*. The title suggested something Fulciesque to me, and as things got started it seemed that was clearly the way things were going. I think some of the score was even sampling Fulci’s music, or at least imitating it.
*. Apparently the title came from a quicky bio of Fulci by Chas Balun, so the borrowings were intentional. But more than that, this is a movie that is more like a general homage to the horror movies of the ’80s. Stuart Gordon is another presiding spirit, with the presence of Barbara Crampton (star of Re-Animator and From Beyond) being only the most obvious link to his body of work.
*. All of this is to the good, and ties in to the idea of a movie about a cursed VCR board game, which is found in the backroom of a retro video store (the location being an actual place in L.A.). This may sound like a stretch, but before Ringu you would have thought a movie about a cursed VHS tape was pretty stupid too. With the right combination of luck and talent any idea for a movie can work.
*. Of course such an idea invites a lot of knowing, ironic humour. From what I can tell, however, that isn’t the direction they wanted to go in. This isn’t a horror comedy. Instead it’s played straight. It’s not hipster horror, indulging in irony, and indeed when an unsuspecting hipster does appear at the very end we can smile at the thought of his being sent straight to hell.
*. Unfortunately, while I credit the direction they went in I don’t think Beyond the Gates is all that successful in getting there.
*. I think a big part of the problem is that the underlying idea wasn’t that well thought out. To start with a not-so-minor point: What are the rules of the game? What, for example, does rolling the dice accomplish? The pieces seem to be getting moved around on the board supernaturally anyway, and the cards are predetermined. Does strategy come into it at all? It just seems to me to be a scavenger hunt that Evelyn (the game’s host) has set up and is controlling from the Beyond.
*. This makes a difference, since there’s no clear connection between the game and what’s going on we can’t get that involved with what’s happening in it. We know the players have to find the keys, but like I say, that’s just a scavenger hunt that didn’t need the scaffolding of the game to introduce. So the game itself becomes kind of pointless.
*. The game also introduces some awkward moral questions. Apparently people that the players know, even total innocents, are to be used as sacrificial pawns during play. For the bar-fly character this seems like no big deal, but in the case of the stand-up cop it necessitates turning him into a homicidal maniac first. This struck me as rather forced.
*. What happened to the boys’ father anyway? Was he playing the game, or did he just get swept up with someone else’s game, like the cop and the bar-fly? This is another example of the vagueness of the game just confusing things and leaving us unsure about exactly what is going on.
*. You’d expect a movie like this, or at least I was expecting a movie like this, to be more of a gore-fest. Maybe it was the blurbs on the DVD box calling it “glorious, over-the-top, and blood-drenched,” as well as “a gutbucket load of gory fun.” In any event, it’s not a gory film. There are a few big kill scenes, with only one (also the quickest) standing out. That’s not a lot for a movie like this.
*. Without much gore, and playing off a very simple premise, we’re left with the characters. Some attempt is made to give the three leads a bit of depth (like dealing with alcoholism) but I didn’t think it worked. Instead, and not entirely unsurprisingly, the two most interesting figures are Evelyn, the game host, and Elric (Jesse Merlin) the spooky shop owner.
*. According to the DVD commentary director Jackson Stewart wanted Crampton to play Evelyn as a cross between Barbara Steele in Black Sunday and Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus. I have no idea what he was thinking. She struck me as a cross between Elvira and Debbie Harry in Videodrome. Either way I thought she was effective in the part, all the more so for being in black-and-white (for no reason I can understand).
*. Giving what’s “beyond the gates,” having this much build-up is a risky game. Because when you do finally take the audience beyond the gates they’re expecting something good. Here it’s just a parallel dimension of mist and purple light.
*. There are actually three commentaries included with the DVD, including one by a pair of horror fans who run a website. This underlined for me my sense that Beyond the Gates was mainly an exercise in fan filmmaking. There is certainly something to recommend this approach, but in the end I just felt this one didn’t come together that well. I can appreciate that they didn’t want to go for laughs, but at the same time they didn’t get any scares either. If there is a sequel, and it certainly seemed as though they were setting up for one, I hope they decide to more clearly go for one or the other.