October 6, 2016
Most people who are into horror movies consider themselves lifelong fans of the genre, but nobody’s first horror viewing experience was The Wizard of Gore or Cannibal Holocaust. Most childhood fans started off with the more kid-tested, mother-approved gateway horror movies like Something Wicked This Way Comes, Paperhouse, or, if they were lucky enough to start watching in 1987, the appropriately titled The Gate.
The Gate is about a boy named Glen (played by a young Stephen Dorff from Feardotcom and The Iceman) who finds a quartz geode rock in a big hole that has been left by some workers in his backyard. With dollar signs in their eyes, Glen and his best friend, Terry (Louis Tripp from Mama’s Going to Buy You a Mockingbird) dig further and unearth an even bigger geode. With Glen’s parents away for the weekend, the boys crack open the rock and it ends up leaving a series of mysterious words on a pad of paper. They read the words aloud, then forget about them and go downstairs to join the party that Glen’s sister, Al (Scandal in a Small Town’s Christa Denton), has thrown in the absence of the parental units. The fun is short lived, however, because the incantation that the boys spoke has summoned a group of little demons to the hole, and a series of unfortunate events involving a dead dog and a heavy metal record completes the ritual that sets them free to wreak havoc on the kids…and the world.
The Gate was directed by Tibor Takács (I, Madman) from a script written by Michael Nankin (Midnight Madness). Nankin’s original script was much darker with a more nihilistic ending, but subsequent rewrites injected shades of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and The Goonies into the narrative so that it became a more family friendly affair. Takács, who would go on to work on lightweight horror-ish television shows like “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” and “My Babysitter’s a Vampire,” was a perfect fit to bring Nankin’s toned-down, PG-13 story to the screen.
The main reason why The Gate is a great kids’ movie is because the characters and situations are so relatable to an adolescent audience. Glen and Terry are archetypical childhood best friends. Al is every boy’s big sister, right down to disobeying her parents by throwing a party while they’re out. Al’s party is not just any party; it includes typical ghostly slumber party games like “light as a feather, stiff as a board.” As if all that wasn’t enough, Glen and Al trade awesomely immature insults back and forth like “eat your feet, dwarf!” and “suck my nose until my head caves in!” There’s a little of every kid in the characters from The Gate, and that’s what makes the movie so accessible to the childhood demographic.
The decade in which The Gate was made is obvious, even to the most casual of viewers; everything about the film screams Nineteen Eighties! From the wacky punk hairstyles to the bright fluorescent clothing, the fashion sense in the movie is completely dated. The bright colors carry over into the cinematography of Thomas Vámos (The Peanut Butter Solution), so the film has a comic book-y, Creepshow-esque look to it. Even the record that Terry supplies that helps to summon the demons, an album called The Dark Book by a fictitious band called Sacrifyx, sounds like an eighties European heavy metal band. The Gate is a complete and total product of its time, and it’s perfect that way.
Speaking of the music, the score for The Gate was composed by Michael Hoenig (The Wraith, The Blob) and J. Peter Robinson (Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Return of the Living Dead Part II), and it’s a cool combination of awesome synthesizer vamps, cool orchestral noise, and a handful of hard rocking metal tunes. The spooky harmonies and creepy-crawly melodies sound a lot like what many people think that all eighties horror movies sounded like, even though it’s far more creative. It’s a pretty hip soundtrack for a pretty hip movie.
For the time, the visual effects in The Gate were inventive. Designed by VFX artists Randall William Cook (The Thing, Q: The Winged Serpent) and Frank Carere (Videodrome) with a little help from miniature modeler T. Dow Albon (Deep Star Six, Memoirs of an Invisible Man), the demons were brought to life through a number of means, from old-fashioned Harryhausen stop motion trickery to rubber suited actors photographed with clever forced perspective. The creature effects in The Gate use a little bit of everything, letting the film make a nod to the past while still allowing it to be ahead of its time.
Gateway horror films exist to introduce young fans to fright flicks. They’re scary enough to feel dangerous to the kids, yet not horrifying enough to freak out the parents. But, in order to get to movies like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, you’ve got to go through The Gate.