Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Beyond the Gates Review - Best Left in the Bargain Bin

By Sam Graham

Anyone who knows me will attest that I love the old skool like pissheads love curry. I was born in the mid-80's and I grew up in the 90's. I had all the nerd trappings of the time: a yo-yo, an often-used library membership, I loved heavy metal and I could tell you the difference, in detail, between a dragon and a wyvern. I loved reading, Sega, my bike, and board games.

So, when I heard about this horror film called Beyond the Gates (2016) which was described as 'a horror movie as retro in style as subject matter', I thought I'd benefit from checking it out.

OK, the real reason is because Barbara Crampton is in it. I've been propping a tent up for that woman since watching a severed head lick her nipple. There, I said it.

Beyond the Gates sounds like a cross between Jumanji and the board game Atmosfear (Nightmare for my US fanbase, if you exist). If you never played Atmosfear, basically it was a bit like Monopoly, but you had to put a VHS tape on where some bloke in a shroud occasionally yells at you and tries to shit you up. They still make it, but because it’s the future now, it’s a DVD instead. It’s always tempting to buy it again, but I'm too self-aware to have a conversation with my telly.

The film begins with two brothers reuniting to clear out their deceased dad's old video shop.  Gordon (played by Graham Skipper) is the uptight one and looks like a fat reject from The Big Bang Theory. His brother John (Chase Williamson) is an upbeat slacker. They reminisce about the grand old days of the video shop, which I can relate to. Going down to Pharaoh’s Video was often the highlight of my week. Because word of mouth was the only way to know if a film was good back then, the artwork on them was, more often than not, better than the film. Case in point: that time I rented Robot Jox (1989). 

'Course, what people tend to omit about those days is when they went apeshit at you for not rewinding the tape, or when someone before you had covered up those little holes in the sides of the VHS and taped over the Space Jam with gay porn, and, because it was perfectly rewound, nobody at the video shop ever checked, but when you tell them about it, they just believed you did it just to be a prick.

In the back of the shop they find an old video board game called Beyond the Gates. They pop the video in and Barbara appears in all her grainy black and white glory, smouldering at the two brothers and talking in the slow, sultry way of a classic femme fatale. Lauren Bacall meets Morticia Addams. It’s here however that the film loses its steam.

We're already a fair way into its short runtime, because the film is more focused on the two brothers' relationship with each other, and some talk about the uptight brother's alcoholism that has no repercussions in the story and never comes up again. Then, every time they start playing the game (that's only the title of the fucking film), they pack it in almost straight away, turn Barbara off, then go do something else. I lost count how many times they did this. Instead we get about 60 minutes of brotherly conversation, interspersed with 20 minutes of a board game causing horrific events in the real world, and 4 minutes of credits.

It really wasn't what I was expecting and it failed to hold my interest, because A- the actors weren't all that good, 2- the brothers' story arc was bland and uninteresting, and D- it’s not what I was told the film would be. How hard can it be to mix Jumanji with Hellraiser?  I could do better. I might do now just out of spite.

Crampton is by far the best and most experienced of the cast, which makes it a shame that she's so underused. She only appears as a face on a video, but her moments are the highlights. She's hammy and funny whereas the rest of the cast are drab and barely stand out from the racks of VHS tapes on the walls. Oh, except for one guy who plays an antique shop owner. His hammy acting is turned up to full-retard. It makes me wonder about these typecast horror actresses: Barbara Crampton, Neve Campbell, Katharine Isabelle, Emily Perkins. I personally don't like the term 'scream queen'. It sounds silly. All the women mentioned above are most known for horror films, but from their lesser known work, it’s obvious that they're much better actresses than their horror portrayals allow them to be.

If you ask me, Isabelle and Perkins' characters in Ginger Snaps are some of the better female characters in horror, because the characters they played have more depth than 'look hot, undress, have sex, die'. The more layered a character, the better actor it requires. They played off each other brilliantly, and it would be nice if someone would let them flex their acting chops a little more.  After all, Jamie Lee Curtis managed it, and she's proved herself many times over. Crampton had a small role in You're Next (2011) which was still a horror, but she played the mother of a family and she played it very well as she didn't feel like a horror film character.

But I digress. Back to Beyond the Gates. And that's what the film is like.

One other thing that Beyond the Gates made me realise is that just because you colour something in dayglo and put some synth music behind it, it does not make it a fantastic homage to 80's horror. It’s a poor attempt to gloss something into the guise of nostalgia when what you're actually selling is a sub-par, boring film. To truly homage something, you have to get the feel right, not just the look or sound. Take Stranger Things (2016) for example. That feels like you're watching something Spielberg and King could have come up with, but aside from the subtle references, it is its own story with its own style. Here, let's try it ourselves:

Jai Courtney plays a Tom Hanks-esque man. He and his dog Hooch move to the 'burbs where teenagers are being killed by their dreams. Jaden Smith stars as someone who is not Corey Feldman. He brings a copy of the game Simon to Jai's bachelor party which when you get to 6 steps, conjures a vampire with pins in his head who is also the one killing people in their dreams. Another 6 traps him, then a third 6 kills him.

Sounds shit doesn't it?

OK, now imagine it in fluorescent colours with a synth/new-wave score. Ooo it’s so 80's now.  What a nostalgic thrill train...

Yeah right. Now it’s your turn.  Make up your own 80's homage trash in the comments section.

In all seriousness though, Beyond the Gates is a film that had a good premise and could have been a fun, but instead chose to focus on its lacklustre characters and not the premise it so hinged on. Of course, if Beyond the Gates is an exercise in recreating the video shop experience in that the artwork and blurb is much better than the film, then they got it right on the mark.

Enjoyed this piece? Then comment/share it about and 'like' The Crusades of A Critic on Facebook. Sam also has a novel which can currently be viewed here, and features ten times the swears, snarc, and rage of the above piece.