Sunday, January 15, 2017

Beyond the Gates (2016)

Gordon (Graham Skipper) returns to his hometown because his father has disappeared. It’s not the first time the alcoholic has gone AWOL, but this time, it seems to have stuck.

So Gordon has to reunite with his brother John (Chase Williamson), who stayed behind when Gordon left town and their father for good, to pack up their father’s house and the obsolete video store he owned. Both brothers have obviously suffered from abuse by their dear dad. As a consequence John as a young-ish man has turned into the sort of charming fuck-up who might soon replace the “charming” with criminal, dead, or drunk, and Gordon has difficulties to not turn into his father, fighting alcoholism and a tendency to violent outbursts. His girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant) is coming to help sort through dad’s baggage too – after all, that’s what she’s been doing for Gordon for some time now, it seems.

Going through their father’s old office, John and Gordon find that most 80s of things – a VCR board game. There’s something strange going on with the game, though: the somewhat sinister woman (Barbara Crampton) on the game’s video tape tells the brothers the game is the only way to save their father’s soul, and might react to what’s going on around it, which is disquieting enough, but soon, board game and reality start to mix in sometimes bloody ways, turning the lives of the brothers and Margot into a fight for their life, limb and perhaps their very souls.

Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Door is a lovely bit of indie horror cinema, paying homage to the aesthetics of certain parts of 80s horror like a lot of films do these days, yet without falling into the trap of becoming too much of a copy of the style. Well, I’m not sure the film could actually afford to become one – this is after all a film where stepping into a different dimension happens via the movie magic of blue and purple lighting and some dry ice fog – but it is clear that Stewart knows what he’s doing in looks and tone.

I imagine some viewers will be frustrated by the film’s slow beginning and the rather budget conscious way it builds up to its climax, but I found myself charmed by the character interactions between the leads, appreciated how lacking in melodrama the treatment of the brothers’ backstories was, and generally found myself interested in these characters as people to observe for a movie’s length. Stewart is a pleasantly economic director of these character interactions, never letting things become too concise but also not falling into the trap of confusing the creation of believable people with long, rambling and pointless dialogue scenes. The film’s central metaphor on the other hand is as on the nose as they get, but that works out fine in a film taking its time for its characters as this one does.

Stewart treats the supernatural elements (Jumanji light – but with gore?) equally well, obviously putting all of his tiny budget on screen in a way that mostly works fine, demonstrates imagination and never descends into smugness. There’s fan enthusiasm even for the hokier parts of the horror genre that still doesn’t get in the way of the film’s own story, some pleasant macabre details, a smidgen of wonderfully gloopy gore, and Barbara Crampton glorying in her new role as queen of indie horror character actresses with some classy, controlled scenery chewing. Everything going on is rather small scale, of course, yet Stewart works so well with what he’s got, I enjoyed Beyond the Gates thoroughly, with a pleased grin pasted on my cynical old mug for much of its running time.

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