The Gate is a simple tale of a pair of twelve year olds who have to deal with the sudden appearance of a gateway to hell in their back garden.
A side effect of Spielberg’s meteoric ascension through the 80s was that kids in peril became shorthand for big bucks, so it was only natural that somebody would give a kids horror film a try.
The problem was how to get such a property to its target audience, the BBFC in particular were really hitting their stride by the late 80s and had decided that emotions such as fear, terror and horror were best kept away from impressionable minds.
If a film was deemed too scary it was slapped with an age restricted certificate prohibiting its intended audience from viewing it. Such a fate befell 1987’s The Gate, a simple tale of a pair of twelve year olds who have to deal with the sudden appearance of a gateway to hell in their back garden.
My teenager returned from a sleepover recently and cheerily told me that she had watched the entire Scream trilogy. Controlling what a child views is becoming increasingly difficult in these modern times and in recognising that I can’t shut down every screen in her proximity I’ve instead tried to teach the teenager to make informed choices.
So instead of yelling in her face about the untold damage she may have done to her fragile sensibilities, I asked why she chose to watch the Scream movies.
“Because we wanted to be scared” was the answer and quite an obvious one really. I thought about what I was watching at 13 (a lumbering one-man-slaughterhouse in a hockey mask) then I thought of pots, kettles and the colour black. Still, we had a conversation about appropriate viewing and how there’s plenty of scary films out there more suitable to an impressionable mind. “Like what?” came the response and an opportunity to show The Gate to the correct audience suddenly presented itself.
I personally love The Gate. Like all ‘kids in peril’ films the central conceit is fairly ludicrous but the way it’s put across is so lovably daft. The hole to hell appears when a night time storm blows down an old tree, then things exacerbate when the pair of friends at the centre of the story accidentally read an incantation that has mysteriously appeared on an etch-a-sketch, unleashing demonic terror upon the household.
It doesn’t help that this happens when the parents are away and big sister is in charge creating a wonderful mix of unholy terror and childhood concern.
As befits the protagonists the demons tend toward more prankish behaviour than the soul shredding horror that you might expect. They kill the dog, they turn made up stories of dead people in the walls a reality and they make one kid believe his dead mother has come back to life. Okay that last one is bad taste for a prank, but they’re not dragging anybody’s entrails through their eye sockets. These are distinctly kid level scares.
No CGI safety net
Then there’s the creatures themselves. A wonder to behold, they’re tiny – barely scraping a foot and a half tall – and yet they terrified the teenager.
“I don’t like them, they move funny” was the response when they first appeared. I pointed out that if one appeared in real life a well placed kick would probably sort things out given their stature, “The problem is they look like they could appear in real life” and it became clear why these Demons were so terrifying to my teenager. She’s grown up watching movies, she knows they’re make believe, but she’s grown up through the era of CGI effects and what unsettled her most about these bothersome beasties were that they were real.
There was no CGI in 1987, if you wanted an impossible monstrosity to appear you usually used stop motion, green screens, back projection and animation, it looked fake and thus safe. As real as CGI is nowadays, the brain still reassures you that it’s not real, it’s fake, it’s safe.
What elevates The Gate to the next level is that their tiny demons were men in suits but filmed using some of the most ingenious forced perspective ever put to film (yeah, better than Lord Of The Rings) and so their movements are real and natural. The teenager fidgeted whenever they appeared and when the evil is vanquished at the end she breathed a genuine sigh of relief.
“So which is scarier, Scream or The Gate?” I asked.
“Definitely The Gate”
“So next time you want a scary move at a sleepover you could watch The Gate, right?”
“No way Dad, we would like to get some sleep on a sleepover, the Scream films were just murder mysteries they wouldn’t give us bad dreams like The Gate.”
I’m not sure if I succeeded or failed. Wes Craven’s probably spinning in his grave though. Sorry Wes.
For more spine-chilling thrills to watch over Halloween, check out our complete 31 days of horror movies list.