Jackson Stewart's LAFF audience award winner is a fun flashback to the era of cheesy direct-to-VHS horror.
The cheesy grade-B horrors of the VHS era may have won little respect at the time, but they’re turning out to be the primary influences of a whole new generation of genre specialists for whom they were formative childhood viewing experiences. Jackson Stewart’s “Beyond the Gates” is the latest indie feature to make explicit such debts, from its retro title graphic and Goblin-like score to the central conceit of an old board game whose players open the portal to Hell… or, well, some similar kinda bad place. Winner of the audience award in the Los Angeles Film Festival’s midnight section, this fun if unmemorable occult thriller sports — all too faithfully at times — both the typical pleasures and shortcomings of the movies it pays homage to. And like them, it’s likelier to reach its niche audience primarily on home formats rather than the big screen.
The seven-month disappearance of their hard-living father (Henry LeBlanc), now presumed dead, has forced a strained reunion between his two now-adult children. Gordon (Graham Skipper) is the bespectacled, straight-arrow nerd, albeit one apparently in recovery from a history of drinking and anger-management issues. John (Chase Williamson) is the moderate bad boy whose current status re: housing and employment is murky as usual. Not particularly happy to see each other — especially since Gordon turned down ne’er-do-well John’s latest request for a “loan” — they nonetheless settle down to the business of boxing up dad’s long-dormant video store, which stubbornly clung to all-VHS stock well into the DVD era and beyond.
Meanwhile, Gordon uncomfortably takes up temporary re-residence in the padre’s abandoned house, where he’s soon joined by supportive, surprisingly hot girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant). While she spends each night knocked out on Ambien, Gordon immediately begins seeing and hearing disturbing, fleeting nocturnal phenomena there. By day two, they’ve got an extra housemate in John, who of course turns out to have already worn out his welcome under whatever roof he was crashing most recently.
After locating the key to dad’s hitherto off-limits back office, the sons discover the last thing their widower parent apparently watched was “Beyond the Gates,” a “VCR board game” of the type that represented a primitive early form of “interactive” gaming: You plugged in the videotape, and it guided you through some dumb fantasy scenario otherwise largely controlled by chance (i.e. dice). This one’s glamorously sinister video hostess (Barbara Crampton, also a producer here) promises players can “step into the ultimate nightmare” if they follow instructions to acquire four keys. Upon further investigation, however, it quickly becomes clear that something is more than a little strange about this particular game. Not only does the on-tape hostess seem impossibly attuned to what the real-world participants say and do, she drops heavy hints that the brothers’ dad is a captive held “beyond the gates,” and only their possibly life-endangering intervention can save his life — or, at least, his soul.
You can guess the general gist of what ensues, as playing the “game” brings peril to all. That includes the leads’ two remaining local friends, childhood pal turned cop Derek (Matt Mercer) and John’s much skeevier bud Hank (Justin Wellborn), the type whose profession one might hazard to be “meth lab proprietor.” Naturally, the lone live female here Margot also becomes a pawn in the escalating stakes, particularly once an actual set of creepy cemetery-like gates materializes in the home basement.
Like the largely forgotten movies of the 1980s and early ’90s to which this homage tips its hat, “Beyond” isn’t very scary, and its slow, medium-atmospheric buildup is somewhat disappointed by a climax limited in both budgetary means and writerly imagination. (Don’t expect any “Hellraiser”-type horror surrealism when the heroes finally enter the “gates” at the 70-minute mark.) But even these flaws seem good-naturedly deliberate to a degree, like the couple explosions en route of unconvincingly over-the-top, old-school gore effects.
Further fodder for diehard genre fans is provided by a cast almost entirely consisting of faces familiar from other B horrors, whether veteran star Crampton (a favorite since 1985’s “Re-Animator”), next-generation regular Mercer (“Contracted” and its sequel), or Jesse Merlin, who has toiled in numerous campy stage and screen horror musicals, and here plays a suitably macabre curiosity-shop owner. (Many of them also appeared in first-time feature director Stewart’s prior shorts.) Pitch-perfect as exercises in nostalgic homage are Wojciech Golczewski’s musical score and Brian Sowell’s widescreen lensing, which pours on the lurid color lighting effects as things grow more supernatural.