[All this week, leading up to our top ten horror films on Halloween, the staff at Flixist will be presenting ‘Scared Flixist.’ Here we will be talking about movies that really, truly scared us. There’s plenty of great horror out there, but a movie that truly gets into your head and creeps you out for years to come is a rare creature. These are those movies.]
What I remember of the first time I saw The Gate is patchy. I was very young, most likely in second grade. I was at my friend’s house. It was day time. The rest is almost a fever dream of undead workmen, pint-sized demons, a hole in the ground that was the source of world-threatening evil, and a young boy hugging his dead mother, only for her to turn into a dead dog. I was approximately eight years old. What I watched was not intended for eight-year-olds, much less kids the age of the protagonists.
The Gate was one of those movies I always kept in the back of my mind, a nostalgic Pandora’s Box of horror just waiting to be reopened. Last week, I popped in the DVD of The Gate to refresh myself for this article. I had to fill in the blanks. Would this movie prove to be as relentlessly scary now as it was then? Only time would tell.
A brief tangent, if you’ll indulge me. I don’t remember being as scared by The Gate as I was by Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, a film I saw at night when I was a few years older. I watched a man with metal claw fingers appear in a girl’s dreams while she was lifting a barbel, push said barbel down until it broke her arms, cockroach arms grew out of the wounds, then she ran through her house, fell in some goo, which tore off her face revealing a roach face, only for her to realize she was in a roach motel, which Freddy Kruger crushed with his hand. He then quipped something to the effect of, “They can check in, but they can’t check out.” To a young me, the horrible realization set in that this man could get me in my dreams. I began to pray that night, something that continued for years, and for a long time every pray would end with me asking God not to let Freddy Kruger get me. Eventually, a long time later, I had a dream about him. Then I woke up, alive and without a scratch on me. I knew the whole time that my fear of him was irrational, but…what if? Anyway, after that dream I realized this stuff can’t hurt me, and a steely resolve was formed. I watched every horror film I could get my hands on, and I still do. Finding something that makes me feel that pit of dread in my stomach is rare, and has become what some might call an obsession. Freddy Kruger made me the horror fan I am today by scaring the hell out of me.
So why, you ask, is this article about The Gate and not NMOES 4? Simple: I clearly repressed a lot of memories from that day The Gate came on TV. Much like any child who suffers a severe trauma, I blacked most of it out, leaving only vague memories. Upon re-watching this film, uncensored and in its entirety, there’s a lot of stuff in there that should’ve given me nightmares for months, and maybe it did. Freddy might have scared the hell out of me, but The Gate, The Gate is something special.
For those of you not familiar, The Gate is about a boy named Glen, played by an adorable munchkin version of Stephen Dorff (Blade, that one Britney Spears music video), his older sister Al (Christa Denton), and his slightly creepy best friend/McLovin predecessor Terry (Louis Trip). Glen and Al’s parents leave them alone for the weekend and, through an admittedly ridiculous chain of coincidence, they summon the Old Gods and almost, almost end the world. A bunch of terrifying things happen over the course of their weekend, resulting in a pretty memorable battle between Glen, a child of 11 or so, and an ancient demon god.
Again, I mostly remember key points of the film, not my actual reactions. The synopsis I remembered was slightly off from what actually happens (playing a heavy metal band’s record backwards didn’t summon the demons, it wasn’t Glen’s mom who was dead, it was Terry’s, and the stop-motion demons looked much better than I remember), but I could see why I would’ve blocked most of the film out.
The film starts out creepy and manages to maintain it for most of the movie, amping it up to 11 during some portions (mostly the ones I remember). It begins with Glen walking through his house unable to find his parents or sister, despite a half-eaten dinner on the table. He begins to hear a creepy voice saying, “Ma-ma,” over and over. He follows the noise outside and up into his treehouse, only to find a creepy talking doll. Then the treehouse is struck by lightning and crashes to the ground. Then Glen wakes up. 25-year-old Sean was on the edge of his seat for the entire scene.
Glen, the central protagonist of the film, a young boy, is kind-of, sort-of partly responsible for summoning demons in his backyard. I mentioned the ridiculous chain of coincidence that leads to the whole thing unfolding, and it is certainly ridiculous. It starts when Glen gets a splinter and throws the bloody splinter into the giant hole left behind by the uprooting of a tree struck by lightning, then he and Terry crack open a giant geode, then they read some ancient text that appears miraculously on a notepad, then during a party Al throws, a couple of the party-goers levitate Glen, then, and this is the best part, the douchebag that Al likes because he’s a jock or whatever dumps Glen and Al’s dead dog into the evil hole in their backyard. That’s when, literally, all hell breaks loose. To be fair to The Gate, Terry does explain that before the gate is fully open, the demons can influence people. Where did he get this knowledge? From the liner notes of a metal band named Sacrifyx. Who all died in a plane crash after their sole album, inspired by the Necronomicon Dark Book, was released.
Anyways, by the end of the film, this kid, not much older than I was at the time has to face down an Old God. I (appropriately) had no idea who Lovecraft was back then, or what Cthulhu was, and while these demons were clearly apeing H.P.’s material, the kid was still facing down a thing from before time, or whatever. And that’s just the climax.
Let me paint you a picture of the sheer horror of poor Glen’s situation: Imagine facing these horrible, horrible things, trying to escape through your front door, and seeing your parents. Obviously, you’d breath a sigh of relief. Y’know, until your father begins strangling you while screaming demonically about how “You’ve…been…baaaaad!” Then you shove your hand into his face to try and escape and your hand shoves his face in. You just had your hand in your demon father’s head. Inside it. WHAT!?
That’s when the demons show up. They’re tiny, and a little goofy looking, but there’s an ass-ton of them. You know that scene in Jurassic Park: The Lost World when all the compies swarm that one guy and eat the hell out of him? Kind of like that. But demons. Being chased through the yard is scary enough, but then Terry goes and falls into the hole where the demons came from. Fffffffffffffffff. He makes it out just in time for more awful things to scar him for life.
You see, early on, before Mom and Dad leave, Glen tells his dad about how Terry told him about how one of the guys who built the house died on the job and the other guys buried him inside the house so they didn’t get in trouble. Now, Terry made this story up. That doesn’t stop the zombified workman from bursting through a wall, grabbing Terry, and dragging him back into the wall, which seals up behind him. Then, after appearing in a mirror and chasing Glen and Al around the house, getting shot in the head with a shotgun, shrugging it off, he grabs Al and disappears with her too. That’s pretty scary, and probably why I was so scared of Zeke the Plumber in that one episode of Salute Your Shorts that followed.
So, Glen is all alone now to face whatever’s coming next. This kid, eleven years old, is all alone with the demon apocalypse bearing down on him. As he runs upstairs, he notices the giant demonic symbols written on the walls of his house in what looks like blood and guts, and for all he knows, his sister and best friend’s blood and guts. Then he faces down the head demon, discovers he has an eye in the center of his hand which he ends up stabbing with a shard of glass, then shoots a goddam model rocket into the Old God like a boss, which blows the demon up like a goddamn Mega Man X maverick.
Then Al and Terry and Glen’s dog all turn up alive and well, somehow, and the film ends with the three kids sitting on the front stoop of Glen and Al’s all-but-destroyed house. How do their parents react? How the hell is the dog alive again? How are these kids not gibbering, brain-damaged husks? They don’t tell you. All they leave you with is that the sun’s shining and all is well.
I can absolutely see why I would’ve repressed the memories of this film. There’s a lot of stuff in it that would have, and probably did, scar young me. How does it hold up? I enjoyed it well enough, and it was nice to see the whole thing and watch how all the pieces of my shattered memories fit together. It didn’t rend my soul like it did when I was little, but I can see why it would have. In retrospect, the mind-melting horror is split pretty evenly with a hard-to-swallow chain of events leading to the demons getting free, cheesy scenes, and the fact that Al’s friends, the antagonistic Lee sisters (both of whom have enjoyed long, healthy acting careers post-The Gate, unlike two-thirds of the main characters), and Al’s romantic interest, Captain Douchebucket (shockingly not the character’s actual name) all get away scott-free. The Lee sisters get scared a little bit, but the worst the jock gets, the same jock who dumped Glen’s dog (completing the requisite sacrifice) into the hole in the backyard out of convenience, is shot down later on by Al when he and his friends show up to party after Glen, Al, and Terry all wrongly assume they’ve sealed the gate. When the Lee sisters found time to invite these guys to party in between screaming and crying while the main characters do all the actual work remains to be seen.
All in all, The Gate is not a film to share with your eight-year-old. Like I said, it hasn’t held up all that well, but is great as a fairly original 80’s horror film. There are genuine moments of foreboding and terror, as described above, but I’ve spent all the years since my initial viewing of that film tempering my nerve to a superhuman degree. As a result, I’m not the best judge of what’s actually scary anymore, but I can understand why this movie would scare the ever-loving bejeezus out of someone.
If you haven’t seen this film, track it down. It’s a lot of fun. I got my copy for like $15 on Amazon. There’s also a sequel starring Terry that I’ve never seen (I do believe the DVD is out of print), but if I could find a copy I would drop everything I was doing and watch it ASAP. A remake is in the works, supposedly, and if it is able to capture half of the ludicrous horror situations, I will be first in line to see it.
Hell, I’ll be first in line anyways.