Review: ‘Beyond the Gates,’ A Love Letter to 80s Horror

Jackson Stewart’s love letter to ‘80s horror has been making the festival rounds all year, and it’s been racking up kudos from the start. Beyond The Gates won the Nightfall Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival, its first outing, and since then, it’s been nothing but plaudits — and justifiably so. While some films heap on winking asides and wallow in nostalgia, Stewart’s directorial debut instead finds the ambiance of those classic VHS flicks and brings them into the modern era.

The plot of the film is pretty simple: brothers John and Gordon (respectively played by Chase Williamsonand Graham Skipper — late of The Mind’s Eye) reunite to clear out their father’s video store after his death. While doing so, they discover a VHS board game in dad’s office, and along with Gordon’s girlfriend, Margot (Brea Grant), they play the game, only to discover that it’s far more than it appears.

There’s a tremendous potential for Stewart to have played the film for laughs, throwing in a lot of tongue-in-cheek “how retro!” nods, but he chooses not to. If anything, Beyond the Gates is almost exactly like a ‘80s kid flick — Monster SquadThe Goonies, et al — but had the kids grown up and had to return to the life of weird and mysterious action once again.

Granted, it’s not all serious. A film like this would be unintentionally hilarious were it all played completely straight, and thanks to the excellent work of Jesse Merlin, there’s just enough giggles to really make the kills and darkly strange machinations of the game a little less ominous. As store owner Elric, Merlin is everything you loved about Roddy McDowell in Fright Night, crossed with just a soupcon of Paul Lynde. It’s a small role, but an absolute delight.

A lot of the credit in this film goes to producer and star Barbara Crampton. If you want a film that homages the ‘80s, it’s hard to do much better than one of the era’s most entertaining scream queens. However, rather than having Crampton play a woman in peril, she takes on the role of the titular board game’s hostess and takes on a completely different tack from that for which she’s best known. As Evelyn, Crampton’s role is very much that of a Barbara Steele character in one of her ‘60s films like Black Sunday or Castle of Blood. It’s been a delight to see her return to form in recent years, and this only serves to show that We Are Still Here and You’re Next were but warmups.

As the film progresses, strange things happen to the brothers, and Beyond the Gates manages to hit all the beats one would expect from a horror movie of this stripe, but always keeping this emotional core true and resonant. The brothers act like brothers, and there’s a bit of a past incident between Gordon and Margot which colors their relationship, but it’s still treated realistically.

The grounding of the fantastic in real-world relationships makes Beyond the Gates so much more enjoyable, because had Stewart gone with stereotypical character tropes and opted for broad, easy plot points, this would have been a quickly forgettable film. Thankfully, Stewart’s direction, and the cast’s portrayals, make this a film which almost immediately demands a second watch upon completion, if only so that you can show it to your friends and discuss.

Beyond the Gates is an IFC Midnight film and releases in theaters and VOD December 9.