For me, and maybe some others, Beyond The Gates felt like a bait-and-switch. By means of explanation, I’m a big Barbara Crampton fan. Even though I haven’t seen her that much over the years, her memorable turns in the cult H.P. Lovecraft double bill of The Reanimator and From Beyond, made me a fan for life, and when I saw We Are Still Here earlier this year, I was ecstatic to see her return to the genre. So yeah, when I saw her name attached to this movie, I kept an eye on the release date. Unfortunately, while she plays a pivotal role in the plot, her scenes amount to headshots that might last about 5 minutes of screen time if run back to back. Disappointing to say the least, but that’s coming from a fan. She’s underused, and probably what the biggest chunk of the budget was spent on. She’s also listed as a producer, but that could mean she was pivotal in securing funding or a distribution deal.
But what about the actual movie? Well, it’s on the middle end of the spectrum. A little less quality and it might be terrible, a little more and it could have been much better. The story is pretty simple: two estranged brothers discover a video/board game while cleaning out their missing father’s video store and are sucked into a supernatural world of terror while being forced to play the game. I’ve read a number of comments comparing the plot to that of Jumanji, which surprises me – the natural parallel is the other Chris Van Allsburg adaptation, Zathura. The trouble in making a comparison to either of those movies is that they have pretty dynamic plots and set pieces, none of which can be found in Beyond The Gates. That isn’t a criticism as such, since they are both adventure movies, and Beyond The Gates is a supernatural thriller. I stop short of calling it horror because, other than some incongruous gore effects, there’s nothing particularly scary about it.
I definitely have more negative things to say about the movie, so I’ll get them out of the way first because it doesn’t deserve a truly negative rating and I’d rather end on a positive note. Disclaimer aside, I definitely have significant issues with the movie. Sure, not enough Barbara Crampton. BIG minus there, but the pacing of the movie is really off. For a movie that’s less than 80 minutes long, writers Stephen Scarlata and Jackson Stewart (Stewart also directed) spend way too much time setting up the story with an overextended first act that introduces the characters but does very little in advancing the plot. Like I said, less than 80 minutes. It took until just around the halfway point to get into the meat of the story, and it was right around then I started looking at the clock. The story up to then is not boring at all, but the plot flows like the proverbial molasses, and there’s no real sense that stakes are being raised as high as I felt they should be. This has a huge effect on the ending too, because once the movie hits the hour mark, the ending feels compressed and rushed and lacks the authenticity that cast and crew have built up to that point – very disappointing, especially because the plot itself is full of stops and starts throughout. Just when something does happen, the characters either go to bed, or the movie cuts to the next day, effectively putting the brakes on the narrative, and when the story starts up again, it frequently cuts to supporting characters that are so thoroughly uninteresting (and in the case of an antique store owner, just flat out ridiculously camp) that I found my finger hovering on the advance button.
Then there’s the matter of the game itself. I’m a casual gamer, but me and my friends do a biweekly game night and I’ve been exposed to lots of different boardgames over the years, so I have a wee bit of experience here when I say that the actual Beyond The Gates game is very poorly realized. It didn’t feel to me that there was much time spent in trying to create a game that could have been real, so in that respect the entire movie revolves around something that plays like a Maguffin, not a truly organic plot, and I was pretty disappointed with this also – but I could actually say the same about Zathura, so not a major problem.
Ok, so what’s so good about the movie? Well, quite a bit, I thought. Like Zathura, this is a movie about two brothers who find within themselves the capacity to connect with each other, and they’re played very well. Gordon, the stuffed shirt, is played by Graham Skipper who gives a much better performance than he did in The Mind’s Eye, and Chase Williamson (John Dies At The End) plays likeable-but-directionless brother John. Both actors were solid, and Skipper actually has the tougher job of the two given the nature of the character (even though the depth he’s given via a telegraphed reveal is unconvincing). The other actors don’t fare so well in comparison. Brea Grant, of TV’s Heroes fame has a mostly forgettable “girlfriend” role and her character doesn’t actively contribute much to the plot. As someone who appreciates what good character work can bring to the horror genre, the writing of both brothers, especially in that overlong first act, is really good. I felt that Scarlata and Stewart were really on point here, and it’s clearly where their strengths are as writers. I enjoyed the movie more every time both brothers were together, and less so when the story had to move to the next plot point.
Look, I get that indie movies don’t have money to spare, but “indie v studio” is mostly a stupid argument. I’ve seen better indie horror movies than I have studio horror movies, and the big difference is in the writing. You either nail your concept and characters or you don’t – it’s true whether your budget is half a million or ten million. In Beyond The Gates, Scarlata and Stewart do half the job. They wrote a movie that feels right when their main characters are on the screen, but failed to come up with a strong, engaging plot for them. The result is a movie that starts off well, but ends up as a largely forgettable 80s-themed throwback. I can see promise in these guys if they work together on another picture, but at the moment they’re no Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Resolution and Spring).
© Andrew Hope 2016