Screen horror gets a fun-ride boost with the adventures of a trio of home-alone kids squaring off against demons from, ‘right in their own back yard.’ Creative, expertly daring special effects heighten a perfect spook thriller for young kids, that’s has more and better ‘Boo’ moments than most of the hardcore genre classics of its decade.
Lionsgate / Vestron Video
1987 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 85 min. / Street Date February 28, 2017 / 39.97
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Christa Denton, Louis Tripp, Kelly Rowan, Jennifer Irwin, Deborah Grover, Scot Denton, Ingrid Veninger, Sean Fagan
Cinematography: Thomas Vámos
Film Editor :Rit Wallis
Speical Visual Effects Designer and Supervisor: Randall William Cook
Special Makeup: Craig Reardon
Original Music: Michael Hoenig, J. Peter Robinson
Written by: Michael Nankin
Produced by: John Kemeny
Directed by: Tibor Takács
Horror enthusiasts of a different generation than mine speak highly of the theatrical shockers of the 1980s that set their nerves on edge. I usually disagree, but here’s an exciting horror show that supports their case — it’s packed with spooky, imaginative ideas. Lionsgate’s new Blu-ray displays its visual qualities to optimum advantage.
In the fantasies Gremlins, Explorers, Twilight Zone the Movie and Matinee, Joe Dante established himself as the expert on pre-teen horror and science fiction. But a strong contender for classic status in the adolescent horror stakes is 1987’s The Gate, an endearing thrill ride that goes just about as far into the Shock Zone as a movie for kids should. Although every child is different this show is gentle enough to be suitable for those at or nearing the double digits. Lord knows what irresponsible parents nowadays show kids (a form of child abuse, in my view). But there is a place in wholesome entertainment for fantastic jeopardy, and The Gate fits the bill.
The story by Michael Nankin is your standard tale of kids going nuts when Mom and Dad are away, containing roughly seventy minutes of very non-standard tykes-versus-demons combat. The beautifully cast child actors are young Glen (a very young Stephen Dorff), his cheerful older sister Al (Christa Denton) and neighborhood kid and Heavy Metal fan Terry (Louis Tripp). Al volunteers to babysit her younger brother while the folks are gone, a choice that leads to a lively unscheduled house party. But the strange hole left behind after the demolition of a dead tree convinces occult-fan Terry that a portal to Hell is opening up in Glen’s back yard. Eerie phenomena pile up after Glen finds weird geodes in the tree roots. Other phenomena persuade Terry that the prophecies in a cabalistic record album are coming true — the entire rock group perished in a plane crash. After the family dog dies, the house is overrun with demonoid ‘minions,’ nasty little homunculi prone to biting. The demons in the hole exploit the kids’ adolescent-angst guilt, leading to surreal horrors from their nightmares. A zombie-like ‘Work Man’ (Carl Kraines) rumored to have been buried in the walls when the house was built, emerges to drag victims off into a ghastly parallel dimension. Glen retaliates with Satanic incantations and readings from the Bible, but what will put an end to the supernatural infestation?
The Gate is an amusing and exciting show, executed with considerable imagination and skill. Most of the budget goes into a smorgasbord of marvelous pre-CGI visual effects. Many of the best do not even involve standard optical printing. Director Tibor Takács gets fine performances from his kid actors, steering them away from the irritatingly profane / cute template formed by films like The Goonies. Sixteen year-old Al throws her forbidden unsupervised party, and the worst that happens is that a few kids smoke. Glen and Terry aren’t perfect — they callously jar up some moths to die — but they mean well. Glen is a serious little problem solver, and a tough customer when facing supernatural monsters. The pleasantly geeky Terry has a great scene lip-synching to a Goth cult record album. Both Terry and Glen are confronted with demonic imitations of their absent parents, in Terry’s case, a deceased mother. To the film’s credit, the traumatic encounters are handled with discretion.
Other touches from writer Mike Nankin reflect the anarchic sense of humor he displayed in his wickedly funny 1976 UCLA student film, Gravity. Thirty years down the line, conservative audiences may take exception to the very presence of Satanic references, and reject the script’s dismissal of the Bible as a useful tool against the hell-spawn menace. Actually, the Bible does prove to be partly effective. Other events reverse PC expectations: today’s escapist fare routinely tolerates the slaughter of hundreds of people, but threatening a cute dog is now unacceptable film content. The Gate milks some great laughs out of a teenager searching for a way to dispose of the family mutt, a shaggy sack ‘o rigor mortis. More power, I say.
The effects of The Gate are organized and designed by Randall William Cook and shape up as all-round inspired moviemaking. The job was just big enough to necessitate the outsourcing of some matte vistas and whirlwind effects to Bill Taylor and Syd Dutton’s Illusion Arts. But Cook tackles the tough problems with imagination, designing the creepy minion monsters and performing a number of alarmingly good-looking tricks with in-the-camera techniques. Cook oversaw cleverly designed forced perspective set-ups taht put normal-sized kids in the same frame with a dozen of the cavorting, spastic little minions. An act of production daring requiring the construction of special sets, the forced-perspective technique is rarely used but always a knockout, as seen in Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People from a couple of generations earlier. The illusions are flawless, because the motions are all natural. Aha, somebody knows what a lens nodal point is for, because the camera can even pan and tilt on the forced-perspective action.
These effects are greatly aided by the rubber minion suits fabricated by makeup effects specialist Craig Reardon. Watching the minions in action blurs our receptors, even now. They do things that only stop-motion animation can do, but we know that can’t be the case. The best movie effects are often simple magic tricks, like the clever distract-and-substitute switcheroos in Jean Cocteau’s classic Beauty and the Beast. Drafting something with computer animation tools is relatively risk-free compared to pulling off an elaborate illusion with modest resources. These effects have more gravitas than a bushel of CGI and wire removal.
Cook also contributes an impressive stop-motion animation demon, a multi-eyed, multi-armed horror that looks enormous because it’s sculpted at a very fine level of detail. Cook gives its motions a blur effect for a better match with the live action, concocting some really classy (and difficult looking) stop-motion shots. One of the best is a truck-in to the demon lurching upright in the entranceway of the house, with a line of minions observing from their foreground perch on the second- floor handrail. Fans don’t always realize that effects designers are the de facto directors of major sections of movies like these.
Another Craig Reardon contribution is one of the classier bogeymen of the 1980s, the immured Work Man. This guy looks like a mummified old coot, not a Romero goreshow; Reardon makes him just disturbing enough to be prime nightmare material. When The Work Man drags helpless kids away into gaping holes in the drywall, The Gate achieves the same effect as Poltergeist without the strobe-lit bombast and overkill.
The Gate is to be congratulated for avoiding a cheap nihilistic ending of the kind that pretty much knocked the fun out of horror from the late 1960s on — this is primarily a kid’s show. Its dead dogs and demonic incantations make it too tough to be an afternoon special, yet it’s not so appalling as to turn children into little fatalists. It was marketed as an exploitation feature but is far better than that.
Lionsgate and Vestron Video’s Blu-ray of The Gate is a marked improvement on the 2010 DVD, that itself seemed a big jump forward from old cable TV prints. For such a medium-budgeted film, the photography and effects are given an exceptionally moody presentation, with many scenes taking place in half-darkness. The added contrast range of HD reveals more detail in the shadows, and makes the special effects really pop. The animation monster seems more corporeal-dimensional, while the texture of the rotting Work Man seems more dusty than ever.
Since the frame rate of Blu-ray HD matches that of 35mm film — 24fps — there’s no frame sharing or duplication as happens with the 3/2 pull-down for 30fps DVD. This means that when one single-frames the image forward, the animation effects can be examined exactly as shot. Some of the tricks seem more ingenious than ever — the blurring of certain frames to eliminate strobing, for example. I never asked Randall William Cook the question directly, but the exacting craft and innovative cleverness of The Gate must have helped him win the plum assignment of animation director on the Lord of the Rings movies. Few filmmakers have even attempted such elaborate forced-perspective tricks, and when Peter Jackson saw these he must have realized that he had his man.
Likewise the Work Man is the most impressive zombie makeup of the decade, going beyond the cartoonish E.C. gore effects of even the Romero movies. He doesn’t look like a mask or a rubber-addition paste-up job, but is instead something that might really inhabit a kid’s nightmare — his look is actually subtle. Something Wicked This Way Comes should have had scares like the Work Man.
Lionsgate and Vestron Video really clobber this movie with extras. I thought the disc extras were overproduced until a couple of the ‘minor’ featurettes proved to be the most entertaining. I believe some of the old extras are here, greatly supported by interview-based featurettes from scores of participants. Craig Reardon dug through his trophy trunks for old photos, etc. — he had a real factory of Minion-making going on there, a big-scale job for such a tiny production. I’ve written on other ’80s special effects films made by friends, in which terrible production circumstances (no names, no lawsuits) compromised what went up on screen. The Gate need make no excuses… everything works like gangbusters.
We hear the production story from multiple angles. Writer Mike Nankin was a fellow UCLA film student like Randy. He says that he found his story in dreams from his own childhood. Director Takács strains to remember production details. Cook discusses the effects, praising the work of all of the contributors, notably Frank Carere, the practical effects man responsible for many eerie visuals — like the effective scenes of ground fog being sucked into the voracious hole. Carere gets to contribute his personal two cents in one of the commentaries.
The interviews are handsomely produced and nicely cut — the spokespeople are allowed to express full thoughts, and several of them are charming raconteurs. Carl Kraines, the actor who played the Work Man, is given a pleasant featurette of his own. The only thing I noticed skipping through the new pieces is a tendency for duplication — some interview bites are used more than once. But as an editor, I appreciate high quality work like this. A full list is below.
The Gate did well — it outperformed the vastly more expensive Ishtar — and could have done even better if it had been sold as more of a family picture. You know, good family fun with zombies, demons from hell and a dead dog for comedy relief.
An aside, about the writer Michael Nankin: it’s a shame that his hilarious UCLA student film Gravity couldn’t have been licensed as an extra. It’s a hilarious spoof of educational films made way before lampoons of that ilk became standard fare. A little girl runs around asking some rather weird family members what gravity is. She receives her answer from a nerdy professor, who lectures her on the ecological threat posed by the fact that the Earth is running out of Gravity. At one point somebody has to pull the girl down by the leg because she’s already beginning to slip free of the Earth’s pull – almost lost her, there. An obnoxious cartoon character called ‘Jiminy Gravity’ then offers the kid musical advice on saving the world. The thing was so damn funny at the Film Department screenings that I can only remember it in bits and pieces. A shorter version seen sometimes on the web – in poor quality – omits a couple of funny sex gags. Did I remember to say it was funny? Nankin went on to become a busy television director.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Audio commentary with Tibor Takács, Michael Nankin, and Randall William Cook; 2nd commentary with Cook, Craig Reardon, Special Effects artist Frank Carere and matte photographer Bill Taylor. Isolated Score Selections and audio Interview with composers Michael Hoenig and J. Peter Robinson. Docus and featurettes: The Gate Unlocked, a conversation between Tibor Takács and Randall William Cook; Minion Maker, an interview with Craig Reardon; From Hell It Came, an Interview with Co-Producer Andras Hamori; The Work Man Speaks! an Interview with actor Carl Kraines; Made in Canada, interviews with other actors and crew: production manager Robert Wertheimer, costume designer Trysha Bakker, A.D. Kathleen Meade, ”Minion” performer Jonathan Llyr, actor Scot Denton, and post-production supervisor H. Gordon Woodside. From Hell: The Creatures & Demons with Randall William Cook and Craig Reardon; The Gatekeepers with Tibor Takács and Michael Nankin; vintage featurette The Making of…; teaser and theatrical trailers, TV spots, still and BTS photo gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English & Spanish (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 17, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson