(1987) Directed by Tibor Takács; Written by: Michael Nankin; Starring: Stephen Dorff, Christa Denton and Louis Tripp; Available on DVD
“It was competing with Freddy and Friday the 13th, but it was never intended to do that.” – Tibor Takács
“…I, of course, having been falsely impressed that I could be the next Ray Harryhausen, not knowing that there’s only one Ray Harryhausen – that job was taken already. But I figured, I’m gonna do it all myself. I’m gonna sculpt those things and animate them, and design the scenes…” – Randall William Cook (Special Effects Designer & Supervisor)
I think I might have been a Canadian in a past life. It’s the only way to explain my unnatural affinity for our friendly neighbor to the north. With this in mind, I was excited to once again take part in the O CanadaBlogathon, celebrating the eponymous country’s myriad cinematic contributions. A hearty thanks to co-hosts Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings for inviting me back. Coincidentally (Or is it?), today’s selection also coincides with ‘80s Month on my blog, so this post is a bit of a two-for-one deal – because I like to pass the savings on to you, dear reader.
1987’s The Gate was a low budget effort (approximately $2.5 million Cdn.), filmed in a Toronto suburb that could just as well be Anywhere, U.S.A., except for a couple of clues: a bottle of HP sauce on the kitchen table, and a hastily scrawled note that includes the word “favourite” (Hey, Canada, I’m onto you.). The film belongs to a sub-genre peculiar to the ‘80s, the family friendly horror movie (e.g., Gremlins, The Monster Squad). Nowadays, horror is widely regarded to be a strictly adult domain, but once upon a time, there was a category for intrepid kids and their open-minded parents; films that were scary but not too scary, and maybe a tad politically incorrect.
Screenwriter Michael Nankin culled fears from his childhood to shape the script, including anxieties about being left alone, and an urban legend about a dead workman sealed into the walls of a house. He also blended in Lovecraftian elements, concerning a race of “old ones” who would reclaim the world for their own. Added into the mix is the loss and grief associated with a deceased loved one, and you’ve got a film ripe for exploring the characters’ inner and outer demons.
The Gate features some nice performances by a pre-pubescent Stephen Dorff as Glen and Louis Tripp (sporting a super-sweet Killer Dwarfs jacket) as his eager friend Terry. When they dig a hole in Glen’s backyard,* they discover a huge geode, and inadvertently open a portal to a hoary netherworld, populated by malevolent beings. Thankfully, they have a secret weapon, in the form of a record from Terry’s favorite metal band (the only album they recorded before dying in a plane crash). In another nod to urban legends, the record plays a hidden message about combating the demons when played backwards. Rounding out the cast is Christa Denton as Glen’s older sister Al, who’s left to babysit him while their parents are out of town. Glen and Al are convincing, not only because the young actors were about the same age as their respective characters, but on account of how well they interact together. The brother-sister relationship is believable because it captures the petty irritations and sibling rivalries that inevitably occur.
* Fun fact: Similar to the events in the film, Nankin recalled digging a hole in his friend’s backyard. But instead of encountering demonic forces, a gardener fell in and sued the friend’s family.
Yeah, the actors are all well and good, but nobody came here for their youthful hijinks. We’re here for the monsters, and The Gate has ‘em in spades. Randall William Cook’s stop-motion effects are the main attraction, providing a Ray Harryhausen-esque touch. Cook takes a nice, low-fi approach (Yeah, screw you, CGI, and the digitally rendered horse you rode in on.) to depicting the film’s nasty little demons and one giant, multi-armed creature, through a combination of stop-motion animation and actors in monster suits.* A scene where a zombie collapses and explodes into a gaggle of little creatures is especially memorable.
* Another fun fact: Cook utilized forced perspective shots for the hordes of little demons surrounding the human actors. Cook and crew studied an unlikely source, Darby O’Gill and the Little People, for inspiration (think demons instead of leprechauns).
And just in case you thought The Gate was simply mindless entertainment, it provides some valuable lessons. If you’re leaving your house in the hands of your teen, and suspect they’re going to throw a party, guess what? They’re gonna throw a party. If there’s a gaping passageway to the bowels of hell in your backyard, don’t lean in for a better look. And whatever you do, hang onto those vintage metal albums. You never know when they could come in handy for fending off the forces of evil.
Perhaps the best lesson to be gleaned from The Gate is it’s about time to see a revival of the kid-friendly horror flick. With the proliferation of safe, innocuous computer-animated fare, the idea of a family movie that pushes a few boundaries is a genuinely novel concept, by today’s standards. The closest thing to it was Joe Dante’s similarly themed (and also filmed in Canada) 2009 throwback, The Hole. Sure, The Gate isn’t the most original movie, but it makes up for any deficits with sheer momentum and earnestness. It knows how the game is played, and pushes your buttons efficiently. If you keep your expectations in check, it’s still a heck of a lot of fun.