The Gate (1987)

Tibor Takacs

Stephen Dorff - Glen
Christa Denton - Al
Louis Tripp - Terry
Jennifer Irwin - Linda Lee
Kelly Rowan - Lori Lee
Sean Fagan - Eric

Genre - Horror/Demons

Running Time - 85 Minutes

A part of Guts and Grog's...

After I thought I was done with themes for a while, Guts and Grog suck me back in with their Look Back On Horror With Training Wheels - otherwise G or PG rated horror that was marketed to a younger, more innocent audience. I've been burnt out on these themes, which is why I haven't been reviewing much late. But when Eric Martin asked me to contribute, I couldn't say no.

While I do like my share of horror aimed for children and young teens, I personally watch more mature, cerebral, gory, and/or violent horror - even when I was part of the younger demographic. But there are some good-to-great horror aimed for kids and teens that I still find some enjoyment in even today. Films like THE MONSTER SQUAD. Films like POLTERGEIST. Films like LITTLE MONSTERS. Or the one I'm reviewing for the theme - the 1987 Canadian production known as THE GATE.

Ah yes, THE GATE - a film I remember quite fondly from the VHS rental days of the late 1980s. Hell, I still remember when I watched the advertisements for it on television, thinking the special effects were freakin' cool as hell! THE GATE was a smash in its native Canada, although a modest hit here - even though it did launch the career of Stephen Dorff [who starred in his first film here] and Kelly Rowan [who would later become the mom on TV's The O.C.]. For the past 25 years, THE GATE has had a pretty big cult following, to the point where it even got its own sequel in 1990. But is THE GATE still as awesome today as it was back when I watched it as a child? Well...yes and no. Let's see why THE GATE may be still worth playing your vinyl backwards for.

Young Glen (Stephen Dorff) has a weird dream about his treehouse being struck by a lightning bolt, leaving a strange hole where the tree once stood. After waking up frightened, he's shocked to see that his dream may have been real. City workers are cutting down and gathering what's left to Glen's treehouse, which has left a strange hole in the backyard. The workers cover the hole up as best as they could, but Glen suspects that there's something wrong about the entire situation. His best friend, Terry (Louis Tripp), goes along with Glen's suspicions, investigating the hole. The two kids dig through it, revealing a pit that seems to go so far down, it may hit the Earth's core. Glen and Terry find a sliver, but it ends up breaking - with a shard going down the pit. A scary growl is heard after Glen and Terry leave the scene.

Like normal kids, Glen and Terry forget about the hole for a few and go on their separate ways. Glen and his older sister, Al (
Christa Denton), learn that their parents are going away for the weekend. Both protest the need for a babysitter, as Al is sixteen and feels she can take care of Glen and herself while they're gone. In other words, Al wants to throw a party for her friends, including the Lee sisters (Jennifer Irwin and Kelly Rowan).

During the night of the party, weird things start to happen. A friend of Al's decided to perform a levitation trick on Glen, which creeps him out when it works. Later that night, Terry's dead mom appears to him. But when reality sets in, the mother becomes Glen's dog, Angus, who is now a corpse. Glen wants to call his parents, but Al refuses to and deal with Angus herself. Unfortunately, one of Al's friends dumps the dog inside of the mysterious hole, activating it somewhat. Terry realizes through his death metal records [
by playing them backwards] that all evidence they have encountered implies a demon invasion coming out of the hole, which leads straight to Hell. A group of tiny demon creatures begin to pest Glen, Terry, and Al and infiltrate the house. Realizing they need to stop these creatures from causing more damage and releasing their leader, the kids decide to put their heads together and close this gate from Hell.


Whenever I think about horror films I clearly remember from my youth in the 1980s, THE GATE will usually be one of the first films to pop up in my mind. It's one of those movies that stuck with me due to its visual presentation and cool special effects for the time. I find it weird that two horror films involving some sort of demonic hole in the 1980s, THE PIT from 1981 and THE GATE, were both made in Canada. I don't know what's going up in the Great White North but I'll be bypassing any strange potholes, thank you very much. But I won't be bypassing THE GATE whenever the mood for some childhood nostalgia hits anytime soon.

When I think about what keeps THE GATE memorable today as it did for me 25 years ago, it has to be the special effects. Sure, CGI is all the rage these days. But nothing beats practical effects and stop motion animation for me, especially when it's done well. And THE GATE does it really well - so well that the effects hold up extremely great today. Hell, it still looks pretty cutting edge today and puts many CGI inflicted films to shame.

The little demon creatures are well designed and choreographed so well with the human actors, thanks to Randall William Cook - who had also worked on 1985's FRIGHT NIGHT and later on THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, which he won an Academy Award for. My favorite scene is still the zombie guy falling to the floor, only breaking apart into a large group of these demons. That moment used to be shown during all the television advertisements for the film, making me want to watch this sooner than later at the time. I also love the giant demon creature who appears at the end, trying to take Glen down to Hell with him. The blue screen effects aren't as evident as other films who used these type of matte effects back in the day. You'd think they were real people interacting with the actors instead of something added in during post-production. Just really great stuff visually in THE GATE.

I also think the makeup work by Craig Reardon, who designed Sloth in THE GOONIES, is real cool too. The zombie construction worker and the zombie parents look pretty eerie, adding to the surrealism of the film. I also dig the eye on the palm of Glen's hand and a cut off hand turning into maggots as it disintegrates. Just really awesome stuff that proves that imagination will always be superior to clicking a mouse on a computer screen to make cool looking things happen. We need more practical effects in modern movies. Today's generation of moviegoers have been spoiled by lazy effects.

These visuals wouldn't be able to happen if it wasn't for director Tibor Takacs given them the freedom to bring his vision perfectly to life. In fact, Takacs really makes THE GATE stand out from other kid horror films of the time. The film never feels upbeat, creating a gloomy, bleak atmosphere right from the start. Nothing ever seems to feel right in THE GATE, as there's always something lurking in the background that's full of menace and terror. The action set pieces with the effects are shot fantastically, really elevating the mood of the film from its much slower first half. The use of shadows and editing put you on the edge of your seat. The use of people living within the walls, the presence of ghosts, and all the dream sequences are presented with a ton of surrealism due to the way they're lit and edited within the film. The cinematography is also pretty good as well. It's just a really good visually presented film.

I also think THE GATE appealed to me back in 1987 because of the cast of children and/or teenagers in the lead roles, as opposed to twenty-somethings dealing with a psychotic killer wearing a scary mask. As a six-year-old, I could identify with Glen and/or Terry due to our similar ages, putting myself in their shoes as they deal with a demon invasion. I don't have that identification now that I'm older, but I do understand why so many people my age still have a lot of love for THE GATE. The characters are likeable enough [besides the Lee sisters, who are meant to be annoying so it's okay] and come across as vulnerable, yet active and intelligent to their situation. They don't let things happen to them. They research ways to stop these demons. They gather weapons to protect themselves. They communicate with each other in their own way. Glen, Al, and Terry aren't stupid kids and you respect them for that. They never dealt with this kind of situation, but they refuse to play the victim. That was encouraging as a kid and I find it a bit encouraging today.

It helps that the actors portray the characters well enough. Stephen Dorff, in his first film role, is very good as the lead Glen. He gives the character a ton of personality, whether he's giving other people a ton of attitude, or crying when he starts feeling helpless. You believe every bit Dorff portrays on film, making him one of the more natural and favorable child actors ever in the industry. It's no surprise he's still acting today, as he definitely has leading man written all over him.

The others are good too. Christa Denton is very credible as Al, but she doesn't have the best dialogue to convey. Still, her performance is very natural. Louis Tripp, who would reprise Terry in THE GATE II: TRESPASSERS, is the metal kid I always identified with the most. He's great in the role and plays the best friend perfectly well. I think all three leads have tremendous chemistry with each other, which makes THE GATE work more than it should. We also get Jennifer Irwin and Kelly Rowan being annoying as the Lee sisters. Just a great cast of younger actors here.

As for the narrative, that's where the flaws I never noticed as a child begin to spring up as an adult. I think the characters are well written. I think the situation itself is great and works from beginning to end. There's not much depth to it or substance, but it's entertaining as a straightforward horror demon movie. But there are things about THE GATE that bug me now that never did when I was a kid.

For example, how does Glen dream about this invasion before it even happens? How does he even sense this is happening, while no one else in his family does? Why is he the target of the demons?

Also, how come characters act normal when strange things happen? There's a levitation scene that shocks the teens at first, but they brush it off after Glen is freaked out by it. Also, the Lee sisters are traumatized by the demons attacking them and the others in one scene, while in the next scene they act normal and want Al to go out and party with them like nothing surreal happened. Do none of these characters react like real people? Does this sort of thing happen every other day? It doesn't seem natural to me.

There are a couple of other issues I have with THE GATE. But even after 25 years, it still manages to be really entertaining and a lot of fun to watch. It's got everything you would want in a demon film besides a ton of gore, which is understandable since this is a PG-13 rated film [which was originally written as an R rated film - that would have been interesting to see]. And while the story doesn't make sense in the traditional sense, the fact that it gives you nightmares, ghosts, heavy metal, demons, zombies, melting telephones, and eyeballs in hands makes it one of my horror highlights of the 1980s. THE GATE still holds up extremely well and I won't wait too long to sit down and watch it again.

Now if you'll excuse me, I plan to play some of my vinyl records backwards. Maybe they'll tell me how to stop Justin Beiber. One can only hope...

3 Howls Outta 4


Frankenstein (1931)

James Whale

Colin Clive - Dr. Henry Frankenstein
Boris Karloff - The Monster
Mae Clarke - Elizabeth
Edward Van Sloan - Dr. Waldman
Dwight Frye - Fritz
Frederic Kerr - Baron Frankenstein
John Boles - Victor Moritz

Genre - Horror/Monsters

Running Time - 71 Minutes

The year 1931 is probably considered the genesis of the popularity for horror cinema. Universal had the extremely successful Bela Lugosi DRACULA. Paramount Pictures released the great DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, starring Frederic March [which MGM had bought the rights of until Warner Brothers rebought those rights recently for home video distribution]. But I think the most popular, and beloved, horror film of the year was probably James Whale's take on the 1818 Mary Shelley novel, FRANKENSTEIN.

There was a lot of buzz for this adaptation. The main buzz was about the casting of the Monster. Bela Lugosi, who had become a major horror star due to DRACULA, was originally cast for the role. Until the time of the film's release, much of the media and press had still believed that Lugosi was in the film, playing Frankenstein's creation - which led to some people feeling misled, seeing that they went to watch Lugosi in the role. In actuality, Lugosi hated the make up process required to transform him into the character. So he dropped out of the project [at least according to him], although Lugosi would play the Monster in 1943's FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. However, many say that Lugosi [as well as the first hired director for the film, Robert Florey] were fired, as they weren't a fit for the movie. Lugosi has stated that the character of The Monster was nothing like the character he had read for in Florey's script, with that version of the monster being a sociopathic murderer without remorse or conscience.

Boris Karloff and director James Whale were hired to replace both Lugosi and Florey respectively. The script had changed quite a bit once these two were added, making the Monster more of a sympathetic figure. Jack R. Pierce created the trademark look for the Monster, which required Karloff to wear 13 pound shoes that were 4 inches high. Karloff also had to sleep with the makeup on, so the look could remain consistent. There's controversy whether the "flat head" look was either Pierce's or Whale's idea, but nothing had ever been confirmed either way.

However, everything fell into place and FRANKENSTEIN was released on December 4, 1931. It was a smash hit right out of the gate, and is considered the film to really solidify Universal Studios as the studio for quality horror cinema. And after 81 years, FRANKENSTEIN is still a great film that holds up surprisingly well and resonates quite effectively today.

At a funeral, Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunchback assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) are hiding, spying on the ceremony. Once it's over, Frankenstein and Fritz dig up the buried body to gather some dead tissue. The two have been doing this for a while - plundering graves and morgues in order to gather up the body parts of corpses for an experiment. As a doctor in Electrobiology and Chemical Galvanism, Frankenstein wants to prove that he can re-animate dead tissue with electricity. He and Fritz have stitched up all the dead tissue they have gathered, creating a large body that he plans to restore back to life.

Frankenstein's inner circle, including his beautiful fiancee Elizabeth (
Mae Clarke), has been worried sick about him. Rather than planning for their wedding and spending time together, Frankenstein has secluded himself more and more with this experiment. After a strange letter from Frankenstein, Elizabeth and others - including Victor Moritz (John Boles) and Frankenstein's teacher and mentor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) - barge to an old watchtower that happens to be Frankenstein's laboratory. As Frankenstein feels threatened by their presence and worries that they'll discredit his achievements, the mad scientist decides to let them stay to watch him bring his creation to life. During a thunderstorm, Frankenstein takes the opportunity to use the lightning to charge up the dead tissue with electricity. When the body begins to move, everyone is shocked except for Frankenstein - who worries the others when he claims to be a god.

When Frankenstein learns that Fritz
's mistake had given his creation an "abnormal brain" rather than a "normal" one, the scientist succumbs to stress and exhaustion. The creature, like a child, has no idea how to adapt to this world he's been brought into, lashing out and having tantrums. It doesn't help when Fritz torments him with a whip and fire, which the Monster is highly afraid of. As Frankenstein attempts to recover and realizes what he has done, he and Dr. Waldman decide to restrain the Monster in order to destroy it. Now feeling alienated and frustrated, the Monster escapes from the restraints, leaves the laboratory, and enters town with the rest of civilization. As the Monster tries to adapt and learn through experience within a normal society, his mistakes start to haunt him as the villagers can't accept what he is - leading to a violent manhunt that doesn't have a happy ending.


FRANKENSTEIN was the first Universal Monsters film I had ever watched as a child. I think that's why I prefer it over DRACULA and 1941's THE WOLF MAN, although I'm not saying that FRANKENSTEIN is the best Universal Monster film that was made. Still, I had always found FRANKENSTEIN to be an appealing watch, even years ago. Not only was the look of the Monster freakin' cool, but I think even at that age I was able to understand the themes that run throughout this movie. It's one of those films that's beautiful to look at, yet the messages it's trying to express through the visual presentation resonate with me a lot more.

Just like DRACULA before it, FRANKENSTEIN is more based on the stage productions adapted from Mary Shelley's novel rather than the novel itself. The difference between the film and the novel is mainly the lack of philosophy that novel had about the Monster's creation - whether it was right or wrong and when do morals come in when man attempts to play the role of God. Also, the book had a lot of moments where Frankenstein and his creation would argue over his existence and the way the world perceives him. The film dumbs it down a bit, with the creation being nothing but a child-like brute. There's also not much time for any sort of philosophical debate about the Monster's existence. But unlike the adaptation of DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN still manages to maintain the essence of the novel with themes that continue to be as powerful today as they were back in 1931.

One of the main themes is obviously the idea of man wanting to become God. But isn't that what every Mad Scientist story is about anyway? Frankenstein is obsessed with this idea of creating a person out of dead tissue, just to bring it back to life - as if this will make him feel like he's better than everyone else. He's corrupted by the power of this knowledge he has, believing that this is the new evolution of humanity and he's the one making it happen. While I'm glad the first act of the film plays around with this theme, I do wish it could have been explored more. That's not to say that the lack of depth hurts the film, because it doesn't. But you could do a whole lot with a theme like this. Just the simple fact that Frankenstein is trying to be God by using science, which is something religion is pretty much against, can be a topic all on its own. Also, his "Godhood" fails because his creation isn't perfect in his image [thanks to Fritz]. I also feel that Frankenstein never really gets punished for his actions of creating this Monster, besides maybe that bit of exhaustion he suffered with and getting injured while trying to stop the Monster in the film's final act. But the man pretty much gets away with it unpunished. He still goes through the wedding, which brings the entire town together in celebration. He doesn't die at the end. And he's never blamed for bringing the Monster to life when tragic things happen. The lack of morality is questionable, but it still doesn't take away from the film's enjoyment. FRANKENSTEIN is obviously meant to be a film to scare people, not exactly make them think deeper and look between the lines. But if you take the time, those issues are definitely evident.

Probably the stronger theme of the film is the idea of acceptance and tolerance. Because the Monster wasn't created by the hands of God, and because he looks different and acts different, he's treated like an outcast. And honestly, it's no fault of his own because he was forced into a cruel world that's too afraid to take the time to understand him and teach him social norms. Frankenstein is proud of his creation until he learns that the brain he asked for was bumbled by Fritz, stealing an "abnormal" brain instead. Instead of having an intelligent creation, he has to deal with one who is slow to learn and adapt, with the mental capacity of a child. Because of this, Frankenstein washes his hands of the whole matter, letting Fritz and Dr. Waldman to deal with the Monster instead. Great parenting! This is a terrible move since Fritz harrasses the Monster, abusing him with glee. Dr. Waldman wants to kill him so he can study him, which doesn't please the Monster at all. When your own creator abandons you because you aren't his perfect "child", that does a lot to someone's psyche, regardless if they have an adult brain or a child brain. Because of this neglect and lack of love and compassion, the Monster lashes out and runs away from the laboratory.

Now in the real world, the Monster begins to experience the world outside of the laboratory. The only one who embraces his presence is a little girl named Maria, who is shocked by his appearance at first but decides to befriend him anyway. This is a pivotal scene, as we finally see the Monster finally happy due to the fact that someone, a child no less, has accepted him regardless of his appearance. They play by the pond, throwing flowers into the water, as she teaches him how to make them float. Unfortunately once he runs out of flowers, he grabs Maria and throws her into the pond. She eventually drowns and is rightfully blamed for it by Maria's father and the rest of the village. However, this scene shows that the Monster didn't mean to murder Maria, as he's worried about her while she drowns, but has no idea what to do. He panics and runs away, knowing what he did was wrong. This shows that the Monster is not some killing machine who has no conscience. This Monster feels embarrassed and horrible about what he did, not understanding that his actions had consequences. Because of this, you gain a ton of sympathy for him because he didn't kill Maria out of Malice.

I always feel bad when the village have no hesitation when they grab their torches and attempt to kill the Monster. Sure, the Monster did kill Maria - accidentally. But they never blame Frankenstein for creating him. He's never really held accountable. But since the Monster is a creature created by unholy [a.k.a. scientific] means, he's pure evil and must be stopped. I find it funny that when Maria's father brought her drowned corpse to the village and blamed the Monster for her death, everyone jumped on the bandwagon, even Frankenstein. How did they even know the Monster did it? Maria's father wasn't even watching her! Shouldn't he be just as responsible? It's obvious that because the Monster is different, he's the scapegoat. Not sure if I find it fair or not, but that's what makes FRANKENSTEIN work so well. You can either watch the film for what the story tells on the surface, or you can look between the lines and debate about the moral and thematic issues that are clear to see here.

For a 1931 film, the make up and the effects used are very well done. Jack R. Pierce's look for the Monster is simply iconic, with the flat head and the bolts coming out of the Monster's neck. It also helps that Boris Karloff just has the perfect face for the Monster's look. The special effects include lightning, which isn't too impressive today but probably was back in 1931. Also the thrilling fire scene where the villagers set the Monster's hiding place down in flames, as the interior construction falls down on the Monster and traps him to his death is choreographed really well. The film is definitely more exciting to look at than DRACULA.

This excitement is also helped by James Whale's direction. Whale, usually known for his eccentricity and humor, gives FRANKENSTEIN a ton of atmosphere due to a German Expressionist influence, like done in the 1919 film, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. This is plainly seen at how some of the sets are structured, with circular stairwells and machinery only a mad scientist could appreciate and want. The laboratory, in particular, is composed and framed so well. Even the backdrops look painted on [they probably were], really giving off this surreal vibe as if this story doesn't take place in any reality we're used to. I also love that Whale really creates a lively film that's not too stagey like DRACULA is. There's more action sequences and the camera has some nice style going for it. I love the scene where the Monster enters for the first time, using close ups to show the monster's face. And the use of no music really adds to the film for me. There's something cold, yet inviting, about FRANKENSTEIN and how it's filmed. James Whale really did a wonderful job bringing the story to life here - one that still holds up better than modern adaptations of the same story.

The acting is pretty good here as well. Colin Clive is really over-the-top for most of the film as Dr. Henry Frankenstein. Usually this sort of thing would bug me if it was out of context, but I think it works here because he's how I would picture a mad scientist to behave. The "It's alive! It's alive!" scene is so great and Clive really makes it work to show how obsessed his character had become. The other actors, like Mae Clarke as Elizabeth, Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Waldman, and Dwight Frye [Renfield from DRACULA] as Fritz [not Igor] do well in their roles.

But the main star here is Boris Karloff, billed as "?" in the opening credits, as the Monster. For a character who utters no dialogue besides the occasional grunts and groans, Karloff sure makes him charismatic and sympathetic without even trying to do much. His subtlety really makes his character work, as the Monster is both scary and gentle. His fear of fire and his guilt over Maria's death is conveyed perfectly through Karloff's facial expressions, even underneath all that make up. It's no surprise Karloff would become a star after this film and would even portray the Monster a couple of more times in his career. Like Bela Lugosi's performance in DRACULA, Karloff is iconic as Frankenstein's Monster. As a matter of fact, I don't think anyone has even come close to matching Karloff in the role even after all these years. He's that good.


- Dr. Frankenstein and his assistant, Fritz, like to steal corpses from cemeteries for Frankenstein's experiment. The whole idea is pretty grave, don't you think?

- Frankenstein's Monster is afraid of fire. He must have dealt with a horrible case of chlamydia in his previous life.

- Before Dr. Waldman could dissect him, the Monster strangled the doctor to death. In this case, the Monster was a lot sharper than Waldman's scalpel.

- The Monster threw Maria into a pond after he ran out of flowers to throw. If this was during the age of To Catch A Predator, the Monster would get arrested for trying to get this girl wet...

- The Monster frightened Elizabeth prior to her wedding to Frankenstein. Those kind of screams ought to be saved for the honeymoon!

FRANKENSTEIN is just a classic. It's a fun watch, it has great direction, great acting by Boris Karloff, and themes that still resonate as much today as they did back in 1931. This is everything you would want from a classic horror film from this era. James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN is probably my favorite Universal monster film that isn't a sequel of sorts. DRACULA may have gave Universal Pictures a ton of attention when it came to horror, but FRANKENSTEIN is the film that put it on the map without hesitation. There's no reason why any horror movie lover shouldn't go out of their way and watch this. Essential viewing in my opinion.

4 Howls Outta 4

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