Ok, hands up who remembers the boon of VHS/Board Game hybrids that appeared in the early to mid 90s. Congratulations, you are at least as old as me. Possibly older. I’ve always had a somewhat bittersweet relationship with these games. I always wanted to own them but never hand anyone to play them with, partly because I was a social outcast and partly because geographically I was an outcast and despite my best efforts I couldn’t persuade cattle to throw saving rolls. For my burgeoning horror tastes ATMOSFEAR (also known as NIGHTMARE in some regions) was the game I wanted more than anything. Lurid box art? Check. Gravely voiced Crypt Keeper? Check. The commercials made it look so good, like it might actually steal your soul. I know it wasn’t as good as that, particularly by modern gaming standards but I was young and foolish, and hungry for horror. Time has passed and it looks like games of this type are now ripe to be part of the nostalgia horror genre. Oh good, I get to feel old.
The film tells the story of two estranged brothers; Gordon and John, brought back together to liquidate their missing Fathers video rental business. Amidst the stacks of tapes and ‘be kind rewind’ stickers they find a selection of the aforementioned VHS Games, and after entering their Fathers inner sanctum office they uncover one more game and possibly the last thing viewed by their father; BEYOND THE GATES. As the brothers fail to bond they (along with Gordons girlfriend Margot) end up playing the game and discover that there is far more at stake here than cardboard tokens and they’ll soon be fighting for their very souls.
For the past 3-4 years there has always been one film that has made my frontal lobes tickle in an amusing way. In 2014 it was WOLFCOP, 2015 it was TURBO KID and this year it was BEYOND THE GATES. Just something about it ticked all my boxes. Retro/nostalgia vibe, synth score, surreal psychological horror with punctuating moments of extreme gore… it almost felt custom made for me. What I didn’t expect to find in this film was a heart that dealt with some sensitive issues incredibly respectfully. It’s not a major spoiler to reveal that alcohol abuse is a catalyst for a number of the films plot points. It’s a risky thing to try and tackle in any movie, so to do so in a retro horror movie seems either brave or foolish. WOLFCOP managed it by virtue of being gregariously overblown in every aspect of the project, therefore the alcoholism at the root of one of the characters didn’t feel out of place. For BEYOND THE GATES this is not the case, and whilst I did find myself tensing at first I relaxed as I saw that the filmmakers weren’t doing this for laughs or shock value. They treated it for what it is, a very real problem that can change a person, twist them up and spit them back out as a shell of their former selves. Ironically for a brand called ‘Hammered Horror’, this is something I’m not only sensitive to but which has held an influence over my life at times. I commend writers Stephen Scarlata and Jackson Stewart (who also directs) for the way in which they wrote it. In general the story is filled with believable and earnest dialog and direction. The world of BEYOND THE GATES feels like a living breathing one, and the character archetypes are all identifiable and could easily be related to people a lot of us know.
Moving on to the cast it is fair to say that the majority of the principals have some horror heritage to them. Graham Skipper
originated the role of Herbert West in RE-ANIMATOR: THE MUSICAL as well as appearing in ALMOST HUMAN, Chase Williamson has appeared in SiREN (A feature adaptation of a segment from the original V/H/S anthology) Brea Grant has appeared in the HALLOWEEN II remake as well as a number of episodes of DEXTER and Barbara Crampton is borderline horror royalty (including a role in one of my favourite films we’ve covered on HH; CHOPPING MALL).
Skipper and Williamson share an awkward chemistry entirely befitting estranged brothers, with Grant stuck in the middle as the somewhat suffering but supportive girlfriend. Despite her relative isolation to a cathode-ray tube Barbara Crampton strikes an eerie figure that both is both scary and alluring. Her unblinking stare, seemingly sentient knowledge and cold, icy demeanour make for a unique and chilling antagonist. Even when not on screen the spectre of her character hovers over the film and if I could have one complaint it’s that I won’t get to actually play Beyond the Gates with her as the tape-trapped tour guide. Having said that and given the somewhat fatal nature of the game, perhaps I’m better off sticking with a charity shop copy of ATMOSFEAR.
A special mention should go to Jesse Merlin who plays one of the more outlandish roles in the film. He doesn’t waste a second of his screen time with his performance evoking an incredibly strong response from the audience at Grimmfest 2016. To go into it more here would constitute some major spoilers but look out for a character called Elric. One of the reasons the film as a whole works so well is that all of the principals takes their role seriously, even when confronted by the surreal or unusual, like sentient videotapes or gothic shopkeepers.
The special effects are perfectly in keeping with the time period, and the gore (and oh boy, is there some gore) evokes the excesses of the 80s without ever appearing overly comical or humorous. It is played for shock value and on that level it works as our heroes unwittingly leave chaos in their wake. Wojciech Golczewski’s score fits the movie (and the era it references) perfectly. He’s rapidly becoming a favourite composer of mine and his work for TONIGHT SHE COMES and WE ARE STILL HERE is also exemplary. Thankfully he has a well populated SoundCloud page so you can check out his work here.
In conclusion BEYOND THE GATES is a well made and highly polished product. It has a lot of heart and solid story underneath it. It’s not going to break any new ground or become a game changing part of the cinematic landscape but it doesn’t need to be. It just needs to tell a story of family, love, addition and redemption with a healthy dose of blood and gore. and it does that perfectly, being everything I wanted it to be and more.
I thought BEYOND THE GATES was going to be my film of the festival, and despite some surprise strong candidates (REZORT being a top contender) I think it just about holds that place. I look forward to the inevitable home release so I can make myself a triple bill of this, WOLFCOP and TURBO KID to keep me warm on those cold winter nights. I hope you can do the same.