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
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.
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.
THE FINAL HOWL
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