The Gate – yes, that The Gate – is one of those movies that existed in the annals of my nostalgia. I remember having viewed it several times at a young age, before devoting my film-watching time to supposedly good movies. The movie defines both the '80s and the word "lame." But in a way that suggests it was the originator of the word, and that all other lame movies are lame in comparison to this one. It marks the beginning of the end of an era where extremely mature visuals and themes weren't just deemed viewable for children, but were actually aimed at them. Aimed right at Steven Dorff's young face. Demons, dead bodies, heavy metal, a shotgun, parental specters, smoking, and the word "fag" are all in this 1987 PG-13 cornball extravaganza. This isn't your grandmother's "backyard tunnel to the underworld" movie, it's The Gate.
Tagline taken from IMDB: "There's a Passageway – A Gate Behind Which the Demons Wait to Take Back What Was Once Theirs." The voice announcer would had to have taken a drink of water before we find out what the demons were waiting for.
Glen (Dorff), 10ish, and his sister Al (Christa Denton), 15, live with extremely inept parents in a huge house. Lightning strikes a tree in their backyard, which seems like a bad sign to me. Glen and his friend, Teddy (Louis Tripp), dig into the hole left behind when the tree was uprooted. The dad knows that Teddy's going mental over his mother's death and the downward spiral of his home life. Yet he and mom still leave the three kids alone for three entire days. But then there is no fucking way they could have predicted the events to come from the innocuous hole in their backyard. I mentioned the underworld, yes? This movie isn't subtle enough for me to be subtle here, so let's avoid the slow burn and get to it.
There are demons coming out of the big, black hole, and Glen is obsessed with model rocket ships, long rocket ships, which, not to totally spoil things, are a successful weapon used in the climax. I'll let those images sit with you, and then I'll say the word "context." In one of my favorite scenes in child-acting history, on par with Freaks and Geekss "Sam in a Leisure Suit," Teddy (wearing a colorful blanket cape) rocks out to a Satanic metal band. It's all good harmless fun until the singer starts saying the exact mumbo-jumbo message that appeared earlier in the movie, involving dust from a demon egg, perhaps. (The boys find quartz-filled eggs that go laser-show when they're cracked open. I don't even know, but I want one.) So Teddy now takes the album wherever he goes, because it's actually the exact method of stopping and/or starting the tiny demon craze that begins soon after, because when you play it backwards, it tells you how. Also, the liner notes are detailed with information. Needless to say, it's not the best method for doing anything. A Bible is used at some point.
It sounds random because it is, which is just about the only reason The Gate works. Taken idea for idea, it's hard to imagine it being written by an adult (Michael Nankin) who speaks on the commentary. To follow the sister's storyline: she throws a party as soon as her parents leave the driveway, and she has a couple of real wads for friends in Linda and Lori Lee, played by Kelly Rowan and Jennifer Irwin, amazingly enough. All they want to do is streak Al's hair and get her to dry hump this guy Ted. To offer insight on Ted, he offers to take a dead animal to somewhere humane, then, you know, buries him in the demon hole. Ted has some friends interested in Twattle-Dee And Twattle-Dumb, who are sleeping over at the house the night everything goes kablooey. Here's my point: In the middle of everyone being scared shitless outside the house, the Lee sisters return indoors after hearing the demons need two human sacrifices in order to roam free. So they're shitting bricks inside; after being scared shitless, I know. Later, inside, Al is surprised by Ted and the boys, who the sisters apparently called at some point to come over with beer and an attitude for sex! Either they deal with demons all the time and are extremely optimistic in the novices banging it out in the yard, or it's an extremely weak piece of writing meant to be a humorous come down. Either way, that kind of dimness takes away from the good the movie brings.
The Gate is meant to be seen either with packed couches, or in a packed theater/pub. In 1987, before irony ran rampant, the child actors spoke the dialogue with an honest conviction that makes certain lines worth a bumper sticker. A Lee sister's "Eat your feet, dwarf," to Glen, will stay memorable for a week or so. No one's acting is bad, so much as universally awkward. Tibor Takács' direction is very obvious, and necessarily close-up in places, but is quite competent on the whole, considering what it is he's putting on film. You could ask yourself, how would Fritz Lang have done it, and you know what? Alex Winter (S. Preston Esquire) is directing the new 3-D version, so I guess that's as close as you'll get. Anyway, the demons look really good because they're child actors in suits working in sets that are built up to a large scale. I love that, especially when you can tell. I can't take away anything from the special effects, which include some nice stop-motion, as horrible as others end up looking, because it's for kids, and it's some pretty rad shit they got away with. A lot of things that are fearful to children are in this thing somewhere, so it works inherently on that front, too. But the part of me that just can't enjoy this kind of film naturally anymore watched it alone, and I can't guilt that kind of pleasure.
So let's talk quality. I don't even know if I could take this movie on Blu-Ray. It's an amazing transfer to 1:78:1, and except for some dulling around where the deep purple light appears when the monsters be lurking, everything is in sharp detail. I'd have to go back, and I won't, to a VHS copy to see just how damned good the transfer is. I remember it looking particularly muddy on cable. The sound mix is great, even at 2.1 Dolby. It's not very crisp, but there's stuff going on all over the place, and every moment of silence equals roughly 40 minutes of energy. Just to even out at that level is justice.
The commentary is with director Takács, writer Nankin, and special effects creator Randall William Cook. The two extras are "From Hell: The Creatures and Demons of The Gate", an effects piece with Cook and Craig Reardon; and "The Gatekeepers with Tibor Takács and Michael Nankin." Some of the same information is shared in between the three, and they all kind of go together in filmmaking terms. All are very informational, and having seen the movie, could have really started with the commentary on. It's not so much technical talk, because things weren't so technical then, but they detail a lot of the effects and the scaling back of the original, adult-oriented script. Again, it's silly to hear these guys talking about some of the out-there-ness going on, but they had a sense of humor about it, so it's good to know that. The two interview pieces, both about 15 minutes long, are more of an overview of the process from script to the filming process. The one about effects and set designs is great. There are some singularly eerie choices made in places that aren't as obvious as large demons in the middle of the house, and it's nice to be in on the magic sometimes.
So, if you hate me for being so reserved with any amount of love for this movie, go buy the DVD. It's a great purchase if you're into it, if only for the remastered wonderment, though the extras make it worthwhile. There's a previously released but out-of-print DVD that didn't scare up the sales. This one should. But only for fans, you hear?