more screen time, but the film desperately tries to fit every single one of them into the film that it is almost overload. I was left wishing for more of daredevil Gonzo and Sam the Eagle. Walter ends up getting lost in the shuffle for about a half hour and it’s a shame because you really do fall in love with him. Every once and a while, it feels slightly unfocused, like a bunch of kids in a candy store.
Despite some minor hiccups, this is one of the best family films of the year. One that is not like Chinese water torture for adults and delivers slapstick laughs for children. I applaud Segel for making retro old-fashioned feel new again and I would gladly go back to the theater to experience all of this again. The film succeeds as a musical, with several numbers that really pop, the best one being shared by Mary and Miss Piggy. The Muppets finds itself on the retro list of 2011, one of the films where everything just clicks and it takes you back. Two of the people I saw it with were fans of the show when it was on and it left them beaming. My generation missed Kermit and Miss Piggy, but it still had me in a good mood after we left the theater. This film isn’t rocket science, but then again, it doesn’t need to be. It left me feeling all warm and felty inside. Who can argue with that?!
Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)
by Charles Beall
There is a good movie in Psycho IV: The Beginning that is dying to get out, yet never does. The premise (for the fourth film in a series) is promising: what was life with Mother like? The problem is that there is a lot of good material here, but the film is so campy that you can’t take it seriously.
It is interesting to look at the progression of the story of Norman Bates through the Psycho series. We know that the original Psycho is a more “serious” film“ (albeit with a lot of dark humor), as is Psycho II, and to an extent, Psycho III, but this installment walks a fine line of seriousness and camp, falling into the latter category. This is a shame, because with Psycho IV, we have a screenplay by Psycho’s original screenwriter Joseph Stefano, another spirited performance from Anthony Perkins, and enthusiastic direction from Mick Garris. What went wrong?
The film starts off with a solid concept. Late night radio host Fran Ambrose (the amazing and underrated CCH Pounder) has a show dealing with boys who kill their mothers, and of course, a now married and “rehabilitated” Norman Bates calls in. This is an instance where the movie flails between the serious and camp. There is potential and Pounder and Perkins take their roles seriously, yet the direction of Garris seems to take the performances to a campier level. Through his phone call, we meet Normans’s mother (the hot Olivia Hussey) through narratives about their life together, with young Norman played by Henry Thomas of E.T. fame. I give credit for Garris for choosing Hussey to play Mrs. Bates; she is gorgeous and not at all the image one would think of for Mrs. Bates. However, Hussey camps up her performance and I believe it is because of Garris’ direction.
That isn’t to say that Psycho IV isn’t well-made. The film is bursting with color, giving an idea of life back in the era at the time of the original film. But, much like Norman Bates himself, this film is at war with itself. It doesn’t know how to treat its material, and instead of being firmly on one path, the movie straddles the serious and the campy, leaving this viewer satisfied to an extent, but disappointed at what could’ve been.
Tomorrow…ugh, Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake. Although, this is a pretty sweet trailer.
Super 8 (2011)
I want you to take a moment and name a film that you saw when you were a kid that left an indelible impression on you. Go ahead, I’ll wait. What was that? I’m sorry, I honestly don’t believe that Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, while an incredible film, left an emotional mark on you at the age of six.
Okay, now I’ll tell you mine. I saw E.T. for the first time when I was about four years old. How do I remember that? It is because I was petrified of this alien that made grunting noises like my father getting out of the chair. I couldn’t see the alien, so I assumed he was scary-looking. I could never get through the first half of it until I was about six when my mother told me that everything would be okay and just to watch it. Elliott brought E.T. up to his room, and in the grand reveal, he wasn’t that scary. For the next hour and a half, I went through a range of emotions: laughter at E.T. getting drunk, exhilaration as he and Elliott flew over the moon, concern when E.T. went missing, terror when the government descended on the house, sadness when E.T. “dies,” excitement when Elliott and his friends escape the government, and finally happy-sadness when E.T. flies away. Now, try and get that out of a movie when you’re six.
The fact of the matter is that Steven Spielberg is an incredible filmmaker. Yes, I hear your scoff and I do not care because it is because of his films that I was able to open my imagination and discover other works out there from many different filmmakers. We all have to start somewhere, and if it wasn’t for the films of Steven Spielberg, I do not believe my imagination would have been ignited.
J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 is, unapologetically, a love letter to the Spielberg films of the late 70s and early 80s…and there is nothing wrong with that. Today, the movies at multiplexes are sequels and special effects extravaganzas that (for the most part) lack in the most important visual effect of all: the story.
Now, unless you’re Christopher Nolan (Inception, please), it is very rare that there is truly an “original” story out there because it has all been said and done before. However, there is nothing wrong with taking a concept and spinning it off into its own unique story, and that is precisely what Super 8 is.
A group of friends in western Ohio decide to make a zombie super 8 film over their summer vacation. They witness a train crash and “something” escapes and it is up to our young heroes to save the day!
That is the plot of the film, essentially. But it is the atmosphere and the characters that both Abrams and the amazing child actors create that is the heart and soul of this film. I can’t think of the last time I saw a mainstream Hollywood movie where there was such an engaging community of characters- to be honest, this movie could’ve done away with the entire monster plot and just watched these kids make a movie. It is because of these characters that you become emotionally involved in their plight and you root for them all the way through the end credits. Harkening back to E.T., Super 8 expands on the themes of friendship, family, letting go, and growing up. How rare it is to see a mainstream Hollywood film deal with these issues in both an intelligent and entertaining way.
Now, this film is not without its disappointing parts. Like an adrenaline-riddled thirteen year old, Abrams goes over the top with many of the effects that actually detract from the wonderful story he is telling. Also, the ending, while satisfying, is very abrupt and nearly brings the movie to a screeching halt. There could have been another half hour to wrap things up in a tidier manner.
With that said, it is obvious that I am biased towards Super 8. It was a trip down memory lane for me, back to a time when I saw movies from the late 70s and early 80s and wished there were more for me to see. It is also an ode to my hero, Steven Spielberg, and the effect he has had on film lovers for nearly 40 years. My hope is that kids that are twelve or thirteen see this movie and become enamored with the most wonderful special effect of all: imagination. Grade: A-