The Gate (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★
Glen (Stephen Dorff) realizes he’s in a dream. Unable to find his family in the house, he decides to make his way up to the treehouse, only for the tree that supports his place of play to collapse with a thunderous roar. Waking up the nightmare, Glen discovers men in the backyard cutting down the very same tree from his dream. This leaves a strange hole in the ground which instantly captures the curiosity of Glen and Terry (Louis Tripp), Glen’s best friend. Inside it, they find a geode of substantial size which they later discover as a part of an underworld where demons reside.
Written by Michael Nankin and directed by Tibor Takács, part of the sheer joy of watching “The Gate” is the way it opens its deeply-clenched claw of secrets and its willingness to push the envelope of entertainment through a mutualistic relationship between an interesting story and eye candy special and visual effects. But this isn’t to suggest that the film relegates its heart for ostentatious display of visuals.
On the contrary, the way it sets up its plot pays substantial attention to Glen, our protagonist, in terms of what or who is important to him. I especially enjoyed the small but tender moment between Glen and his father (Scot Denton) as the latter explains to his son why Terry, it seems, takes a certain pleasure in making up macabre stories in the attempt to scare Glen. The manner in which the father explains Terry’s situation makes a general statement about the household: it is loving, protective, and understanding.
A more overt relationship comes in the form of Glen’s yearning for his sister, Al (Christa Denton), to treat him continually like he is the most important figure in her life. Dorff is wonderful in projecting childish frustration when Al chooses her friends over him at times as well as commanding a childlike rapture when Al shows kindness to him, that he is special, a reminder that even though she is growing up and her priorities are on the verge of shift, the fact that they are siblings with a lot of love between them will never change.
After Glen and Al’s parents leave the house to their kids for the weekend, the material picks up considerably. While it is able to hold onto the fun of being home without adults around, the special and visual effects make their way to the forefront, beginning with an attempt of levitation during a party. I admired the writing’s creativity as Terry learns what exactly is inside the hole in his friend’s backyard. Once the knowledge of the hole’s nature is out in the open, the material is able to play with its horror elements in more blatant ways, from little demons that cause all sorts of trouble to a living dead being discovered in a bedroom wall.
The screenwriter has an understanding of what kids are scared of, best executed in the scene when Glen and Al let out a sigh of relief, after having faced horrific happenings in the house, because they think that the adults are back from their trip early. The couple that stand outside prove to be impostors when the “father” grabs his son by the neck and chokes the life out of him. What is scarier to kids than the idea of their most trusted figures suddenly turning against them?
Although the last act of “The Gate” drags, it is nonetheless well-written and directed. Instead of rehashing a cheap imitation and putting its young protagonists in peril with neither regard nor hope for how they would get out of their predicaments, it takes inspiration from cheaper fares and offers a work with fire and excitement.