Let’s be clear right off the bat: If you’re the type who assesses horror films frame-by-frame, stick with Alien: Covenant (2017) and Get Out (2017), because this probably isn’t the flick for you. With a smattering of holes, Beyond the Gates isn’t pristine, but that’s where the suspension of disbelief is your friend. That said, it never wanders off trying to be something that it’s not. There are no lofty awards waiting in the wings for Stephen Scarlata (writer) and Jackson Stewart’s (writer/director) project (unless it’s hardware for awesome), so the movie behaves as the good-time throwback that it was intended to be.
Recommended strategy: Press play, sit back and enjoy.
The film opens with a pair of brothers reuniting to clear out the old school, VHS store owned by their father, who’s been missing for seven months. While housecleaning, the pair find a VHS board game just intriguing enough to play. What begins as a trip down memory lane quickly morphs into an unwittingly creepy blend of Jumanji (1995) and Saw (2004) and the realization that there’s more to the game than nostalgia, because it may just contain the secret to their father’s whereabouts.
While clearly an homage to eighties horror, what sets Beyond the Gates apart is that it doesn’t try too hard; there are no overt references crammed down your throat or over-the-top efforts to fit nuggets of sentimentality within every shot. From the cinematography to a Sinister-esque (2012) opening credit montage that features the inner-workings of a VCR set to the fantastic, retro sounds of Wojciech Golczewski’s score, it vibes ‘80s all the way.
For a cast populated with relatively unknown names, the performances are top notch. Not only is nothing rushed in pace or delivery, the characters are also fleshed out quite well. Their interactions, dialogue and reactions feel real; particularly the tension in the relationship between estranged brothers Gordon (Graham Skipper) and John Hardesty (Chase Williamson)—yes, Hardesty. The effective ping-pong between Graham and Williamson is particularly accentuated in the early going by an inside joke that fails to register with the youngest sibling (Williamson). Odd as it may sound, that the reference fell on deaf ears lent further authenticity to their relationship. The tandem didn’t pick up right where they’d left off as children, because they’d grown apart, so providing an awkward moment as olive branch was a wise decision that served to pull the audience further into the story.
Graham is the true standout here, not only for rocking a bit of a Tobey Maguire vibe, but that he seems hesitant and puzzled by much of what occurs throughout the picture. Graham truly appears incapable of speaking or moving without thinking first, a special treat in a film like Beyond the Gates, because neither Graham nor co-stars Williamson and Brea Grant jump in with both feet, they all share elements of reserved disbelief.
The selling point for the flick, however, is genre legend Barbara Crampton. There are numerous references to the Michelle Pfeiffer of horror’s babedom, but Crampton is mesmerizing in far more than appearance. As she waits for the game to begin, Crampton unleashes creepy stares that border on unsettling, but she who asks to not be labeled a scream queen is quite the guide once the dice have been cast. The Beyond the Gates board game was certainly intended to be an interactive adventure, but don’t go thinking it’s a play-pause type of deal, because Crampton drags viewers in and holds them rapt in her allure from beginning to end.
The effects are not only practical, but gory enough to keep you satisfied, with a bit of Evil Dead and Shaun of the Dead flair splattered into a couple of them, and there’s a subtle reference to Crampton’s Re-Animator that was so delightful, this writer went back and watched it a second time, just to be sure it had been caught correctly.
Beyond the Gates pays homage not only to the good-times horror flicks of the eighties, but also the Atari-level artwork that adorned the shell cases we all miss so dearly. In short, Stewart’s effort hits every intended note over the course of its 84-minute ballad.
The ultimate compliment anyone can pay a horror movie is to become a repeat customer, and this writer can not only offer assurance that Beyond the Gates will be watched again, but will become part of the DVD collection in short order.
Beyond the Gates is currently streaming on Netflix.