Fans of Jumanji (and defenders of it as a still-scary kids’ horror movie) rejoice, we finally have our very own, grown-up version in Beyond The Gates. The debut feature from Jackson Stewart, who co-wrote the script alongside Final Girl‘s Stephen Scarlata, is a proudly, defiantly old-school, eighties-style adventure horror movie for adults that will transport you back to a time when the scary Klingon dude on the TV felt like he might actually pull you in if you didn’t finish the game in time (just me?).
Naturally, since this is 2016, the titular game (a gloriously goth creation incorporating an musty old VHS tape that begs to be played) is hosted by a wonderfully dry Barbara Crampton, shot in monochrome and resplendent in crisp, all-white, flowing robes. Crampton is, by all accounts, a cameo but she provides some of the funniest lines in an already whip-smart script. Finding themselves at her mercy are brothers John (Chase Williamson, The Guest) and Gordon (Graham Skipper, The Mind’s Eye, Almost Human).
After inheriting their missing, presumed deceased father’s VHS store (shot on location at real-life emporium Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee, in LA) the two discover Beyond The Gates and end up playing it after realising the game may have ties to his whereabouts. Joining them is Gordon’s peppy girlfriend Margot (played by Scream Queen Brea Grant, of Rob Zombie’s H2, The Real Housewives Of Horror, Dexter, et al), who is stoked to be both finally meeting her boyfriend’s family, and playing what looks like a fun board game.
As a debut, this is staggeringly self-assured stuff. The premise is well-conceived, the story structured perfectly and the characters feel instantly relatable. Crampton’s horror caché will no doubt put the flick over with fans (as will the currently popularity of throwback hits such as Stranger Things) but it’s the central trio who make Beyond The Gates such a joy. They feel like friends from the outset, recognisable and real, from the simmering tension between the two brothers to the sweet ease of Gordon and Margot’s relationship.
Rather than spell everything out, their inner troubles are only hinted at, from an awkward bro hug upon their first re-connection, to a tense rendezvous at a dive bar with someone they’re pretty sure “is a date rapist”. The humour is deadpan as hell, which fits the material perfectly. It’s easy to see the re-watch potential with a film as instantly quotable as this (“I think you pissed it off” quips one character after a particularly odd encounter with the game) because the nods and references and details are all so rich.
And, although the up-and-coming, soon-to-be huge Skipper (a muse for filmmaker Joe Begos, who wrote his role in The Mind’s Eye specifically for him) does some of his best work here, looking even more like Herbert West than he did in Re-Animator: The Musical, it’s his co-star in that same show who steals the spotlight. Jesse Merlin (the voice of F.A.N.G. in Street Fighter V, don’tcha know) plays creepy shopkeeper Elric with such elegant stoicism he practically glides across the screen, intoning lines like “Only the game has the answers you seek” with an intense, and hilarious, earnestness.
He might only making a fleeting appearance, but Merlin is the standout in a film of terrific performances, well-matched by Skipper’s non-believer and his two slightly more open-minded cohorts. The biggest argument for a Beyond The Gates sequel, aside from the obvious, would be to see Elric in all his glory again. Elsewhere, the gore is out of this world but conservatively used (a voodoo doll sequence is particularly gruesome). Beyond The Gates is colourful and lively but it’s packed with great spooks, especially when the very literal gates appear down in the basement – a set that is pure Amblin wish fulfillment and will make eighties/nineties kids shriek with envy.
The opening titles and theme set the old-school tone immediately, but the flick has a few tricks up its sleeve, too. Nobody gets sucked into the TV, for example, which is a nice surprise. It’s more physical than that, more tangible and tactile. And, considering the wild premise, it wraps up in as reasonable and rational a manner as could possibly be expected. A thrilling, inspired and hugely appealing debut, prepare for Beyond The Gates to take pride of place in your DVD collection as a regular weekend re-watch. Now if only we had the game to play alongside it.
WICKED RATING: 9/10
Director(s): Jackson Stewart
Writer(s): Jackson Stewart, Stephen Scarlata
Stars: Graham Skipper, Barbara Crampton, Brea Grant, Jesse Merlin
Release: December 2016
Studio/ Production Co: Destroy All Entertainment
Length: 84 minutes