Apr 4, 2017

The Gate

Out of all the people I have ever known, only one person truly gave me the distinctly visceral feeling that, on some strange and indescribable spiritual level, I knew them my entire life, as if our souls were always intertwined long before we had ever actually met. Indeed, aside from arriving at more or less the same political views and wonderfully warped yet refined sense of humor, our aesthetic tastes were pretty much the same whether it be paintings, films, or music.  In a sort of innate and instinctual fashion, I could always pretty much predict what this individual would like or even used to like as a kid. In fact, even as children, we had many of the same favorite flicks, including ludicrously lame shit like the fantasy romcom Mannequin (1987) starring a considerably less STD-ridden Kim Cattrall as the titular character. Out of all the childhood movies that standout in my mind, the quasi-Lovecraftian Canadian ‘supernatural horror’ flick The Gate (1987) directed by Hungarian-Canadian Tibor Takács (I, Madman aka Hardcover, Spiders 3D) is certainly best of the films that we both loved as kid. Not unlike with the pleasantly primitive stop-motion celluloid nightmare The Equinox... A Journey into the Supernatural (1970) directed by Jack Woods and Dennis Muren and Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979), Takács’ film is one of those oh-so-rare phantasmagorical horror fantasies that I randomly watched at a very young and impressionable age which left me in a virtual trance due to its surreal imagery and sometimes oneiric essence, yet it would not be many years later until I learned the actual name of the film and was able to finally re-watch it. Unfortunately, unlike Phantasm and, to a lesser extent, The Equinox, The Gate is not nearly enthralling for me as an adult as I discovered during a recent viewing, though I would still argue that it is one of the greatest, if not greatest, ‘kiddy horror’ flick ever made as a cleverly constructed cinematic nightmare that was clearly specifically tailored for the nuances and specific fears of the vulnerable juvenile mind.  Centering around a boy that is only concerned with his dog, family, and nerdy best friend, the film is a strangely beautiful reminder of the simplicity of childhood and the grave seriousness that some kids have for things that adults barely even think about.  Wholesome in the best sort of way but hardly politically correct (for example, the timeless word “fag” is thrown around a couple times), Takács’ film very well may be the best introductory film for both child horror movie novices and adolescent would-be-metalheads.  In short, showing a little kid The Gate is indubitably the cinematic equivalent of handing them a CD of Slayer's classic third album Reign in Blood (1986), though you certainly do not need to be a budding metal-fag to enjoy the film.

 Fairly similar to the innately inferior and horrendously directed Canadian horror flick The Pit (1981) aka Teddy—a major mess of a movie directed by one-time filmmaker Lew Lehman (who notably directed his own daughter in a nude scene!) about an insufferably autistic preteen whose only friend is a teddy bear and who feeds people to bloodthirsty ‘troglydytes’ (or what he calls “Tra-la-logs”) that live in a pit near his house—Takács’ film is certainly not an auteur piece as a highly collaborative effort that was the brainchild of screenwriter Michael Nankin (Midnight Madness). In fact, Nankin originally intended to direct the film himself and envisioned it as a much darker and more adult orientated film about bad kids who sadistically kill animals and ultimately rightly face a sort of demonic justice.  Needless to say, adult oriented films featuring kid protagonists are not exactly popular, so the film was later changed into a soundly sentimental yet quasi-satanic scare-fest about kids that was made for kids.  Indeed, Takács assembled a film with a little kid cast that virtually every kid can identify with, including a sensitive yet likeable wuss protagonist, his sexually developing big sister, and four-eyed metalhead nerd friend.

A somewhat surprisingly allegorical film that examines the most common fears and anxieties associated with childhood, The Gate screenwriter Nankin once notably described the demonic monsters in the flick as follows, “The demons in most good horror films are metaphorical [and] representational for darker feelings, darker emotions; they are the demons within us. THE GATE is about guilt and is about Glen the hero kid’s fear of abandonment . . . His parents leave for the weekend . . . His sister is drifting away from him. Everyone’s leaving him. And these fears are basically what are the catalyst for the demons to come out.” Indeed, the boy protagonist of the film played by a very young Stephen Dorff—the mischling star of popular cinematic works ranging from Blade (1998) to John Waters’ Cecil B. Demented (2000) to Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010)—has some serious yet fairly realistic psychological issues that include guilt and an unwavering fear of abandonment.  A rare 1980s horror movie that is devoid of scatological stupidity, hokey humor, retarded jokes, and tasteless titillation, The Gate is a somewhat startlingly emotional horror-drama for kids about a well meaning wimp with strong principles that is forced to develop a certain degree of testicular fortitude after he and his four-eyed comrade unwittingly reawaken the Old Gods in the former's backyard. 

While many film critics and reviewers seem to assume that The Gate was Takács’ debut feature, the Magyar film director actually began his feature-length filmmaking career with the rarely-seen kitschy yet vaguely avant-garde sci-fi-musical-cum-dystopian-parable Metal Messiah (1978), which was based on a controversial stageplay by fellow Hungarian Stephen Zoller (who later produced Takács’ totally trying turd 984: Prisoner of the Future (1982)) and advertised as the, “ultimate space rock spectacle of the 1970’s.” Undoubtedly, watching Metal Messiah—a film that has never been released on DVD and thus only exists today in extra shitty quality VHS form—a couple years ago was, to some extent, somewhat akin to first watching The Gate was a kid in the sense that I found it to be a somewhat unpredictable and strangely beauteous phantasmagoric nightmare that suggests that Takács might have had the potential to become a sort of bargain bin Fellini of genre cinema had his career taken a somewhat different and less television orientated route. While not exactly a true ‘auteur’ since he penned none of his best films, Takács is certainly a talented artisan with a distinct vision as is clearly apparent in his greatest films, including Metal Messiah, The Gate, and I, Madman, though both his artistic prowess and opportunities seemed to have fizzle out by the end of the 1980s just like the horror genre in general. Indeed, while Metal Messiah suggests he was a somewhat idiosyncratic artist with a special knack for creating otherworldly cinematic realms, it seems the surprise commercial success of The Gate resulted in Takács being left pigeonholed and relegated to directing corny kiddo crap, including various episodes of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch (1996-2003) starring Melissa Joan Hart and The Crow: Stairway to Heaven (1998-1999), among other hack work. Not unlike with kiwi auteur David Blyth, who went from directing sardonic avant-garde punk flicks like Angel Mine (1978) to subversive cult horror like Death Warmed Over (1984) to episodes of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, it seems Takács was forced to completely dispose of his artistic integrity to pay the bills. Of course, one cannot blame the filmmaker for being unable to top what is like suburban little kid equivalent to Fellini Satyricon (1969), as The Gate offers the ultimate surrealistic aesthetic overload for kids and acts as a virtual celluloid gateway drug to the wonderfully aesthetically decadent.  In that sense, it is only fitting that lead Stephen Dorff would go on to play Warhol superstar and alpha-tranny Candy Darling in Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol (1996).

 Although he may look like the average little kid from the suburbs, 12-year-old The Gate protagonist Glen (Stephen Dorff in his very first feature-film role) is a neurotic mess who has an overwhelming fear that his parents and 16-year-old sister big sister Alexandra aka ‘Al’ (Christa Denton) will soon abandon him. Indeed, Glen seems to have an ever growing hole in his somewhat wounded heart, which only gets bigger when an ominous hole appears in his backyard. At the very beginning of the film, Glen has an intricate nightmare where here comes home and discovers that his entire family has mysteriously vanished without a trace. In the same dream, Glen gets the scare of a lifetime when he enters his treehouse, which is immediately hit by lightning after he picks up a creepy vintage babydoll. Rather inexplicably, the next morning when he wakes up from the nightmare, he discovers that his treehouse was indeed hit by lightening and a big ugly gash is left in the ground where the tree once stood.  Naturally, Glen is excited, if not somewhat perplexed, to discover a Geode rock has been unearthed at the site.  Of course, Glen opts to dig further into the ground and is immediately bombarded with a deathly reek that absolutely repels him.  Unfortunately, Glen bleeds near the hole after pricking his finger on a piece of wood. While Glen has no clue yet, he has unwittingly begun to reawaken the long dormant Old Gods that have been imprisoned in an infernal underworld. Luckily, his weirdo nerdy metalhead friend Terry Chandler (Louis Tripp)—a kid that is rather cynical for his age due to the fact that his beloved mother recently died—has the knowledge and tools to fight these primordial demonic beings in the form of a very special European heavy metal band that might have inspired a very young Varg Vikernes of Burzum. 

 Unlike many kids his age, Glen becomes rather depressed when his parents tell him that they will be leaving for three days and his sister will by babysitting him.  For whatever reason, Glen has an irrational fear that there is a very good chance his parents will never come back if they leave.  Although Glen clearly deeply loves his sister, she has been recently treating him in a condescending fashion because she is a sexually budding teenager that wants to impress her lame friends and has a crush on some dude jock dude.  At one point early in the film, Al can be seen briefly admiring her own breasts and derriere, though she abruptly stops as if she is ashamed of her own behavior. Naturally, since her parents are gone, Al decides to throw a party the night they leave, though she does not let Glen or Terry join in on the festivities, at least at first. While his sister and friends are hanging downstairs and discussing the occult, Glen and Terry manage to break the Geode, which causes strange incantations written in an arcane foreign language to magically appear on a notepad.  Of course, the boys are also somewhat taken aback when the inside of the Geode begins to glow as if it has some sort of magical powers. Needless to say, Glen and Terry foolishly decide to read the incantations, thus further summoning demonic powers to invade the house.

When Al’s obnoxious teenage friends opt to attempt to levitate Glen during the party and it actually works so well that the protagonist manages to break a light upon floating up to the ceiling, they unwittingly perform another ritual that further awakens the Old Gods.  At this point, the Old Gods have enough power to emotionally terrorize the protagonists with phantoms and highly personalized nightmarish hallucinations. Indeed, that night, Terry is visited by an apparition of his dead mother and immediately embraces her, only to soon realize in a horrifically heartbreaking fashion that it is actually Glen’s beloved dog Angus and that he has accidentally strangled the poor creature to death. Meanwhile, as Terry dances with the demonic phantom, Glen is awakened by ominous moths and watches in abject bewilderment as the walls of his room begin to stretch as if they have come alive.  At this point, it is obvious that the house has become an extension of the demonic gate.  Of course, by killing Glen’s beloved canine friend and sadistically teasing Terry about his tragic longing dead mommy, the Old Gods are seeking to emotionally destroy and isolate the little lads so that they can be easily defeated and enslaved by demonic forces, but luckily they are tougher than they look.  Considering Glen's worst fear is losing his friends and family, it is only a matter of time before the Old Gods come for Al and Terry.  Indeed, unbeknownst to Glen, he is a passive pawn in a demonic game of quite literally hellish proportions.

 Terry may be a ludicrously lanky four-eyed turd of a boy that bitches like a sex-starved middle-aged woman and seems to suffer from Asperger's syndrome, but he is not afraid to embrace the dark side and is a rather devoted fan of obscure metal groups, especially a quasi-Satanic European group named ‘Sacrifyx’ whose foolish occultnik members all died in a plane crash shortly after releasing their first (and ultimately last) album.  By using Sacrifyx’s mysterious first album, which features excerpts from the ‘The Dark Book’—a sort of bible of demonology that features striking medieval demon art—Terry is eventually able to convince Glen that they have awakened the ‘Old Gods’ and thus they must seriously prepare for the worst lest they succumb to the darkness. Unfortunately, some handsome yet unbelievably stupid and careless teenage boy that is friends with Al tosses Angus’ corpse into the hole in the backyard, thus giving the Old Gods the power to begin unleashing various demons. While the boys recite excerpts from The Dark Book in the hope of stopping the Old Gods and naturally assume there problem is over with after noticing the hole is filled, the depositing of the dog’s corpse ultimately acted as an imperative final sacrifice to summon the demonic gods.  Indeed, from there, the serious demonic trickery begins and various menacing demonic entities begin lurking around the house for prey.

 That night after reading from The Dark Book and wrongly assuming their problems are over, the boys get a rude awakening in the form a violent swarm of moths crashing through Glen’s bedroom window and Angus’ glowing corpse magically appearing in Terry’s bed. Naturally, Al finally realizes things are not quite when grotesque demon arms almost pull her under a bed, but thankfully Glen and Terry manage to save her from the demonic being and then inform her of the sinister dark forces that are beginning to infiltrate their less than humble abode. Indeed, small and absurdly diminutive demonic beings known as ‘Minions,’ which resemble a cross between an ape, frog, and elderly ghetto negro, begin invading the house and taunting the protagonists.  As depicted in ancient images featured in The Dark Book, the Minions are savagely sadistic creatures that enjoy collectively dismembering human victims, among other things.  On top of that, two demons in the form of Glen's parents appear outside the house and the one in the form of his father begins choking the protagonist.  When Glen fights back, the demonic pseudo-father's face falls apart and a white semen-like liquid gushes from his neck.

After Al is almost attacked by a virtual army of Minions upon daring to investigate the backyard, Terry forces everyone into the basement in the hope of finding a way to defeat the demons and close the gate in The Dark Book, but it spontaneously bursts into flames, so they are forced to settle on a Bible. While Terry resolves to read from Psalm 59 and the gate seems to begin to close, he is a goofy know-it-all nerd and thus predictably falls into the hole before he can finish reading. After being bitten by a Minion are two and brutally crushing one of them by rapidly stomping on it, Terry somehow manages to crawl out of the hole and read from Genesis, which seemingly seals the hole for good, or so the heroes naively think. That night, the boys get quite the surprise when a rotten ‘Workman’ (Carl Kraines)—a zombie-like being based on fictional suburban folklore about a worker that ostensibly died while working on Glen’s family home—crashes through a wall and soon begins attacking the particularly petrified yet nonetheless pugnacious preteen protagonists. Unfortunately, the Workman soon pulls Terry inside a wall where he is trapped inside. The Workman also appears in a mirror while Al is admiring her own reflection, but she is a bad little bitch and soon destroys the zombie prole by throwing a stereo at him, though his body subsequently disintegrates into a dozen or so rather speedy Minions that scramble in different directions like cockroaches.  Somewhat similarly, when one of the Minions losses its arm, the limb disintegrates into a dozen or so speedy sperm-like creatures.  In other words, the demonic beings seem to be immortal.

Before the two know it, Terry reappears in an Übergeek demonic form and attacks Al, but it is ultimately the Workman, who reappears in a seemingly stronger form, that drags her to hell, thus leaving poor Glen to fend for himself.  Before succumbing to the Workman, Al seemingly kills the demonic Terry by violently stabbing him in the eye with the legs of a cheap plastic Barbie doll in a surprisingly shocking and subversive scene.  As a result of both his big sis and best bud being consumed by the gate, Glen’s single worst fears—being alone and helpless—comes true. As a result of both Terry and Al being ‘sacrificed,’ the gate finally fully opens and a large and grotesque serpentine-like demon named ‘The Demon Lord’ appears and literally congratulates Glen for unwittingly opening the gates for the Old Gods by warmly patting him on the head like a good boy. Indeed, in what proves to be a a more bitter than sweet moment of dark irony for the young protagonist, the demon leader credits Glen for the infernal invasion and treats him as a comrade.

As a result of having his hand touched by the Harryhausen-esque alpha-demon, an erratic eyeball appears on the palm of Glen’s hand. Naturally, the demon is not too happy when Glen acts like an awful ingrate, rejects his new demonic status, and opts stab his new tweaker-like hand-eye. In what ultimately proves to be an absurd, albeit fitting, Deus ex machina of sorts, a powerful toy rocket—a symbol of the protagonist’s love for his sister and vice versa (or what the protagonist describes as, “love and light”)—is ultimately used by Glen to kill the dreaded Demon Lord. In fact, the rocket not only kills the big bad demon by blowing its body into seemingly millions of pieces, but it also closes the gate for good. In what ultimately proves to be the most patently absurd yet reasonably fitting of happy endings, Al, Terry, and even dog Angus emerge from closets and return to Glen in the end. Naturally, Glen is so happy to have all his loved ones back that he is not even worried about the fact that his parents’ house is completely destroyed and that he will probably be grounded for the rest of his childhood.  Of course, the entire experience has not only brought him closer to his sister and best friend, but has also transformed Glen from a whiny wimp to a real mensch.

 Admittedly, recently re-watching The Gate proved to be an extremely, if not quite unexpectedly, bittersweet experience that stirred emotions in me that I did not really anticipate, namely a sort of melancholic nostalgia that came as a result of my realization that I have become quite cynical and have lost all innocence.  While it is easy to make fun of the boy protagonist and his sheltered suburban life, the film was certainly made with clear good intentions and is surely not the production of some scheming producer that was looking to make a quick easy buck on morally bankrupt cheap thrills.  Indeed, the film might be silly, sappy, and sentimental in certain regards, but it does have a genuinely wholesome message about the importance of friends and family in a cinematic work that truly proves the platonic love conquers all and that the only thing that really matters in life is your love ones, including your dog. Indeed, forget Jack Clayton’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984), The Monster Squad (1987), the classic Stephen King miniseries It (1990), and even Nicolas Roeg’s classic Roald Dahl adaptation The Witches (1990), Takács’ film is indubitably unrivaled in terms of its purity of soul and spirit as far as authentic kiddy horror is concerned. It goes without saying that I certainly cannot imagine such a film being made nowadays, as it would probably be plagued by a morally dubious message, token non-Europids and/or mystery meat mongrels, and repugnant video-game-like CGI effects (of course, it should be noted that Judaic Brit Alex Winter has been planning to direct a 3D-remake for a number of years, but thankfully it no longer seems like it is happening). Unfortunately, I can only recommend Takács' innately inferior sequel Gate 2: The Trespassers (1990), which only features Louis Tripp, to die-hard fans of the first film and nihilistic horror film completists.

 Undoubtedly, The Gate was probably the last film to feature great and uniquely unforgettable stop-motion animation special effects in the spirit of German-American maestro Ray Harryhausen. Aside from that, the film is also notable for being the last filmic work to feature matte paintings created by British master Albert Whitlock, who previously created striking visual effects for classic Alfred Hitchcock flicks like The 39 Steps (1935) and The Birds (1963), Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (1976), John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), David Lynch’s Dune (1984), and countless films by Disney and Universal Studios. Additionally, the main special effects guy behind the film was Randall William Cook, who did some interesting work on cult flicks like Larry Cohen’s Q (1982), Tom Holland’s Fright Night (1985), and Ate de Jong’s underrated neo-Orphic horror-fantasy Highway to Hell (1991) and would later become famous for his work on Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Somewhat surprisingly, Cook and director Takács mention in the featurette THE GATE: Unlocked that, in terms of the film's somewhat understated comedic content, they were influenced by old school Hollywood greats like Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder and not the sort of kitschy low-camp crap that is typical of horror. 

 If the bastard grandson of Jean Cocteau attempted to direct a sort of Lovecraftian neo-fairytale for angst-ridden preteens from American suburbia, it would probably resemble The Gate. Indeed, in terms of the film's idiosyncratic use of practical special effects, including mirrors, it can be compared to classic Cocteau flicks like Beauty and the Beast (1946). While the big kids and adults of the 1980s may have had the luxury of experiencing the surrealistic slasher scenarios of the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, the little kids certainly got an equally cool, surreal, and playfully phantasmagorical equivalent in the form of Takács’ film. Indeed, I can imagine many of the fans of the film would, for better or worse, grow up to become Aleister Crowley and/or Anton LaVey fanboys and fangirls. I certainly cannot deny that the film probably had some influence on my lifelong love of the dark side, whether it be the early albums of deathrock band Christian Death, the satantic Nietzschean strangle tales of Hanns Heinz Ewers, or my unhealthy, albeit rather eclectic, taste in horror cinema ranging from German Expressionism like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) to old school American cult horror like Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) to no-budget kraut artsploitation like Jörg Buttgereit’s NEKRomantik (1987).

Undoubtedly, if I ever have kids, which is questionable due to my increasingly shitty health and complete and utter disillusionment with dames and relationships, I will be sure to show them The Gate at a very young and impressionable age.  I can certainly remember my somewhat hidden excitement when the girl that shared the same political, aesthetic, and comical tastes as me revealed that she also loved the film as a child, which is rather fitting since she reminds me of a more beauteous version of the character Al.  Indeed, although I certainly do not want to sound like some faggot feminist cuck that gives girls credit where credit is not due, The Gate also has the distinction of featuring a rare example of a likeable and memorable teenage girl character and not the sort of completely phony and fiercely feministic all-competent ‘Mary Sue’ archetype that is quite typical of Hollywood films nowadays.  In short, it is hard to find anything to dislike about the film, but one should not expect anything less from a surreally demonic Pandora's Box story where teenage girls say sassy things like “fagging off,” a morbidly cynical preteen metalhead slow dances with a dead dog that has taken the form of his dead mother, and a very young and neurotic Stephen Dorff cries like a little girl after falling victim to the darker side of levitation.

-Ty E

No comments: