Beyond the Gates

Yet another middling attempt at gory ’80s-style supernatural horror.

Beyond the Gates

United States. Directed by Jackson Stewart, 2016. Starring Graham Skipper, Chase Williamson, Brea Grant, Barbara Crampton, Matt Mercer, Justin Welborn, Jesse Merlin. 88 minutes.

Over the past few years, throwback horror seems to have sprouted a sub-subgenre of its own, one taking the form’s commitment to retro elements (old-style storylines and plot devices, synth-driven scores) one step further by reproducing the practical-effect goriness of yore: Joe Begos’s The Mind’s Eye, for example, reimagines Scanners as Brian Yuzna might have made it. For some reason, they all seem to star Graham Skipper, who has developed the acting technique of “staring furiously” into something of an art form:

Graham Skipper

Beyond the Gates sees Skipper taking the role of Gordon Hardesty, returning to his hometown to join his brother John (Chase Williamson, John Dies at the End) in sorting out the affairs of their father, a video-store proprietor who disappeared some months earlier. At the store, they find the only clue to their father’s fate: a spooky “VCR board game” named Beyond the Gates, hosted by the cryptic Barbara Crampton. The brothers—along with Gordon’s girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant, Dexter and Heroes)—soon discover the game serves as a portal to another realm…and now that they’ve started playing, they have no choice but to see the game through to the end.

I can’t deny that the film has a whole heap of flaws. The pacing feels lopsided, with the first act overloaded with too much exposition, taking too long to get to the stuff that we actually care about. The supporting characters receive little in the way to define them beyond cannon fodder. Despite some impressive effects work, the gory bits play out too quickly, while the “gameplay” sequences quickly fall into repetition.

The three leads turn in decent performances in isolation, but have little to no chemistry with each other. In the case of the brothers, estranged for so long they can’t even hug each other without being awkward, this mostly works. It presents more of a problem for Skipper and Grant: their characters need to work through some long-term relationship difficulties but I could barely bring myself to believe the two actors ever met before beginning production on the film. Few of the supporting actors—including Matt Mercer (the Contracted franchise), Justin Welborn (The Signal), and C-list scream queen Sara Malakul Lane—bother to find much depth in their characters beyond “gonna die soon.”

In spite of all this, the production does have a couple of aces up its sleeve. Crampton, playing a bit more flamboyantly than her recent roles in You’re Next and We Are Still Here, dominates her scenes with a curious alluring menace. Another supporting player—Jesse Merlin, as an eccentric antique store owner who knows more about the game than he’s willing to say—steals his two or three brief sequences, playing the character’s camp to the hilt.

Meanwhile, Wojciech Golczewski’s analog-synth score owes little to John Carpenter’s spare pulsing waveforms, choosing instead to evoke the prog-rock stylings of Italian composers Fabio Frizzi and Claudio Simonetti; it’s a bit more interesting as a result. The music combines with director Jackson Stewart’s visuals to give the film a hazy, dreamlike atmosphere, not entirely dissimilar from Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” trilogy. This doesn’t entirely balance out the problems, but it creates a context in which those problems become somewhat more forgivable.

Which doesn’t mean I can wholeheartedly recommend Beyond the Gates; it’s a middling effort that doesn’t get as much right as the audience might hope for. But it works better as a way to kill ninety minutes than it probably should.

Beyond the Gates poster

We Are Still Here

An atmospheric, gory tribute to Fulci that manages to improve on the Godfather of Gore in every way.

United States. Directed by Ted Geoghegan, 2015. Starring Barbara Crampton, Andrew Sensenig, Larry Fessenden, Lisa Marie, Monte Markham. 84 minutes.

I’ve always had a complex relationship with Lucio Fulci’s films. In theory, I should consider his œvure some of the best horror films ever made, featuring as they do beautiful imagery, existential themes, and strikingly-designed, well-executed gore sequences guaranteed to make the stomach churn. In practice, however, his screenplays tend to lack coherency, which irritates me because I’m mostly a story person. For me, the archetypal example of this is 1981’s House by the Cemetery, in which several minor characters insist the protagonist has a daughter he denies exists (and whose subplot disappears early in the film with no explanation), amongst other bizarre story elements and plot developments.

That being said, let’s turn our eye to Ted Geoghegan’s We Are Still Here. Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig star as Anne and Paul Sacchetti, who move into a rambling old house in the wake of the tragic death of their son Bobby. Almost immediately, Anne becomes convinced that Bobby’s spiritual presence has joined them in the new house; not too long after, they learn the nasty history of the house and its first residents, the Dagmar family. They invite their spiritualist friends Jacob and May McCabe to help them sort out the strange phenomena.

Now, if you’ve seen The House by the Cemetery, you’ll understand why I brought it up. For the uninitiated, the most obvious similarity comes with the character names, many of which Geoghegan borrowed from Cemetery’s characters, cast, and crew. The references don’t stop there: both We Are Still Here and Cemetery’s predecessor The Beyond feature a tradesman named Joe who suffers a traumatic experience in a basement. Indeed, Geoghegan’s film shares many thematic elements that link Fulci’s loose “Gates of Hell Trilogy” (which includes City of the Living Dead along with The Beyond and Cemetery).

Now, I’ve spent so much time pointing out the ways in which We Are Still Here obviously cribs from Fulci’s work that I’d forgive you for thinking I was going to turn in an unfavorable review. On the contrary, the film encapsulates the things I like about Fulci’s films while improving on (what I perceive as being) their shortcomings in every way.

The plot, by and large, makes sense, and when it doesn’t, it’s not impossible to see an internal logic at play. The characters are genuine characters, and not thinly-drawn effigies who only exist in the plot to suffer from disgustingly gory demises. The performances are very strong for the most part, particularly Crampton, Sensenig, and a scene-stealing Monte Markham as a creepy local old-timer who clearly knows a lot more about what’s going on than he’s saying. I do have to admit that Larry Fessenden and Lisa Marie go a bit over the top as Jacob and May, but, hey, it helps give a bit of variance to an otherwise solidly somber-toned film so it’s not unforgivable.

The cherry on top is Geoghegan’s superb direction, understated and lyrical for much of the running time, then suddenly shifting into overdrive for the film’s blood-soaked climax, an effects-driven set-piece defined by some sickeningly memorable death scenes and a lot of icky, gooey gore.

Best of all, We Are Still Here is that rarest treat of the horror pastiche-slash-homage: the one that stands entirely on its own and doesn’t require the audience to know jack-all about the source material to enjoy it. Sure, it helps to be familiar with Fulci’s work to get the references and in-jokes, but it’s not necessary. This excellent film has plenty to delight fans of both atmospheric and gruesome horror regardless.