More an homage to the VHS age of 80’s and 90’s horror films than a throwback, Beyond the Gates from director Jackson Stewart is steeped in nostalgia and retro-atmosphere. With a plot that follows a pair of brothers uncovering an old VHS game with deadly consequences, the film embraces the cheese factor and the gore – and the era. The casting of Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, From Beyond, You’re Next, We Are Still Here) goes a long way to anchor the film to those decades as well. Even though the characters exists in the here and now, the film permeates an 80’s and 90’s vibe as the game begins to consume their lives. The main cast – Chase Williamson, Graham Skipper, and Brea Grant – is solid, providing performances that keep the film interesting when the script slows from time to time. While the tone is spot on, the film falters slightly with its impact in that is never takes things quite far enough to stand out. It has the opportunity to go full on Fulci bonkers with mind-bending narrative structure or steam full speed down the effects driven streets of Stuart Gordon or Brian Yunza. Some of the second act scenes suggest it may head toward the latter, but the film steers a level path from those points forward to successful but less-memorable ends.
The thrust of Beyond the Gates concerns brothers Gordon (Graham Skipper) and John (Chase Williamson) begrudgingly reuniting to handle the estate of their father declared deceased via absentia. Their father owned one of the last remaining mom-n-pop movie rental stores filled with VHS tapes and memorabilia. As they explore their father’s office, they discover the VHS game “Beyond the Gates” left unattended in the VHS player. Checking it out the game takes a strange hold on them. Later when they revisit the game at their father’s home – along with Gordon’s girl friend Margot (Brea Grant), the host of the game, Evelyn (Barbara Crampton), displays knowledge of their lives and current situation that is far too serious to be coincidence, including allusions to the whereabouts of their missing father. The more they play the game, the more death and mayhem surround them until the game wants to claim them – to take them beyond the gates.
The concept of Beyond the Gates drives much of the film. Every time the game fires up once again and the terrific Barbara Crampton appears on the TV screen, the film sizzles and become far more interesting. The more the game works to convince Gordon, John and Margot, to chase after the “keys” to advance on the play board, the more entertaining and delightful the film becomes. As the mysterious forces within the game reach out to affect those around the trio, the more blood is splattered about, be it Matt Mercer as the nerdy cop or Justin Welborn as the abhorrent “friend” Hank. The effects deliver: heads explode, entrails fly free, blood showers the screen. The film has fun revisiting the tone of the VHS craze with its effects, cinematography, atmosphere, and plot. It is made for those who fondly remember this age.
When the film is less concerned with the horror and gore, the cast is primarily responsible for keeping the film interesting and focused. Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson feel like estranged brothers in the film which helps in the conflicts of their relationship. They may be brothers, but they are not the best of friends. In fact, there is a strong animosity between them with some strong heartfelt emotions. When Williamson’s John states that his “rough-around-the-edges” friend Hank (Welborn) dropped everything when he needed a friend while his own brother would not goes a long way to establish the rift between the two siblings. It is fitting for the script that their memories of their childhood and drive to discover the whereabouts of their missing father is a large part of what brings them back together. The actors and the dialog admirably display the awkward relationship between the two from the characters with their behaviors and attitudes, especially when John extends a stay at the house if Gordon will “do the dishes.” What Gordon thinks is of good intent, John considers demeaning. It is this underlining character development that helps Beyond the Gates when the story itself wobbles a bit away from the horror and action.
Writer/Director Jackson Stewart makes a strong impression with his first feature film. He certainly has a voice in film worth noticing in a similar vein as Bobby Miller (Master Cleanse) and Joe Begos (The Mind’s Eye). Achieving a great deal with a smaller budget, Stewart thrives when exploring the relationships between the core cast, when he has them under his directorial thumb. In some cases, it is the smaller moments that resonate more than the over-the-top scenes of gore and horror. Although, the explosive bursts of crimson violence do ramp up the film’s enjoyment for those craving call-backs to the VHS era of no-holds-barred horror and effects. Stewart also succeeds in making the game itself feel like a character and spotlights Barbara Crampton’s Evelyn menacingly for what is in essence a figure on the TV screen. The shots of Crampton simply staring out of the set waiting for the trio to make their next move is haunting and creepy. It will be interesting to see what Jackson Stewart cooks up next for horror fans.
Beyond the Gates is made for fans of horror looking for some retro-80s-thrills. For those who fondly remember the variety of VHS horror games, this film is a treasure. As a horror film, despite a few flaws in pacing and maintaining interest in its third act, the film succeeds in capturing the vibe of its subject matter and providing ample amounts of gore and horror for fans to enjoy. The film benefits from a great cast and a script that pays attention to their characters. Graham Skipper (Almost Human, The Mind’s Eye) and Chase Williamson (John Dies at the End, SiREN) make for a realistic pair of brothers with Brea Grant (Halloween II, Heroes) wonderfully rounding out the cast. Matt Mercer (Contracted: Phase II, The Mind’s Eye) and Justin Welborn (Southbound, SiREN) are particular stand outs in their supporting roles as well. The effects are bloody good and the tone is spot on for the VHS vibe it chases. Barbara Crampton steals the entire film as Evelyn, the voice of the “Beyond the Gates” VHS game. “Press play… And pray.”
Beyond the Gates (3.5 / 5)
Beyond the Gates played at the Knoxville Horror Film Festival and opens December 9th in select theaters, VOD and and via digital platforms from IFC Midnight.