Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Joe Dante established himself as the expert on pre-teen horror and science fiction in the youth oriented fantasies Gremlins, Explorers, Twilight Zone the Movie and Matinee. But a strong contender for classic status in the adolescent horror stakes is 1987's The Gate, an endearing thrill ride that goes just about as far into the Shock Zone as a movie for kids should. Although every child is different this show is gentle enough to be suitable for those at or nearing the double digits. Lord knows what irresponsible parents nowadays show kids (a form of child abuse, in my view). But there is a place in wholesome entertainment for fantastic jeopardy, and The Gate fits the bill.
The story by Michael Nankin is your standard kids-go-nuts-when-Mom-and-Dad-leave-town tale, with about seventy minutes of very non-standard tykes versus demons combat. The beautifully-cast child actors are young Glen (a very young Stephen Dorff), his cheerful older sister Al (Christa Denton) and neighborhood kid and Heavy Metal fan Terry (Louis Tripp). Al volunteers to babysit her younger brother while the folks are gone, a choice that leads to a lively unscheduled house party. But the strange hole left after the demolition of a dead tree convinces occult-fan Terry that a portal to Hell is opening up in Glen's back yard. Eerie phenomena pile up after Glen finds weird geodes in the tree roots. Other phenomena persuade Terry that the prophecies in a cabalistic record album are coming true -- the entire rock group perished in a plane crash. After the family dog dies, the house is overrun with demonoid "minions", nasty little homunculi prone to biting. The demons in the hole exploit the kids' adolescent-angst guilts, leading to surreal nightmare-like horrors. A zombie-like "Work Man" (Carl Kraines) believed to be buried in the walls when the house was built, emerges to drag victims off into a ghastly parallel dimension. Glenn retaliates with Satanic incantations and readings from the Bible, but what will put an end to the supernatural infestation?
The Gate is an amusing and exciting show, executed with considerable imagination and skill. Most of the budget goes into a smorgasbord of marvelous pre-CGI visual effects, many of the best of which do not even involve standard optical printing. Director Tibor Takács gets fine performances from his kid actors, who are directed away from irritatingly profane-cute template formed by films like The Goonies. Sixteen year-old Al throws her forbidden unsupervised party but the worst that happens is that a few kids smoke. Glen and Terry aren't perfect -- they callously jar up some moths to die -- but they mean well. Glen is a serious little problem solver, and a tough customer when facing supernatural monsters. The pleasantly geeky Terry has a great scene lip-synching to a goth cult record album. Both Terry and Glen are confronted with demonic imitations of their absent parents, in Terry's case, a deceased mother. To the film's credit, the traumatic encounters are handled with discretion.
Other touches from writer Mike Nankin reflect the anarchic sense of humor he displayed in his wickedly funny 1976 UCLA student film, Gravity. Twenty years down the line, conservative audiences may take exception to the very presence of Satanic references, and reject the script's dismissal of the Bible as a useful tool against the hellspawn menace (well, the Bible does seem to do some good). Today's escapist fare will tolerate the slaughter of hundreds of people, but threatening a cute dog is now the epitome of bad taste. The Gate milks some great laughs out of a teenager searching for a way to dispose of the family mutt, a shaggy sack 'o rigor mortis. More power, I say. 1
The effects of The Gate are organized and designed by Randall William Cook and shape up as all-round inspired moviemaking. The job was just big enough to necessitate the outsourcing of some matte vistas and whirlwind effects to Bill Taylor and Syd Dutton's Illusion Arts. But Cook tackles the tough problems personally, designing the creepy minion monsters and performing a number of alarmingly good-looking tricks with in-the-camera techniques. Cook uses cleverly designed forced perspective set-ups (as seen in Darby O'Gill and the Little People) to put normal-sized kids in the same frame with a dozen of the cavorting, spastic little minions. The illusions are flawless, because the motions are all natural and the camera can even pan and tilt on the action.
These effects are greatly aided by the
rubber minion suits fabricated by makeup effects specialist Craig Reardon. Watching the minions in action blurs our receptors, even now. They do things that only stop-motion animation can do, but we know that can't be the case. Sometimes the best movie effect is really a magic trick, like the clever distract-and-substitute switcheroos in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. Drafting something with computer animation tools is relatively risk-free compared to pulling off an illusion with modest resources. These effects have more gravitas than a bushel of CGI animation and wire-removal tricks.
Cook also contributes an impressive stop-motion animation demon, a multi-eyed, multi-armed horror that looks enormous because it's sculpted at a very fine level of detail. Cook gives its motions a blur effect for a better match with the live action, and concocts some really classy (and difficult looking) stop-motion shots. One of the best is a truck-in to the demon lurching upright in the entranceway of the house, with a line of minions observing from their foreground perch on the second floor handrail. Fans don't always realize that effects designers are really directing major sections of movies like these.
Craig Reardon's main contribution is one of the classier boogeymen of the 1980s, the immured Work Man. This guy looks like a mummified old coot, not a Romero goreshow; Reardon makes him just disturbing enough to be prime nightmare material. When The Work Man drags helpless kids away into gaping holes in the drywall, The Gate achieves the same effect as Poltergeist without the strobe-lit bombast and overkill.
The Gate is to be congratulated for avoiding a cheap nihilistic ending of the kind that pretty much knocked the fun out of horror from the late 1960s on -- this is primarily a kid's show, too tough to be an afternoon special (with dead dogs and demonic incantations?) but not something to turn children into little fatalists. It was marketed as an exploitation feature but it's much better than that.
Lionsgate's new Monstrous Special Edition of The Gate rejuvenates Tibor Takács' fantasy with a fine enhanced transfer; with framing and detail that for the first time allow us to really examine the organic effects (hey, a "green" effects movie!). Takács, Nankin and Cook's commentary gets off to a slow start; it probably could have used some kind of prompting from a host. Mike Nankin relates the story to his own childhood while Takács strains to remember production details. Cook discusses the effects, praising the work of all of the contributors, notably Frank Carere, the practical effects man responsible for many eerie visuals -- like the effective scenes of ground fog being sucked into the voracious hole.
Two Red Shirt featurettes are included. Cook and Craig Reardon give us a spirited look at their creative effects work, adding a good explanation of the very successful forced-perspective tricks. Takács and Nankin take us through an illustrated look at the origins of the story and production. These featurettes were produced first, a fact that may explain why these guys can't always think of new things to say in the commentary.
An old video tape of the film's trailer is present as well. The Gate did well -- it outperformed the vastly more expensive Ishtar -- and could have done even better if it had been sold as more of a family picture. You know, good family fun with zombies, demons from hell and a dead dog for comedy relief.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Gate rates:
Supplements: Commentary, two featurettes, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 27, 2009
1. Michael Nankin's UCLA student film Gravity is a hilarious spoof of educational films WAY before lampoons of that ilk became standard fare. A little kid runs around asking some rather weird family members what gravity is. She receives her answer from a nerdy professor, who lectures her on the ecological threat posed by the fact that the Earth is running out of Gravity. At one point somebody has to pull the girl down by the leg because she's already beginning to slip free of the Earth's pull -- can't be too careful there. An obnoxious cartoon character called "Jiminy Gravity" then offers the kid musical advice on saving the world. The thing was so damn funny that I can only remember bits and pieces. A shorter version apparently now in circulation omits a couple of funny sex gags.
Did I remember to say it was funny? Nankin has gone on to become a busy television director.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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