Long before Stephen Dorff went Somewhere with Sofia Coppola, he made his screen debut in 1987’s horror oddity The Gate. Directed by Tibor Takács (I, Madman), The Gate pits Dorff against agents of Satan hellbent on destroying all that is wholesome and good in the ’burbs. Depending on your read of the material, this is either a kitchen sink approach to monster movies or a hotbed of “family values” messages, with the Bible literally thrown in for good measure. At one point, a character hoping to exorcise the impending demon onslaught stops reading his Bible and tosses it down the hellhole in his backyard. This is exactly what I would have done, because demons respond better to the Word when it’s going upside their heads. The eruption of sparks in response to the bibilical bitchslap made my inner lapsed Baptist smile.
The Gate was the perfect summer movie to see if you were 12 years old in 1987. Its preteen protagonist saves the day without adult supervision. The film is more spooky than scary, and outside of some surprisingly gruesome scenes of eye trauma (one character finds a use for Barbie unintended by Mattel), The Gate is relatively gore-free. It also has some charmingly cheesy special effects, including one that still managed to get a gasp from me today: A reanimated dead body falls to the ground, and instead of splattering, it explodes into a million little scattering demons. The demon design, and how they are mostly rendered by camera trickery rather than CGI, is one of the old-fashioned joys of The Gate.
I was 17 in 1987, well past the intended audience age of The Gate, but I found much to enjoy simply because I admired the filmmakers’ ability to put a slightly new spin on familiar horror movie scenes. I had never seen anyone literally apply the Good Book, for starters, and playing a heavy metal record backwards tells our heroes how to destroy demons, not summon them. The kid who owns the record isn’t some Goth-looking teen but an owlish nerd with huge glasses. And the demons who crave sacrifice are not picky about the gender of their capture, though it’s pretty clear both victims are virgins.
Michael Nankin’s screenplay leverages its occasional goofiness with keenly observed interactions between the characters. Dorff plays Glen, a suburban kid whose only friend is the aforementioned geek Terry (Louis Tripp). Glen’s only sibling is his sister, Al (Christa Denton), who has been tasked with babysitting him while their parents take a weekend vacation. The dialogue between Glen and the others is at times pitch perfect, and even during scenes of danger and duress, the characters say what one would expect from kids their age. This is a welcome note of realism in The Gate, making the batshit proceedings easier to swallow.
After a tree is removed from Glen’s backyard, a mysterious geode emerges from the hole. Glen and Terry think they can get money for it, though Terry’s familiarity with his Sacrifice album should have erased the dollar signs from his eyes. This thing is bad news, one part of a series of happenings destined to bring us closer to “The End of Da Woild.” Others include a dead dog (who makes three “jump scare” appearances—poor creature), lines from Terry’s favorite album, and blood. The latter two are accidental; the former is courtesy of a lazy-ass would-be suitor for Al. Tasked with taking her deceased mutt down to animal control, he instead buries the pooch in that hellhole.
Though Al finds Glen annoying, she still has protective older sister feelings for him. She ditches her gal pals to spend time shooting rockets with Glen, and more than once takes the initiative to shield him from harm. Al has weird taste in friends, however. Besides Eric, her would be suitor, she has the Lee sisters, two annoying boy crazy teenage girls who refreshingly do not care about their appearance. One of them has hair that looks exactly like Peppermint Patty’s. None of Al’s friends express much surprise when Glen is actually levitated during some kind of mind over matter group experiment during a party. After Glen’s head smashes through a light fixture on the ceiling, the girl conducting the levitation experiment says “I guess I won’t be doing that again!”
Glen is freaked out because unnecessary floating is yet another sign of impending demon damnation. When teased by his peers, Glen tells his detractors to “suck my nose until my head caves in!” The non-believers barely have time to retort. All hell breaks loose, putting Al, Glen, Terry and Peppermint Patty-haired girl in grave danger. Zombies come out of walls, huge moths break windows and the tiny demons show up to drag two of the characters to Hell. Glen’s parents, whom he has been begging Al to call since the beginning, finally show up to choke the shit out of their son. “You’ve been BAAAAA-AAAD!” says Glen’s dad as he picks Dorff up by the neck. He must have seen Somewhere.
Throughout The Gate, there’s an undercurrent highlighting the power of the family unit. Parents are seen as a huge importance to their kids, and the day is saved primarily by fraternal love. Though it has a comedic punchline, The Gate treats the scene where the kids reach for their Bible seriously. By film’s end, one’s faith and familial love can bring back not only the dead but also one’s lost sneaker. Takács and company don’t beat the viewer over the head with this, but these ideas were prevalent enough for me to take notice. There’s nothing wrong with this; I just found it interesting.
If you can get in touch with your inner 12-year-old, The Gate is a pleasant diversion. I felt the same enjoyment I did on first viewing. But one warning: Takács has never met a cheesy, off-the-wall effect he didn’t like, as evidenced by his current SyFy Channel movies, Mansquito and Mega Snake. The Gate is far better than both of these, and scarier too. Just know what you’re in for before you press play.
The Odienator has several hit records you can play backwards at Roger Ebert’s Demanders Blog, Tales of Odienary Madness and Big Media Vandalism. Management not responsible for potential demon invasions.