Beyond the Gates
Two estranged brothers reunite at their missing father's video store to liquidate the property and sell off his assets. As they dig through the store, they find a VCR board game dubbed 'Beyond The Gates' that holds a connection to their father's disappearance and deadly consequences for anyone who plays it.
Dammit. I have something in my eye. And although this review is for a gore-filled horror film called Beyond the Gates, that irritant is not blood. Now hand me a tissue.
I’ve mentioned this in previous reviews, and I have no shame – thus I’ll say it here again. I’m a sap when it comes to films which have brotherhood as a central theme in their story. Examples like American Flyers (my #7 favorite film of all time) and Backdraft never fail to get to me, choke me up, and in most cases – make me bawl like a baby. And while Beyond the Gates didn’t incite total waterworks, it definitely produced that patented pre-sob lump in my throat.
And that means, even with all of the fabulous and horrific goings-on in the film – at its core, it’s about family – and more specifically, the reconciliation of two estranged brothers.
Those brothers are Gordon and John (Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson; respectively), and they’ve come together to clear out their father’s video store – a vast emporium of stacked VHS tapes and dusty memories. With their father’s history of alcoholism and random, apparently alcohol-induced disappearances, the brothers believe this 7-month sojourn is their father’s last – as he has not reappeared. They’ve joined their forces – as tepid as their relationship may be – to close this chapter and sell off their father’s assets. Gordon’s girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant of Rob Zombie’s Halloween II) is there to offer moral support – and once a strange VHS/board game called (you guessed it) “Beyond the Gates” is discovered in their father’s once off-limits office, things get weird. The threesome must play the game (the same one their father apparently played prior to his disappearance) – the intention being to defeat the game in order to release their father’s soul.
Performances are front and center here. And while all three of the leads are powerful, engaging and fun, I give a slight edge to the work of Chase Williamson as younger brother John – who is having a tough time in life. Williamson never lets you forget, that while the two brothers used to be close and everything is now awkward (check out their initial “hugs”), John still looks up to Gordon. There’s always a sense – even though they’re clearly a team – that John will look to Gordon for support, instruction and advice. As I mentioned above, this relationship, so deftly created by these two actors and of course, by the dialogue – is what makes Beyond the Gates extra worthwhile. And Williamson provides the audience with a constant need to reach out and hug him – but not in that forced, “we’re family, so let’s display affection” type of way. His best moment is when John finally confronts Gordon about how he needed him when their father disappeared, but Gordon wasn’t there. It fully encompasses all I’ve just said – he defers to his brother. He needs his brother’s presence. And he needs his brother’s love. A really remarkable performance.
And then there’s the host of the mysterious VHS tape; Evelyn – played by none other than horror legend Barbara Crampton (who also produced here). She goes over-the-top in a fun, Elvira-ish way, and her frequent moments of silence on the television screen in the background – as our lead threesome decide on their next move – are truly unnerving. And you’ve gotta love how Evelyn’s eyes become blacker as the film continues. Crampton is creepy, sexy and authoritative as Evelyn. And despite Crampton’s always good dramatic work, it’s just plain fun to see her play someone with so little dimension and history but so much delightful menace.
There are some terrific “boo” moments and good suspense. Certainly the off-kilter and unnerving visual of the large gothic gates situated in the basement of the family home – surrounded by old boxes and other stored items – gives the film a sense of not only horror – but also of (I hate this term, but it applies here) whimsy and magic and promises of other dimensions and lands. In other words, well-mixed into the drama and horror, there’s a fantastical, child-like quality to the film. And that feeling of nostalgia (of board games and VHS and brothers and made-up games played in your childhood basement) is a great big selling point for Beyond the Gates.
And it’s yet another triumph in the music category for composer Wojciech Golczewski (Late Phases, We Are Still Here) further channeling the moodiness and electronic sounds of Tangerine Dream, only this time he’s throwing in a little Phantasm. He’s now one of the composers – that when I see their name on the production roster – if my auditory system could salivate, surely it would.
As much as I adored the film overall, I had a few minor complaints (you always hurt the ones you love). Although I appreciated the “getting to know you” phase of the script, and I enjoyed the brother’s difficult reconnection, it felt as though the film could have picked up the pace in the beginning. It took just a little too long for the wackiness and the frights to take center stage.
Also, I was impressed with the special effects goodies (by Josh and Sierra Russell – whose awesome work I pointed out in my review for the anthology film – Southbound), but each time something gory happened, it didn’t jive with the tone of the rest of the film. It felt almost comical, whereas the relationships and journey felt more serious and grounded.
That being said, I do now see the humor and I see that on IMDb the film is listed as a comedy/horror. I’ll be the first to point out – I’ve missed such categorizations before. I think the difficult relationship of the brothers and the horror of Beyond the Gates were the things I quickly latched onto, not necessarily seeing the inherent humor completely. So perhaps that is why the tone of the over-the-top gore seemed incongruent. But upon further reflection, I get it. I guess that’s why film-watching and film-reviewing are such a subjective thing. Does that make sense?
And a personal question for the filmmakers – where-oh-where might I find the location you used for the video store? ‘Cause if it’s nearby, it’s certainly worthy of a visit by this VHS nerd.
I realize it’s only the middle of the year, but I’m going to venture a guess that somewhere beyond the gates, to a point in time, just out of reach in the near future – that this film could easily end up on my “Best Horror of 2016” list, come December. Just sayin’.
Beyond the Gates enjoyed its World Premiere at the 2016 LA Film Festival. I really loved this film, with its hints of Jumanji, Hellraiser and “The Further” from the Insidious films, the nostalgia, the family themes and the solid performances – and I think you will too. So definitely keep your eyes peeled for a wider release, and once it’s out there for your hungry horror eyes to consume, take the chance and gingerly step over the threshold of this particular gate.