It’s been a long time since estranged brothers Gordon and John have met under the same roof, but for the first moment in many moons, the two are reunited at their father’s old video store. After their father mysteriously disappeared, the boys completely lost touch. Now, they resemble strangers more than siblings. Neither kid is exactly thrilled about the prospect of seeing each other again, but they do their best to put aside their differences for the time being, just so they can rummage through their father’s belongings in peace. Together, they pour over the old man’s many tapes, set on selling as much as they can, and liquidating the rest.
As they clear out isle after isle of nostalgia-fueled memories, it comes down to one final section of the store: the back room. When they were kids, their father had always kept it locked, but now, as if it were meant to be, Gordon suddenly discovers the key he had been searching for all of his young life. With a deep breath and a strong strive forward, the boys unlock the door and walk in. At first, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything quite worth hiding from children in here, just piles and piles of dust coating every inch of what turns out to be even more ancient and most likely unplayable tapes. But then, just as their fixation upon the secret room seems to be totally squandered upon discovering what’s inside, an old box catches their eye. It’s a VCR game titled “Beyond the Gates”, and it seems to be pulsating with power. They pop the tape in and a ghoulishly good looking woman with bright round eyes appears on the screen, urging them to play. The boys agree to engage, but once they start to play, they realize that not only does this strange game seem to have something to do with their father’s disappearance, but now that they have placed their pawns on the table, they may never be able to escape back into the real world again.
Beyond the Gates plays like a hilarious nod to 1980s cult films, told through the medium of a bloody, grown up version of Jumanji. The practical effects look great, the actors are wonderful, and the music provides a sense of creeping dread and fueled with Phantasm vibes. To put it simply, if you’re a fan of Stuart Gordon or Don Coscarelli, chances are you’ll enjoy this film.
Without a doubt, the best part of this movie is spooky cool dark goddess Barbara Crampton. Crampton has become a household name in the horror genre, making waves back in the ‘80s with her portrayal of Megan Halsey in Re-Animator, one of the very films that Beyond the Gates is paying homage to, before stepping back onto the scene with more recent gems like You’re Next and We Are Still Here. Crampton has played a normal girl caught up in a bad situation countless times, so it’s really nice director Jackson Stewart use his talented actress in a way that differentiates her from nearly anything she’s done before. Her depiction of the dangerous and sinisterly sultry video game host is both enticing and terrifying, and actually provides some of the funniest moments in the entire film, as she stares out impatiently at the players each time they pause for a single moment to take in the latest atrocity the game has committed. No matter how hard they try to defeat her, it’s clear that Crampton’s the one in charge here, and it’s only a matter of time before she claims the souls of all who dare play her game.
The rest of the cast is pretty spectacular as well. Graham Skipper still remains one of the greatest actors working in genre film today, and one of the best components of Beyond the Gates, but after his time spent displaying his skills in Almost Human and The Mind’s Eye, it’s less of a surprise and more of an expectation. At this point, it would be more shocking if he gave a terrible performance. Skipper and Chase Williamson are very convincing as brothers, because they seem to not only have great chemistry, but also get across the feeling that the two have known each other for a long time now, and there is some bad history between them. Not to be outdone, Jesse Merlin soaks up every single moment he’s onscreen, crafting an ultra creepy shop owner who seems to have some sort of unexplained intel about the game. Merlin is both unsettling and hilarious, proving that we should be seeing him in a lot more projects than he’s been a part of so far.
As wonderful and laugh-out-loud funny as the cast is, there is one big issue with Beyond the Gates: all of the characters come across as strangely apathetic. When the game this group of friends (John, Gordon, and Gordon’s girlfriend Margot) are playing actually starts killing people that they know in real life, there always seems to be a slight moment of hesitation before Gordon instructs his crew to keep playing, and they simply agree. There’s no argument, no reasoning or explanations as to why that might be a bad idea, just quiet and complacent nods as the players continue on with their board game. It just feels really odd that not a single person would throw up their hands and refuse to play any longer. Not only do they seem pretty at ease with the death and destruction their little game is causing, but each time a real opportunity presents itself for the brothers to jump into the game and save their father, they seem to just shrug it off and go to bed. It’s definitely an amusing movie, but for a film whose premise revolves around saving their dad who went missing years ago, it doesn’t seem very convincing that they would give up on a chance to help him so easily.
Despite its slight setbacks, overall, Beyond the Gates is a wickedly fun little trip down memory lane, back into the good ‘ol days of 1980s cult classics, like The Gate, The Beyond, and Re-Animator. Its light and playful atmosphere makes it not only one of the most enjoyable films to play at the Los Angeles Film Festival thus far, but also a film that clearly can be watched over and over again, specifically at home, on the couch with friends, a bowl of popcorn, and the lights dimmed. Director Jackson Stewart has burst onto the scene with a very exciting debut feature film, and it will be thrilling to see what he brings fans of ‘80s nostalgia next, especially if he sticks with the same core group of actors and extremely talented special effects people on his next endeavor.
Review originally appeared in our coverage out of the Los Angeles Film Festival. Beyond the Gates screened this past weekend at the Bruce Campbell Horror Film Festival in Chicago.