Walking blind into Beyond The Gates, with little knowledge of the film besides its poster featuring Barbara Crampton’s spooky visage hovering over a cartoon VHS tape, you might expect a self-consciously broad cotton-candy fantasy of a horror movie of the sort perfected by Stuart Gordon in the 1980s. And you will get that, eventually, underscored by a synthesizer soundtrack and lit in lurid shades of neon pink, purple, and blue. In between, though, you’ll also get estranged siblings, an abusive father, and some heavy talk about alcoholism.
Freshman director Jackson Stewart is clearly trying to do something different with the retro-throwback formula, casting genre regulars Chase Williamson (John Dies At The End, The Guest) and Graham Skipper (The Mind’s Eye, Carnage Park) as polar-opposite brothers forced to reunite after their drunk dad’s latest disappearance turns out to be permanent. The site of their unhappy reunion is their family’s video store, played by North Hollywood landmark Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee. There, they discover a tape stuck in their Luddite father’s private VCR, part of a VCR board game called Beyond The Gates. A VCR board game, as is (probably needlessly) explained in the film, is a type of game popular in the ’80s that came with a VHS tape designed to cue up to certain points in the gameplay.
The game itself is quite lovingly designed, created with a charming homemade aesthetic—you can practically smell the Sharpie on the box—and seemingly fully playable in real life. Aforementioned scream queen Barbara Crampton is charming as always as the game’s ghostly hostess, her kohl-rimmed eyes penetrating the screen as she murmurs instructions, and the occasional threat, at the players. (She never quite reaches the cornball heights of Nightmare’s Gatekeeper, but that’s probably for the best.) The game, of course, seems to know a lot more about John (Williamson) and Gordon (Skipper) and their family than it should, leading first to an amusing scene where the brothers call in a cop to watch them play and then, eventually, into the game itself through a portal in their father’s basement.
But that doesn’t happen until 70 minutes in. Beyond The Gates takes 24 minutes out of an 82-minute movie to introduce its central premise, implying either a drought of money for effects—although the two major practical effects shots, both exploding heads, are nice and juicy—or a drought of imagination on Stewart’s part. Given the bare-bones set decoration in the climactic fight scene, the former is the far more likely scenario. But although Stewart gets something of a pass thanks to the extreme indie nature of the production, in terms of immersive fantasy environments, Hellraiser 2 this isn’t. At the same time, though, it’s not exactly a horror-comedy, with a curiosity shoppe owner played by Jesse Merlin providing one of the few purely comic performances.
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It’s a difficult conundrum for the neophyte horror filmmaker: Lean into the camp value, and you risk critics and audiences not taking you seriously. But spend too much time talking and not enough scaring people and you risk being slapped with the dreaded “mumblegore” label. To its credit, Beyond The Gates manages to avoid either of these two extremes. Instead, it’s an odd, sometimes uneasy combination of stylized retro horror and character drama that plays like a game of Exquisite Corpse between the Duplass brothers and Full Moon Pictures. It’s not intensely scary, but it is faithful to its ’80s influences, right on down to the deadbeat dad.