Demon summoning, children left home alone with demons, children having unfortunate incidences with demons, and stop motion demons. Have I said enough to intrigue you? Welcome to one of the first movies I remember watching as a younger person that truly terrified me and opened my eyes to the amazing world of horror films; it’s ‘The Gate.’ It’s kitschy, it’s scary, it has bad ’80s hair – what more could you possibly want?
Even though it features a smaller cast, the film does have a few actors who went on to lucrative careers. The main character, Glen, was portrayed by a very young and fresh-faced Stephen Dorff, who would go on to build quite the Hollywood career spanning four decades thus far. Some of his more widely known movies include ‘Blade,’ ‘Cold Creek Manor,’ and ‘World Trade Center.’ Glen’s sister Al has a couple of friends who were played by actresses Kelly Rowan and Jennifer Irwin, both of whom have had successful careers as well.
What’s a kid to do when he finds out his backyard holds a gate to Hell? The movie starts out with Glen, a sensitive young boy, having a nightmare where he comes home to an empty house, wanders out back to his treehouse and once he goes inside, the tree is struck by lightning and falls with Glen in it. When he awakens, he discovers there are workers in the backyard cutting down and removing the same tree he dreamed of. When he ventures to check it out, he finds a strange geode in the hole left from the tree. Glen’s friend, Terry (Louis Tripp), a nerdy boy who lost his mother the previous year and subsequently enjoys any attention he can get, drops by and they both return to the hole where the tree stood in order to look for more geodes. They unearth a large one and Glen gets a nasty splinter. He throws the bloody splinter into the hole, beginning their hellish ordeal.
Glen’s older sister, Al, is put in charge as their parents leave for three days, and Terry sleeps over. Glen and Terry break the geode open. Air blasts from the inside of the geode and a pad next to it has strange marks scratched onto the surface. Glen reads them and the hole outside begins to smoke. Al is having a party downstairs and the guests decide to try and levitate Glen. It works and he floats to the ceiling, breaking a light. Later that night, in a series of surreal moments that both Glen and Terry experience, the aging family dog, Angus, dies.
The next day, when Terry is at home singing along to his favorite heavy metal band, “Sacrifyx“, he realizes that a book inside of their vinyl album describes the hole in Glen’s backyard and the strange occurrences that have happened. According to the band’s occultist insert, “The Dark Book”, the hole in Glen’s backyard is a gate that can allow demons to enter Earth. In order for this to happen, certain things must occur. The process was started with Glen’s offering of his blood on the splinter, but there must be a sacrifice. Unknown to the boys, Al’s boyfriend dumps Angus’ body into the hole, fulfilling the sacrificial need.
The activity really ramps up that night, when something tries to pull Al under a bed and we get the first glimpse of the little demons. They may be small, but these guys are to be feared. They are able to come together and form into full-grown men, zombies, what have you, and they like to bite. Their cloudy, beaded eyes are piercing and their gaunt faces show no emotion. The demons are filmed in stop-motion, reminiscent of the skeleton warriors in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ who were designed by effects legend Ray Harryhausen.
Glen, Terry and Al must figure out how to stop the demons and close the gate before it’s too late.
Directed by Tibor Takacs (who directed many made-for-television movies in his heyday) and written by Michael Nankin, the story builds in intensity and scares. The effects are great, not too cheesy and absolutely zero CGI, which I think is a good thing in this instance. Having the action seen from the perspective of kids and young adults serves to amp up the fear and feelings of helplessness. You root for them, you want them to succeed. The dead construction worker was always creepy as hell for me, and I discovered he still is creepy as hell upon an “adult” rewatch of the film. The movie also has a well-filmed, satisfying conclusion.
Of course, it is very doubtful that underneath a large tree, in somebody’s random backyard, is a gate to the netherworlds just waiting to be opened and start the apocalypse, but it does make for good movie material. Bumbling kids, clueless parents, interesting characters, and a paranormal twist all serve to make ‘The Gate’ an enjoyable watch. Glen’s character is in need of some self-esteem, and Terry needs to grow up. Both complete their character arcs by the end of the movie. Even Al gets to be the helpful big sister eventually. Just when you think there’s no way for Glen to get them out of this situation, the movie takes a turn. The building tension in the last half of the movie is highly effective. There are also repeated symbols that carry throughout such as the eye in the hand (likely the single most iconic “horror moment” my young brain has engraved into it), and in the end, Glen has an experience with the head demon that ties it all together. All in all, it is a solid and entertaining story.
With an estimated $2.5 million budget, the special effects were not skimped on. From the demons of all shapes and sizes to a transformed Terry to an undead construction worker to a house that is torn apart from the inside to a large tornado in the backyard – the effects carry the film. The memorable large demon that makes an appearance near the end is the real antagonist of the story, and the scene is strong. This is a good example of less is more, and what comes of it is a truly chilling moment.
I watched ‘The Gate’ as a kid, and I have watched it many times since then. Sure it feels a little “dated” as the years go by, but it still holds that magic that it first did for me. Check it out for yourself and see what you think.
And maybe do a search to see if any construction workers were killed building your house, then placed in the walls as a cover up… if you dare!