Lionsgate // 1987 // 85 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 6th, 2009
They're here and they want to meet the neighbors.
Perhaps it's only nostalgia (I grew up in the much-maligned decade), but I have a strong preference for '80s horror. I know the decade didn't birth as many classics as the vaunted '70s, but I have a soft spot for cats like Freddy and Jason, as well as the more unique products of that time. I certainly prefer the decade of my birth to the more recent trends in horror, and if there's one thing the '80s did better than anyone since it was the PG-13 horror flick. Movies like Gremlins (which was PG but partially responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating) and The Monster Squad were movies aimed at younger kids that attempted to push the boundaries, rather than today's PG-13 horror flicks which just take an R-rated film and cut it until it passes muster with the censors. This difference might seem small, but it has a huge effect on the films themselves, giving them an edginess that survives the messed up hair and clothes. Another example of the PG-13 horror flick done right is The Gate, from 1987, which pitches a young Stephen Dorff against a group of pint-sized demons in a battle for suburbia. The Gate: Monstrous Special Edition is a fine bit of nostalgia for fans of the film or of cheesy '80s horror.
Glen (Stephen Dorff, Blade) is living a happy existence in suburbia with a big backyard that even has a tree house. One day, right before his parents leave on a mini-vacation, the tree (and the tree house) are uprooted, leaving a mysteriously large hole in the backyard. Glen investigates the hole with his friend Terry (Louis Tripp), and bizarre things start happening around the house, including the death of the family dog, Angus. Glen turns to his older sister Al (Christa Denton) for help, but she doesn't believe Terry's story that the hole is a gate to the demon realms. With time running out the three will have to work together to seal up The Gate.
I don't know what possesses DVD studios to release older films without their iconic poster art. I fondly remember stalking the aisles of my local video store and seeing the box for The Gate with a gaping maw in the ground and two red eyes staring out. It was creepy and effective. Unlike the current cover art, it let you know that the film was about demons and they weren't kidding around. Now the DVD is graced with a digital image of a little boy in a cave surrounded by mini-demons, and the box gives the impression the film is going to be like The Goonies or Indiana Jones-lite.
Alas, no. The Gate is a typical monster/horror movie. Everything starts with a fairly idyllic view of suburbia that's interrupted by the removal of the tree house. The first act is all about setting up the atmosphere and showing us glimpses of what's to come; the second act reveals the monsters and explains how to kill them; the third is the big showdown.
Although the film doesn't live up to the promise of its current cover art by offering adventure, it doesn't quite live up to the old art, either, which promises extreme demon action. Instead, The Gate has extremely long first and second acts, and an extremely short showdown. This lets the film meander a lot, and makes it feel quite a bit longer than its 85 minutes. Horror buffs used to the faster paces of today's fright films will likely find The Gate a bit on the boring side.
In terms of pacing, The Gate has not aged well, but it still has quite a few things going for it. The first thing is the special effects, which still look good for being over two decades old now. The little demons aren't very scary (in fact they're kinda cute), but they don't look nearly as cheesy as you might expect from a film of this vintage. They look like a combination of stop-motion, miniature, and rear-projection effects that combine to make a very convincing menace.
Although the pace is a little slow, The Gate isn't afraid of being creepy. The film gets a lot of mileage out of the dead family dog, and there's some gore late in the movie that is surprisingly effective for a PG-13 movie of any era.
Another plus is Stephen Dorff as Glen. Ten years after The Gate, he would star as the sexy vampire in Blade, but here he's 13 and a little rough around the edges. His performance is above par both for his age, and the age of the film (and the same could be said of his young co-stars), but it's especially amazing to watch considering how amazing an actor he became in later films like Cecil B. Demented.
I also can't knock this DVD release. Considering that the film is over twenty years old and has never had more than a cult following, Lionsgate has given fans a solid package. The video transfer is strong, especially considering the film's age. Although there's a slightly dark look to the film, it feels intentional, and there don't seem to be any serious problems with compression or artifacting. I was especially impressed by some of the darker scenes, which retained a surprising amount of detail and less grain than I expected. The Dolby stereo mix is pretty simple but effectively conveys the film's dialogue and atmosphere.
The extras begin with a commentary with director Tibor Takacs, writer Michael Nankin, and special effects creator Randall William Cook. The three discuss everything from the genesis of the project to the special effects. The three are obviously on good terms and they keep the discussion moving at a lively pace. The other two big features are 15-minute looks at the special effects and direction of the film. They're a bit clip heavy, but feature talking head interviews with the special effects guys and the director. There's some overlap, but the enthusiasm of the participants keeps it interesting. The disc finishes up with the film's theatrical trailer, which is a total blast from the past.
The Gate functions best as a nostalgia trip, either for fans who saw it back in the '80s, or for those looking for that old-school flavor. For contemporary horror buffs, it's probably a bit too slow and not scary enough, but for those who have been missing out on The Gate since the days of VHS, this DVD is sure to please.
Although its only appeal might be nostalgic, The Gate is a DVD which should be opened.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Theatrical Trailer