Drive-In Mutants: The Gate (1987)

Every month we discuss some of the best and worst cult films ever made, from the hits, classics, underground, grind house, and utterly obscure, from Full Moon, and Empire, to Cannon and American International, it’s all here, minus the popcorn, and car fumes.

The Gate
1987
Aliases:
None
New Century Vista Film Company
Directed by:
Tibor Takács
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Christa Denton, Louis Tripp

The Plot is Afoot! When his parents go away on a trip for the weekend, Glen and his best friend Terry begin experiencing unusual goings on in their backyard, including the discovery of a mysterious geode and a bottomless hole. After accidentally playing a Satanic incantation on one of their favorite heavy metal albums, events spiral out of control, as Glen, Terry, and big sister Al find themselves under siege by relentless demons that plan to drag them back to hell, and infiltrate Earth to invade. With the trio trying to survive the demonic invasion, they decide to fight back before hell opens up and swallows reality.

The Damage: There were a lot of movies about suburban unrest and the darkness of the suburbs in the mid to late eighties, and one of the most underrated is “The Gate.” I did not see “The Gate” when it originally appeared in theaters (I did see the sequel though!), but I did finally get to see it when it premiered on network TV in the early nineties. Back in the early nineties my family was much too impoverished to get a luxury like cable, so a lot of my time was spent watching network televised movies. The network I always watched was WPIX Channel 11 in New York, and it was once considered “New York’s Movie Station,” allowing me to see a diverse library of movies made between 1980 and 1991.

That said, my first viewing of “The Gate” is still one of the most thrilling and chilling experiences of my life, as a movie that didn’t just watch like an extended story from “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” but pretty much tackled just about every childhood fear I ever had. I remember first watching “The Gate” and having absolutely no idea what I was getting in to. In the end I was left with a pretty excellent Friday night horror movie that stuck in my brain for years. Tibor Takács horror fantasy has become so appreciated over the years, and for good reason. You have to admire “The Gate” not only for its simplicity, but terror that veers very close to Amblin like wonder that films like “Poltergeist” and “Twilight Zone: The Movie” embraced.

“The Gate” is a movie about children alone in their home, at the mercy of monsters at every corner, and still grieving the loss of a pet and family while being forced to face this inherent demonic terror. And lest we forget that yet again, we have a seemingly inconspicuous house become the center of truly heinous events. “The Gate” begins innocently enough but like most great horror movies, the puzzle pieces all seem to fall in to place one by one before this trio of children realizes too late that they’re living on top of a portal to hell that promises to suck them in and make them one of its brood. “The Gate” mysteriously enough, feels like two movies, where we’re subjected to something of a classic horror tale of teens being terrorized, and then writer Michael Nankin transforms “The Gate” in to a very personal journey in to the hell dimension that characters Terry and Glen accidentally evoke.

What helps “The Gate” successfully flow as this awe inspiring but insanely menacing trip in to terror is that creation of the demons that are dangerous in their miniature forms and when they’re working together as a unit. When we first see them they are absolutely haunting to gaze at, and director Tibor Takács is very smart about zeroing in on what makes them so absolutely terrifying. Sure they can be taken down by stomping on them, but good luck being able to overcome them as they rush their victims in the dozens. Not to mention when they get together they end up kidnapping one of the key characters in the form of an undead construction worker. The demons are everything we hate and everything we’re scared of.

They’re they boogeymen that creep in to the shadows and understand what we’re scared of and why we’re scared of them. We’re never told how and why they’re capable of getting in to the minds of these kids, we just know they do whatever it takes to play on their weaknesses to prey on them, even if they have to show up as one of the characters’ long dead mother. Not only do they take down these children, but they take them down in the cleverest ways possible, appearing as the mythical undead worker who takes both Terry and Al in to their realm. Despite being released in 1987, “The Gate” still spawns some pretty mesmerizing special effects, all of which are not CGI. Pretty much all of the effects implement stop motion, and forced perspective, as well as amazing editing that allows the monsters a sense of realism that CGI can’t afford.

The scene of the undead construction worker dropping to the floor and breaking in to a dozen small demons is still a beautiful scene, and helps establish the sense of chaos present in the film’s nightmarish narrative. There’s also some commendable rubber suit work with the extras playing the miniature demons doing a convincing job wearing brutally detailed and grotesque monster designs.  And while “The Gate” can definitely be considered a very menacing tale of the supernatural and satanic enemies, there’s also a ton of dark humor, especially in the first half as main character Glen is forced to endure sister Al’s obnoxious best friends. There’s also the classic “You’ve been bad!” antagonizing from the demons involving a very well animated melting phone, and the deliriously creepy fake out involving Glenn’s parents arriving in the middle of the demonic siege.

I’ve always insisted that the climax of the movie was another fake out and that Terry, Glenn and Al lost the battle with the demons. Maybe they were sucked in to hell or maybe the entire Earth is drenched in demons and the satanic, who knows? The climax just always seemed a tad too squeaky clean for my taste, especially when you considered their dog is suddenly revived to celebrate with them. Regardless, “The Gate” has that menace, awe, edge, and adventurousness that puts it in the league of films like “Monster Squad,” “The Goonies,” and “Poltergeist.” It’s perfect gateway horror for younger horror geeks that want a dose of Spielberg, Lovecraft, and Barker.

Blood: There’s some intense violence that could be considered gruesome within the context of the story. There’s a great moment where a fake out devolves in to a smashed up face with green ooze, and there’s a great effects use of the film’s iconic undead construction worker.

Boobs: The movie is widely considered a horror film for the preteen set, so there is absolutely no kind of sexuality.

Beast: There some great and very mischievous satanic monsters presented and we’re granted some stellar designs. The film’s trademark minions are miniature in stature but have a horrific blank gaze, and hunched march that make them seem like Munchkins from hell. There’s also the final demonic overlord of the movie which, despite being stop motion, is still absolutely fantastic in the flesh. You also have to love the great make up for the film’s undead construction worker.

The Rundown: I envy the kids that get to see “The Gate” for the first time, as it’s one of the many horror movies I’d suggest as a mid-way point between lightweight fodder and the really rough genre fare. “The Gate” has held up shockingly well since 1987 and Tibor Takács takes what is a considerably low budget film and spins a damn good horror tale with kids fighting demons both from hell, and from their own psyche. It’s too bad the sequel never quite lived up to the promise this film delivered.

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