Laika films have a remarkable position in modern cinema, not only are they keeping the wonder of stop-motion animation alive for the next generation, much like Aardman here in the UK, but they are also being the flag bearer for gateway movies. Between Paranorman, Coraline, and, to a lesser extent, the Boxtrolls, they are providing that same generation with entry points to horror and fantasy without pandering or talking down to them. As a fan of horror, this is one of my fondest obsessions and growing up in the 90s under the shadow of 1980s pop culture, there are many similar touchstones that drove me towards becoming a fan of the grizzliest of genres. Stephen Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment became legendary through the films they put out that fit this remit, as did Joe Dante and a list of other, iconic names that have since become part of the Hollywood machine. The 1980s (to mid-1990s) was a fantastic time for young genre fans.
Speaking of establishment, one of the biggest studios in the English speaking world, Lionsgate, set up a strand to collect films from the golden era of VHS and repurpose them in glorious, searing Blu-ray quality for a new generation to discover and more seasoned heads to rediscover; joining the likes of Arrow and 88 films: enter Vestron Video.
These two ideas have collided quite magnificently with their release of Tibor Takács’s nigh on forgotten movie, 1987’s the Gate. Takács’ film has the big trope of 1980s horror: rebelling against baby boomers by the otherworldly destruction of suburbia. In the Gate, lightning destroys a tree in the back garden of a very young, debuting Stephen Dorff, and in the removing of the tree’s debris, Glen (Dorff) and his best friend Terry (Louis Tripp) happen upon a gate to the domain of the old gods. Home alone and babysat by Glen’s older sister, Al (Christa Denton), they are besieged by waves of monsters and evil intent in what can only be likened to a suburban evil dead 2 with kids.
Whether it is Amblin, Poltergeist, IT, Gremlins or any other titles there is a further common trait in the significance of characterisation. Michael Nankin’s script values Glen, Terry and Al(Alexandra) and takes a great deal of time to build them up rather than presenting them as mere meat puppets to be killed off for the morbid entertainment of its audience. For some, that is a bone of contention. The Gate is a sprightly 85 minutes and for 45 of them, Takács’s movie can barely even be described as horror adjacent. As entertaining as it is, the movie does ask for patience – not art horror levels of patience but patience nonetheless. It is in this extended ‘prologue’ that the writing/directing duo of Nankin and Takács out themselves as great voices in directing and penning young, believable characters. Even if you find them annoying – which is likely – they are still believable.
As good as that all is, even the brightest films cast shadows. In some of the dialogue, the Gate shows its age, there are two moments where Glen is arguing with one of his sister’s friends and he calls them names which also happen to be homophobic slurs. Neither are enough to derail the film but they are enough to make you suck the air through your teeth, amazed at how easy terms of hate were thrown around. While we are talking about script issues, there is also a moment later on in the lull between two demonic attacks where Al’s two friends, who have also survived monsters, demons and the unbelievable suddenly stop being scared, chastise the people who shared their terrifying experience and head off with the boys to drink beer and party. For a movie that so patiently builds its characters, this otherwise throwaway moment is a significant ball drop.
For those two (3, depending on your patience) issues, there is also an awful lot that the Gate gets very right. A favourite moment requires referring back to Evil Dead, Raimi’s events revolve around the Necronomicon whereas here it is a metal album that Terry owns and its liner notes from a band who only recorded one album before dying in mysterious circumstances. Apparently. After the titular gate is opened the film goes for a strong atmosphere, an unexpectedly full-on bout of gore, stop-motion animation, forced perspective shots and rubber costumes. Special effects supervisor, Randall William Cook, is going for a greatest hits compilation of genre cinema’s tricks. $6million dollars is a good amount for a horror film, even so, the amount of visual ideas spans outwards from a pulsing purple hole in the back garden, arms reaching out from under the bed, specters heads gorily collapsing under their own weight, ancient stop-animated gods and the sky scorched signifying the end of days. There is a lot going on here and watching the chaos of this suburban house being torn to shreds is massively cathartic… and entertaining.
Like all 1980s movies the fashion has dated, it also takes too long to get to the point and it is a little dicey with its dialogue. But that pales when compared to the delight in rediscovering one of the finest gateway movies into horror fandom that works no matter how old you are and how well-versed you are. With a body of extras that equals anything the champions of the home video game (arrow, criterion, and co.) have put out, all I can say is Bravo Vestron Video, Bravo.