Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Jackson Stewart
Writer: Jackson Stewart, Stephen Scarlata
Producer: Jackson Stewart, Amanda Mortimer, Barbara Crampton, Ian Keiser, Jon Kondelik
Stars: Graham Skipper, Chase Williamson, Brea Grant, Matt Mercer, Justin Welborn, Jesse Merlin, Sara Malakul Lane, Henry LeBlanc, Barbara Crampton
Two estranged brothers link their father’s mysterious disappearance to a cursed 1980s VCR board game.
No one has seen Robert Hardesty in seven months. It’s not unusual for eccentric widower Bob, a beleaguered video storeowner made obsolete by the digital revolution, to disappear for long lengths. Except this time, he is presumed dead.
Bob’s two sons could barely contain their smiles when dad opened his store (Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee in North Hollywood making a cameo) in 1992. Real life eventually did what it does however, and the brothers drifted in directions that left dad and the store, but mostly each other, decidedly in their pasts.
Gordon is the buttoned-up brother, preoccupied by mortgage payments and concerns that excessive drinking could harm his relationship with girlfriend Margot. John is the bedhead-haired slacker side of the siblings, who dresses in shabby chic couture while palling around with ex-con buddy Hank. With dad M.I.A., Gordon and John must now find a way to reconcile longstanding differences while setting family affairs in order.
What the brothers find instead is “Beyond the Gates,” a curious VCR board game hidden behind their father’s locked office door. Into the player goes the accompanying VHS tape and both men are immediately entranced by Evelyn, the game’s mysterious “Mistress of the Dark” hostess. It seems like a laughable lark at first, yet when the decades-old videocassette mentions the Hardesty family’s vanished patriarch, Gordon and John realize “Beyond the Gates” is no mere nostalgia novelty (neither is the movie). They have stepped into a dark shadow of supernatural terror from which their only escape is completing the cursed game.
If your age was in single digits as a budding horror fan at some point during the 1980s, it’s a sure bet that “Beyond the Gates” is a movie made for you by passionate genre fans just like you. With neon-colored sights and spookily synthesized sounds, the entire tone of “Beyond the Gates” is steeped in cinematic style from that heyday. More than that, the content of the film speaks to embodying and honoring an era when endless aisles of VHS tapes inspired an imagination so hungry for horror, it was often oblivious to cheesiness.
That reference to cheesiness does not apply to this movie. IMDB misleadingly offers “comedy” as one of three classifications for “Beyond the Gates.” While the sudden absurdity of an exploding head after several scenes of slow-build suspense may inspire a horrified chuckle, be advised that “Beyond the Gates” is not in business to be funny, only frighteningly fun.
Director Jackson Stewart’s debut feature neither disrespects throwback tastes nor loses itself in blind homage to its sleeve-worn influences. “Beyond the Gates” is not pastiche, parody, or self-aware sendup. Instead, it is a distinctly contemporary horror film featuring respectfully retro flavor, with flavor being the keyword. By embracing its straightforward intent to satisfy longtime genre fans on multiple levels, the simple style of “Beyond the Gates” makes for an entertainingly eerie nightmare chiller.
Cast and crew credits read like an extensive encyclopedia of the L.A.-based horror circuit, with family tree limbs poking into every corner of genre filmdom. Actors include Sara Malakul Lane (“Sun Choke”), Justin Welborn (“V/H/S: Viral”), Matt Mercer (“Contracted”), Graham Skipper (“The Mind’s Eye”), and Brea Grant (too many titles to choose from). The majority of these inclusions are due to everyone running in similar circles, but unlike many indie film “family” affairs, casting choices here fully fit the person.
Since resurging in genre movie appearances, productions eagerly seek to include Barbara Crampton in their casts regardless of how fitting the proposed role might be. Crampton appears only on a television screen in “Beyond the Gates,” yet the symbiotic relationship of her onscreen role as Evelyn to her fan-favorite horror icon status offscreen places her perfectly as a 1980s haunted horror hostess.
Chase Williamson has never been better as underachieving brother John. Uptight brother Gordon is designed to be dour, which doesn’t make for the most electrifying personality. Williamson swings that balance back toward engaging by being organically likable with the natural charm and subtly sympathetic struggle he puts into his performance.
Weary eyelids can be a byproduct of the film’s slow start. “Beyond the Gates” is uncomplicated, which leaves a downscaled production vulnerable to stagnant scenes that have nowhere but calm character conversations to siphon minimal energy from. Keep confidence in where the feel, fiction, and fun factor are heading and patience pays off with some spectacular practical FX punctuation marks and supernatural thrills. Fans of Lucio Fulci, direct-to-video midnight movies, or terror touchstones striking fond fright film memories, your wish for “just one more” movie in a similar vein has been granted. “Beyond the Gates” is made with precisely you in mind.
NOTE: There is a brief post-credits scene.
Review Score: 85