Beyond the Gates

| May 10, 2017

Throughout horror history, there have been a vast array of options for encountering supernatural evil. Ouija boards are a perennial favorite, the internet has been hot lately, and in the 1980s there was even a cursed 976 number. In the last several years, the horror films of the 1980s have been mined heavily for inspiration by many independent directors from Ti West’s The House of the Devil to Joe Begos’s The Mind’s Eye. Debut feature writer/director Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Gates turns to that decade for both stylistic references and to introduce a new object into the arsenal which demonic entities may use to threaten our souls: a VCR board game. These games had a brief moment of popularity in the late 80s and included several games based on popular entertainment properties like RoboCop and America’s Funniest Home Videos, but are probably best known now in connection to the game Nightmare. This game and its sequels featured an opponent who taunted players through their television, and it’s this style of horror game Beyond the Gates is based on.

Gordon (Graham Skipper) is returning to his hometown for the first time in years to help his younger brother John (Chase Williamson) deal with their father’s estate. While he had skipped town before with no explanation, this time he’s been gone seven months and the brothers have the task of packing up his old video store. Gordon’s girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant) is coming along to offer some support which he badly needs, as evidenced by a run-in with John’s abrasive friend Hank (Justin Welborn). When Gordon finds the key to the video store’s office, he and John discover an old VCR board game called Beyond the Gates and pop it in. They’re greeted on the tape by Evelyn (Barbara Crampton), who introduces the game before a burst of static and strobing lights cause them to turn off the TV. John brings the game along with him to their dad’s house where Gordon and Margot are staying, and when she finds out about it Margot insists they play. They soon discover that this particular game is a lot more interactive than the typical VCR board game when Evelyn addresses them directly and challenges them to venture beyond the gates to save their father’s soul.

If the appearance of Barbara Crampton didn’t tip the viewer off, the bright pink lighting that dominates the film’s creepy scenes should clearly spell out Stewart’s biggest influences here are Stuart Gordon’s gory 80s Lovecraft adaptations Re-Animator and From Beyond. Beyond the Gates is not nearly as wild as those films, but it does have some impressively gruesome practical effects. While the look of the film is more From Beyond, the pace and tone is closer to Re-Animator‘s splatstick. Stewart spends quite a bit of time with the brothers, though, and the awkward fraternal chemistry between Skipper and Williamson is both endearing and convincing. Brea Grant is great as usual and it’s always fun to see Justin Welborn, but Barbara Crampton walks off with this movie without even appearing in the flesh. Her Evelyn is perfect as the demonic master of ceremonies, delivering lines that sound impressively accurate for the genre of game–just as goofy as the real thing–with a flair that makes them more ominous than they probably were on the page. It’s all wrapped up with an excellent score by Wojciech Golczewski that sounds like it could have been lifted directly from an Empire Pictures production.

As much fun as Beyond the Gates is, it does have a few problems. It feels a bit slight at 85 minutes, although this is actually sort of a good problem to have for an independent horror film. It speaks to how much fun the world it creates is to spend time in that its ending leaves the viewer wanting more. There are a couple of nighttime scenes that are entirely too dark to make out, and it would have been a notable improvement if Brea Grant’s character had been given more to do. One final nitpick is that despite some very cool artwork and design, the rules of the Beyond the Gates board game itself seem nebulous at best. Yes, this a deeply ridiculous complaint, but when the game designer gets called out in the opening credits it’s probably better to spell out the actual mechanics of the game a bit for board-game obsessives in the audience. Figuring out a way to play the game for real (minus the supernatural killing spree, of course) will probably be foremost in the minds of certain viewers. Despite these relatively minor complaints, Beyond the Gates is a gory good time, and horror fans should keep an eye out for whatever Stewart might be up to in the future.

Shout! Factory released Beyond the Gates on DVD and Blu-ray on 2 May 2017. Special features include commentary tracks with the cast and crew, a commentary track by podcast team Junk Food Dinner, a 17-minute panel interview from the film’s premiere moderated by Stuart Gordon, a “behind the scenes” featurette, deleted scenes, the film’s theatrical trailer, and a fantastic “retro commercial” for the titular VCR board game. Also included is the odd comedy short film “Sex Boss,” directed by Jackson Stewart and starring Jessie Merlin, Graham Skipper, and Chase Williamson.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He writes reviews for Film Monthly and is a regular contributor to Fine Print Magazine (www.fineprintmag.net).
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