Sometimes PG-13 horror movies get a bad rap, being seen as too watered down actually to be scary. That is not always the case. Director Tibor TakÃ¡cs and screenwriter Michael Nankin’s The Gate (1987) shows that, when well done, a PG-13 horror film can be both kid-friendly and scary as Hell at the same time. When a couple of pre-teens accidentally open a gateway to Hell in the backyard, they find themselves battling otherworldly forces. Can they close The Gate before the demons within claim two human sacrifices and overrun the rest of the world? Likable characters played by actual teens give the audience someone to care for during the proceedings. The filmmakers use a nice and creative mix of practical, optical, forced-perspective, and stop-motion effects which still hold up. Most of all, the film is seriously scary, far more so than what one usually expects from horror aimed at kids.
Glen (Stephen Dorff, future Blade (1998) bad guy Deacon Frost, in his film debut) is on the cusp of becoming a teenager. He is close to his sister Al (Christa Denton), but she is almost 16 and spending more time with her friends. After lightning kills a tree in the backyard, Glen discovers a rather large geode in the stump hole and shows it to his best friend Terry (Louis Tripp) who suggests that they dig in the hole to look for more. They do manage to find an even larger geode, but they also end up opening up a hole that leads deep underground. Glen and Al’s parents go away for the weekend, leaving Al in charge while telling her, “Don’t throw a party.” Needless to say, she throws a party. Hanging out upstairs during the party, Glen and Terry manage to crack open the geode, which leaves strange writing-like scratches on a tablet. Of course, Glen reads the writing out loud, which, unbeknownst to him, opens a portal to Hell in the stump hole. The two boys head down to the party, and Glen becomes the subject for a variation on the old “Light as a Feather” routine, which ends up succeeding beyond anyone’s expectations when Glenn levitates all the way to the ceiling. This is just the start of a chain of increasingly disturbing and menacing supernatural events, including hordes of miniature demon minions, ghosts of dead loved one, melting imposters, a zombie workman, and the appearance of a giant demon lord. Can the kids figure out how to close the gate before the demons claim two human sacrifices and gain access to the wider world?
Some of the most effective horror movies are the ones with sympathetic protagonists; it gives the audience a stake in the proceedings. The core group of kids in The Gate are a likable bunch. They feel like real kids; it helps that they actually are played by young teens and not by twenty-somethings, as is often the case in films. Stephen Dorff’s Glen and Louis Tripp’s Terry have excellent chemistry; it is easy to believe that they are best friends who have known each other their entire lives. The relationship between Glenn and Al also rings true. Sure, there is a bit of sibling rivalry, but one feels a genuine love between the two. These relationships are central to the film, and the fear of the potential loss of any of these characters is a strong emotional thread.
The filmmakers use a variety of special effects to bring to life the demons and ghouls of The Gate, and they still hold up to this day. Forced perspective is used to great effect for the miniature demon minions. In many of the shots involving the minions, the human characters are on the same set, just much closer to the camera. One of the standout shots involves the zombie workman falling to the ground and splitting into numerous minions while Al and Glen cower against a wall. Even knowing how it is shot, the illusion is still fantastic and effective. At other times, practical effects are utilized, such as when giant demon hands grab at the kids from under the bed and when Al and Glen’s ersatz dad’s head melts. Stop-motion fans even get something to love with the appearance of the giant demon lord. His scenes are shot and staged in such a way to give him a nice sense of scale and menace. Some of the optical effects have not aged as well, e.g. moths attacking Glen, but they are used minimally and do not detract from the film.
With its actually young cast and PG-13 rating, The Gate’s target audience appears to be pre-/early-teens, but this does not mean it is not scary. On the contrary, this is a pretty frightening film, even for those out of the throws of puberty. The tiny demons are utilized effectively and are quite creepy. They bring to mind the demons from the original television movie version of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) starring Kim Darby. While the demons and ghouls provide visceral horrors, many of the more frightening aspects of the film actually revolve around the potential loss of a loved one. When Terry’s dead mother shows up in the night, he may be overjoyed, but the audience is frightened by what this implies. In other parental horrors, Al and Glen run into demonic impostors of their own parents, and it leads to a pretty creepy and disgusting scene. Then, there is the goal of the demons, to fully open The Gate by securing two human sacrifices. This ongoing threat of the sudden loss of a friend or loved one is perhaps the most emotionally frightening thing in the film.
The Gate demonstrates that PG-13 and kid-friendly do not necessarily equate to “not scary.” A great cast of actual teens is well served by a script that gives them realistic and sympathetic characters, which helps provide an emotional core to the film. A variety of special effects techniques is utilized by the filmmakers to create the assorted nasty creatures that pour from the gate. The scares are plentiful and quite frightening, even for a PG-13 film. Those wanting to introduce the young ones to truly scary movies, as well as anyone interested in watching a creepy and creative creature feature, should be sure to check out The Gate.
The Gate (4.5 / 5)