Rentals Revisited – The Gate (1987)

As mentioned in the book, Adventures in VHS began life as a series of articles for a site named Eat Sleep Live Film, which allowed me to revisit some of the wonderful movies I had rented on VHS as a child. These articles would see me rewatching theses films either on Blu-ray, DVD or through some digital format or other, to see how they held up as an older genre fan. I had originally planned to add them into the book, but in all honesty, they didn’t quite feel good enough. With that in mind, please bear in mind that they appear here today in their exact, original and unedited form – and are probably a bit shit.

The Gate (1987)

Medusa Home Video – MO103

(Originally posted April 29th 2011)

The arrival of the home VHS system was a ground-breaking event that should never be underestimated. From my perspective, it meant I’d no longer have to rely on my ceaselessly busy parents to take me to the cinema whenever I wanted to watch a film, and for them, it was a great way to keep me out of trouble.

Back then, there were only four terrestrial TV channels available in the UK and it seemed as if they only had space for snooker and Challenge Anneka. It should also be kept in mind that even if there was a film to watch on television, it would be unlikely to have been made in the decade prior. Nowadays, the gap between theatrical and terrestrial TV premieres is short, but in the mid-eighties you’d struggle to find anything that could live up to the excitement of what was happening down the road at the local cinema.

Luckily for me, my parents liked movies and were keen to take advantage of this great new technology that allowed us to have them in our front room at a time that suited us. Therefore, it was perhaps the convenience of VHS more than anything else that led to us being such early adopters of the format. I remember with great affection the colossal grey Hitachi top-loader that sat proudly in the corner of our living room, with its sleek brushed-aluminium buttons, flip-down plastic tracking panel and giant, green LCD display. This beautiful machine would be our reliable servant for well over a decade and was finally replaced – not because it was no longer up to the job – but because slimmer, sexier models with long/short play had become the norm.

It’s certainly true that this giant silvery monolith acted as a kind of anarchic babysitter from about the age of eight. But in addition to the secret stories of sex and death it would whisper to me when there was no-one else around, it also found time to get the whole family together for some out and out film fun – which brings me nicely to Tibor Takacs’ 1987 horror-adventure, The Gate.

So far, in writing this column, I’ve had three genuinely pleasant surprises. From Beyond’s lurid colour palette and ambitious prosthetic effects uncovered something of a sleeping cult classic, while The Wraith served up some high octane, Charlie Sheen-induced vengeance. Even last week, Stuart Gordon’s Dolls managed to entertain me thoroughly and send one or two nostalgic shivers up my aged and cynical spine.

But while From Beyond, The Wraith and Dolls are all movies I rented on VHS as a child but remember very little about, The Gate is one I seemed to recall pretty vividly. Unlike the others, it was also a flick I felt would hold up on a rewatch some 20-odd years down the line. It was a solid little fantasy thriller, I thought to myself, and one that had some decent effects and a familiar Spielbergian charm. Turns out, I was wrong.

I’ve never been the biggest fan of Steven Spielberg. Now I know that sounds like me being my usual contrary self, but the truth is there are very few of his ‘classics’ I enjoy nowadays. I’m pretty lukewarm on Jaws, and while E.T. and Indiana Jones hit the right spot at the age of five, they just don’t hold the same magic for me today. To play devil’s advocate just a little more, I’d even say that of his films, I might count A.I., Minority Report and War of the Worlds as examples of his work I’d sooner discuss than Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jurassic Park – I can’t help it, it’s just the way I feel.

However, while I may not be the biggest Spielberg fanboy, I wholeheartedly doth my cap to his incredible directorial talent. This is a man who has not only mastered the technical art of movie-making; he’s also the undisputed champion of heart-warming family fantasies that harbour a dark and sinister heart. So why am I banging on about Spielberg in a review for a film directed by the man who would go on to helm Mosquito Man – A New Breed of Predator? Well, the thing is, watching The Gate reminds you just how good the likes of Spielberg and Dante are and how effortless they make this type of feature seem to create.

Suburban-home-terrorised-by-disturbed-hellmouth has been done so much over the years it could pretty much have its own sub-genre. From Tobe Hooper’s (or Steven Spielberg’s, depending on which stories you believe) Poltergeist to Joe Dante’s The Hole, we’ve seen how portals to the netherworld can play hell with local house prices. We’ll even see it again later this year when Troy Nixey and Guillermo Del Toro’s remake of Don’t be Afraid of the Dark finally hits theatres. But where all these films managed to conjure up a real sense of wonder and adventure, while retaining a more ominous core, The Gate just creaks along with very little to offer. Bad dialogue, ropey effects and a story with nothing to latch on to makes for a pretty dull and lifeless watch. Sure, it’s interesting to see a young Stephen Dorff and, as the nerdy, metal-obsessed sidekick, Louis Tripp gets the odd moment to shine, but the threat level is undercooked and I just couldn’t find the energy to care about what was playing out in front of me.

The Gate is the first film in this series of articles I could confidently say beforehand I expected to enjoy. I remembered it as a dark-edged children’s horror adventure with a decent budget and some fantasy action thrills. Unfortunately, it’s also the first film in this series to leave me disappointed and feeling that I’ve rewatched something that hasn’t stood the test of time. It’s sad, but I’d have to conclude that this is one which should remain buried deep at the bottom of the video garden.