Beyond The Gates (2016)

Beyond The Gates begins with a mother, father and their two young boys at the grand opening of their new video store. It is a moment tinged with hope for the future, but also, from our hindsight perspective, with tragedy – as is hinted by the grave look on the father’s face at the end of the sequence. This may, as text reveals, be the summer of 1992, a full year after Pioneer’s invention of the DVD and five or so years before the new format would kill off VHS, but the film’s opening credits – in which a VHS is shown being front-loaded into a VCR behind bright pink titles accompanied by the shimmering synths of Wojciech Golczewskis score – are steeped in the moribund modalities of the Eighties which were part, even by ’92, of the fast-fading past. It is already apparent that this will be a film about loss.

The rest of the film takes place in the present day, as those two boys, now adults, go on a quest for their father (Henry LeBlanc), now a drunken widower who vanished a few months earlier without trace. Gordon (Graham Skipper) had in fact skipped town years ago, but returns with his girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant) to help his younger brother John (Chase Williamson) clear out Daddy’s now dusty old VHS store. There they unearth an old VCR board game called ‘Beyond the Gates’, and before anyone has time even to say Jumanji or Zathura, they find themselves playing an outmoded game with their own lives – and their departed father’s soul – as the stake, even as their childhood home and garden transform into something like the set of Tibor Takács’ The Gate (1987).

Listen carefully, and you will discover that the brothers’ surname is Hardesty, shared with the hapless siblings from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – but every other reference here is to the era of Reagan, when these boys and their family were at their most integrated, nuclear and happy. Everything here screams the Eighties, from the red-and-blue lighting to the practical latex-and-splatter effects, and from the presence of Eighties scream queen Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator) as the game’s creepy video guide, to the casting of Skipper – best known for Joe Begos’ Eighties throwbacks Almost Human (2013) and The Mind’s Eye (2015) – in the lead rôle.

Look past the occultism and devilry on offer here, and the key theme of Beyond The Gates, dressed up in all the trappings of nostalgia, is lost childhood. As the estranged Gordon and John reunite to play together once more, they are also facing their own past demons, and the ambivalent legacy of alcoholism bequeathed to them by their father. The poster, prominent in their father’s store, for a fictitious film called WereDad perfectly captures the duality of this now absent figure in their memory, both loving carer and aloof, intoxicated monster – and unless the boys can resolve their feelings about him, there can be no escape from their inner hell.

Co-written with Stephen Scarlata (Jodorowsky’s Dune), Jackson Stewart’s feature debut begins and ends with images inside a VCR machine of a VHS’s tape being exposed and unspooled – much like what happens to a character’s guts in a central scene – beyond the gate of the cassette’s cover flap. The film is relatively short at well under 90 minutes, but it is also slowly paced, seeing this lost format and its associated history off with due ceremony to its final resting place.

© Anton Bitel