PLOT: When two estranged brothers are forced to close down their family video store following the death of their father, a VHS board game is uncovered to be the key in saving the old man's soul.
REVIEW: On the heels of a few various writing credits and two helmed short films in as many years, writer/director Jackson Stewart has taken a bigger and bolder step forward in order to advance BEYOND THE GATES, an admirably amusing and nastily nostalgic feature debut that's likely to strike a minor key in fervent fans of 80s and 90s halcyon-day horror. With only two locations, $3 million, a handful of actors and a catchy-cool idea nearing novelty, BEYOND THE GATES overcomes a stumbling start and louche bit of acting to find a gruesomely gaming groove that erupts in a volcanic spout of ultra-violence. Not a great film, but if you feel right at home hanging out in video-stores, playing throwback VHS board-games, reveling in gore and seeing legendary scream queen Barbara Crampton's agelessly fine face onscreen, do wise and wander BEYOND THE GATES when it opens in your town following its limited December 9th release.
Following a nifty retro title sequence that instantly sets the tone of familiarity, we meet estranged brothers John (Chase Williamson) and Gordon (Graham Skipper). They arrive in front of moribund video-store, Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee (a real place in North Hollywood), a local rental-house that belonged to their father Bob (Henry LeBlanc) before disappearing seven months prior. While unable to locate the body, the two bereaved brothers presume their father to in fact be dead. John's a disheveled wastrel doing odd-jobs around town, while Gordon comes off as a close-cropped, buttoned-up square type who left town long ago, got married to the sexy Margot (Brea Grant) and happily moved on from the small town he and his brother grew up in. Together now, John and Gordon can't quite decide what to do with the video-store. They rummage around, do a little housekeeping, and soon unearth in their father's back office an antiquated VHS board-game called, of course, Beyond The Gates.
Anyone who grew up loving movies in the 80s and 90s ought to know the type of ancillary gamesmanship on display here. Video CLUE was a popular one, NIGHTMARE a more horror-centric example. For Beyond The Gates, the brothers reluctantly pop it in the old VCR and soon see the gorgeous face of Barbara Crampton (RE-ANIMATOR) as the ominous video host. She implores the two, if not dares them, to unlock the titular gates by rolling the dice and finding a quartet of keys hidden somewhere close by. John and Gordon take the tape back to their father's home, where they are staying, and soon can't resist playing the game in full. After all, they begin to suspect their father's disappearance must somehow be related to it. Not to be betray much more, but an indefatigable skein of voodoo-violence soon follows, and while said instances are seen sparingly, when they hit, they hit hard with intensely exorbitant gore. Just as the movie follows the template of a throwback 80s-90s horror movie - aesthetically, tonally - so too does it violently. Grue-hounds are sure to be delighted by the excessive amount of blood in the film, especially as it's used so judiciously in a way that doesn't wear out its welcome.
In opinion, welcome seems to adjectively fit the film as a whole. There's a comfort level, a warm familiarity that, for horror fans of a certain age and demographic, allows the movie to slide right on like an old coat. There's a tailored, well-worn quality about the film that simply evokes a time and place from the past that goes a long way in making the movie feel not so much derivative as it does nostalgic. And it's precisely this atavistic quality that allows one to forgive some of the glaring budgetary strictures. For instance, the production and set designs are terribly inspired, the locations are limited, the young performers aren't at all transcendent in their acting craft (Skipper in particular has some painfully strained line readings), yet somehow these things do not really register as irredeemable detractors. In another movie they most surely might, but here, because of the favorably evocative epoch the movie adheres to and expresses genuine affinity for, we can easily detour the delays and downturns and enjoy the flick for what it is.
Because, let's be honest, BEYOND THE GATES isn't a great movie. It's under-resourced, amateurishly acted and a bit slow-going in the beginning. But it's less about making us react intellectually to the weaknesses, and more about eliciting a certain emotional feeling that the overall experience has to offer. Again, if you're not someone who grew up watching horror flicks from the 80s and 90s, aren't well steeped in the subculture of VHS board-games and spending countless hours rifling through video-stores for various deals and obscure titles, this one is probably not going to speak your language. But for those who are in that specific demographic, as most Arrow in the Headers are bound to be, then by all means go out and peer BEYOND THE GATES with alacrity. There's a warmhearted nostalgia here that works in stark counterpoint to the unremitting gore-show the back-half of the movie develops into. There's a retro-cool idea here that, for the most part, realizes its own potential. For a low-budget indie horror flick, BEYOND THE GATES is certainly worth checking out, and definitely puts us on alert for what writer/director Jackson Stewart does next.