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.
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?!