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John’s Horror Corner: The Gate (1987), Stephen Dorff summons tiny demons in my favorite PG-13 horror of the 80s.

October 31, 2018

MY CALL: Good characters, a zany mix of special effects and scare gags, tiny demons, and decent writing make this a top pick among 80s PG-13 horror! MORE MOVIES LIKE The GateIf you want another (and an even better) non-R-rated 80s horror movie rich with story and great characters, you want Poltergeist (1982) above all others, followed by Critters 1-2 (1986, 1988). For more evil heavy metal-related movies (in theme, story or plot-device), try Deathgasm (2015), The Devil’s Candy (2015), Jennifer’s Body (2009), Queen of the Damned (2002), Trick or Treat (1986), Black Roses (1988), Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare (1987), Hard Rock Zombies (1985) and Rocktober Blood (1984).

There was a time when I couldn’t always tell if a movie was PG-13 or R just by watching it. Being PG-13, The Gate was something I could rent from Blockbuster Video (almost 30 years ago) when I was about 10. No one ever asked your age unless it was R. This movie used to freak me out when I was young. But when I watch now, none of the super scary stuff is really scary at all. This wasn’t PG-13 instead of R in order to attract a broader audience and make more money (like The Bye Bye Man). No. This was PG-13 because this was a horror movie made for kids; the way PG-13 horror should be (more like Lights Out or Happy Death Day).

After removing a tree from the back yard, Glen (Stephen Dorff; Blade, Leatherface, Feardotcom) discovers a geode among the roots. Digging around looking for more, Glen and his best friend Terry (Louis Tripp; Gate 2) discover a sort of cavernous hole under the lawn. Naturally, weirdness ensues…

Director Tibor Takács (I Madman, Gate 2, The Outer Limits, Mansquito) crafted a fun, exciting, PG-13 horror with great characters that has remained a favorite of mine for decades. He may not have won over the critics. But I love how he infused a tired trope with fun energy. In this case, that trope is when all sorts of horrors break loose when some suburban kids are left home alone for the weekend—and end up accidently summoning demons through a portal to Hell—and, of course, they never call their parents, call the police, call for help, leave the house, or go to the neighbors’ house next door seeking safety. These kids are gonna’ handle this on their own for fear of getting in trouble.

One major mechanistic manner in which this movie deviates from the rest is that it reveals all the rules up front—and it is specific. These kids end up summoning demons largely by accident. The stars happen to be aligned, Glen gets a mean bloody splinter digging up the yard and drops it in the hole (an offering of blood), they read some ramblings on an Etch-a-Sketch (it turns out to be evil babble), some high schoolers levitate Glen, and his recently deceased dog’s body is placed in the hole (a sacrifice). Not only do we learn why and how the demons will come (before they even show up), but we also learn what they need to do (i.e., their goals and motivation) and how to banish them and close the gate (learned by heavy metal record played backwards). The journey of learning all this is done as we get to know and invest in characters more worthy of our investment (by a landslide) than we typically find in the genre.

Another major contributor to this film’s entertainment value is that the horror action starts sooner than the all-too-typical final act—often in the last 20-30 minutes. Here things kick into gear right at the halfway point. And since the characters are actually substantial and well-acted, and we spent the first half learning all the rules and consequences, the pacing wasn’t really slow in the beginning as is the case with (if we’re being honest) most of the genre. In fact, once the “horror” starts, it just keeps on coming.

This classic begins in a dream sequence with more weird stuff to come. Among the creepy gags are Terry’s visions of his dead mother, something moving behind the walls of the house, the dead dog in the bed, the monstrous hands reaching out from under the bed, the gooey-faced parent doppelgangers, awesome-looking miniature demons, a weird phone call and its melting phone, macabre mockeries of family photos, more creepy interactions with mini-demons, the man in the wall scene (which was admittedly way scarier when I was a kid), bloody writing on the walls, the eye on the hand, and yet even more tiny demon shenanigans. The greatest effect had to be the stop-motion/claymation giant demon (i.e., the Old God). I loved the way it moved and its odd morphology (i.e., several sets of eyes, limbs, tentacles).

In more than a few ways (or nods), this movie borrows from the very best non-R horror: Poltergeist (1982). Most of the death or suffering is imagined, pretty much everything turns out okay with a (sort of) happy ending, and just when you think the movie is actually over and it’s time for resolution, the crazy stuff starts again!

None of this is scary anymore, but that’s okay. It’s horror for tweens. But despite that, this movie remains fun for me! The likability of the characters, the time we spend getting to know and care about them, the diversity and abundance of effects, and the thoughtful itemizing of the causes, means and cures of their horrors all contribute to making this film a blast!

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