Who says you need to adapt? As some filmmakers look towards newfangled technology for 21st century chills (Friend Request/Unfriended/The Den), writer/director Jackson Stewart scares up some vintage nostalgia with his debut feature, Beyond The Gates. Screw Facebook and Skype. Remember the good old days when people sat around in social groups, and spooked themselves silly with products you’d only find in dumpsters nowadays?
For you younger readers, VHS cassettes used to play movies on film before digital radio waves made physical copies obsolete – but Stewart’s concept dates even myself (not in my 30s yet, so I was part of the DVD uprising). Apparently games used to exist in VHS form, and you could play along with the characters on screen (like Final Destination 3 tried to do with their “Select A Fate” DVD). Well, what if those games became reality, and immersion meant realistic consequences? You’d get a 2000s horror movie with 1980s appeal…case and point.
Graham Skipper stars as Gordon, a son who’s forced to address his father’s disappearance by returning “home” for a few days. Gordon’s first order of business is to liquidate the family jewel – one of the last VHS rental stores in existence. It’s not long before Gordon is joined by his brother John (Chase Williamson), the proverbial slacker who stayed behind and never found his groove. The two begin cleaning, but become sidetracked after stumbling upon a mysterious VHS board game called “Beyond The Gates.”
Something about the toy draws them in, so they bring it back to their father’s house where Gordon’s lover Margot (Brea Grant) is also staying. After dinner, they all pop the game’s video in and are greeted by a lacy-dressed host, Evelyn (Barbara Crampton), and are given a brief introduction. From here, Gordon and John learn that “Beyond The Gates” may be more than just a televised time-waster, and might even reveal the whereabouts of their missing padre. Can these brothers defeat Evelyn and venture into the beyond?
Stewart rolls the dice with this antique throwback of a genre subversion, but does so with keen 80s sensibilities that channel cheesy (like yummy cheesy!) fantasy follies of old. His board game has a life of its own, exuding neon hues and thought-out gameplay. “Beyond The Gates” isn’t just an excuse to trap Barbara Crampton in a picture box (although she MURDERS her role) – Stewart and co-writer Stephen Scarlata establish universe-building potential by creating a game that looks torn from a toy collector’s shelf (technically it is, said creeper being played flamboyantly by Jesse Merlin). Once the game is afoot, tarot cards summon real-life stakes that endanger anyone Gordon and John may know, taking form like a sinister sleepover charade gone royally upside down.
Stewart’s best work involves two aspects: Barbara Crampton or buckets of blood. The former instills a mystifying, humorous mood by just gazing out past the television screen with those hypnotic, soul-sucking eyes, only to laugh manically in random spurts. She’s our guide into madness – our ferrywoman into a purplish hell – and she indulges in every Elvira-inspired moment of tonal befuddlement. She’s so much more than a floating head, nudging players with emphatic looks when they take too long to cycle through moves. I’m sure it gets boring being trapped in an alternate dimension netherworld, and it very much feels like Crampton’s character is relishing in her latest devilish distraction.
The latter element – Stewart’s devotion to practical effects – goes even more 80s than Crampton’s inclusion. When people die, they typically do so horribly. Gordon or John don’t know they’re committing real-life atrocities while playing “Beyond The Gates,” but their actions are profoundly felt. Sometimes by a bar patron who gets his insides ripped out while John digs around a voodoo doll, other times as a cranial explosion when Gordon “frees” another victim’s mind. Intestines dangle like puppet strings from a fresh, squishy wound, while a true-to-life shotgun blast blows some poor mannequin’s head into red mist when re-creating Scanners-style gore. It’s just something you don’t always see these days, and when done right, it adds so much character to monster movies with all the right homages.
Out of fairness, Beyond The Gates doesn’t really register on any “scare scale,” which is more a note for hair-raising thrill seekers. Stewart tells a family story about brothers coming together, relationships flourishing and letting go of those we love, hitting upon emotional, almost made-for-TV arcs from horror tales with something more to offer. Not sappy or ill-intended, just more wholesome than a rigid genre construct that tosses jump-scares in every five or so minutes to keep audiences uncomfortably on-edge. A nice baseball bat brawl with a night-invading creature hearkens Stewart’s most chilling aside, but besides that, it’s a lot of daytime mindf#*ing and dances with fate.
When analyzing Beyond The Gates as a whole, some of the emotional buildup could be whittled down to a sharper point. Skipper and Williamson are largely fine as head-butting brothers, but scenes briefly languish in familial exposition that has us begging for Stewart’s game to resume. Grant adds as dash of female companionship until she’s threatened by Evelyn’s words and Justin Welborn is at his dive-bar trashiest, but there’s just no overtaking Crampton’s virtual performance – which is felt through sporadic takes that drag on a bit too long where non-competition pacing is concerned. Sometimes this means we’re sitting around begging for Evelyn’s return, which overshadows other elements trying to flourish elsewhere.
That said, Beyond The Gates means more to horror than generic teenie-bopper slasher stupidity (especially with a killer synth-rock score by Wojciech Golczewski). Jackson Stewart takes the genre back to a time of mystical fantasy and torturous implications, forgoing machete villains for attacks on will and perverse control. Gordon and John are playing a dangerous game, yet Evelyn turns the tides, revealing that the game is truly playing them. You can see it in Crampton’s eyes, as she locks on target while smirking ever-so confidently; white bangs cropping her vision while eyeshadow focuses her optical intensity. Just like Lauren Ashley Carter in Darling, I could look into Crampton’s eyes all day – but there’s more to Stewart’s approach to killer-board-game horror than meets the eye(s).
Beyond The Games plays to the nostalgia crowd instead of adopting 21st century scares, but still finds a way to explore untapped VHS potential.