There aren’t many horror movies for children. This is a shame because there are a lot of kids out there who love something a bit scary, and I don’t mean Jimmy Savile appearing at the end of your bed. The upshot of this dearth of child horror is that when you are young you will spend a significant amount of your time trying to watch films that are deeply inappropriate for your age. God knows I did anyway. No that it did me any harm, I think.
The Gate was an obvious attempt to fill the kiddie horror gap, but being kind of cheap and very, very eighties it doesn’t really succeed at being scary or even very good. But maybe I’m missing the point, if I was a ten year old boy when I saw it I might have loved it. Well I say might…
In his first movie role Stephen Dorff plays Glen, a weird little kid with a standard nuclear family, a mum, dad, big sister and a dog. Yes, a dog. Don’t think just because its a children’s film the dog is going to get off lightly, he’s still the first to die. In fact, not only does he die but his corpse pops up again and again to freak everyone out. The fact that he looks like the Dulux paint dog just makes it all the more upsetting when they find him in bed with his rotten tongue dangling on the pillows. Anyway, the story is about as bare bones as you can get. A tree is torn down in the back garden revealing a gate to hell. Some weird stuff happens, the dog dies, demons show up and kids scream a lot. That’s about it plot wise. Of course the parents are deeply irresponsible and go away for a long weekend leaving the kids to look after themselves. This is a relief for two reasons. One, it means that the story sticks closely to Glenn’s point of view meaning that its up to him to sort out this mess. And two, the parents can’t act for shit. Okay, maybe I’m being a bit harsh on the mother and her one line, but the guy who plays his dad acts like the whole project is below him and delivers his dialogue like the whole thing is a joke. Not good.
The child actors do much better. Glenn’s best mate Terry (Louis Tripp) is the typical nerdy, big glasses know-it-all you used to get in films from this era. He has a little twist though in that he’s also into death metal. He sports a denim waist coat with a large patch on the back claiming him to be a fan of the band “Killer Dwarfs”. I can’t say I’ve heard of them unless it is just a reference to Stephen Dorff. I mean really, Dorff was 14 when this came out but he looks like a nine year old at a push, and a weird one at that. Maybe its just his haircut that makes his head look so odd but everyone on set must have thought that our Stephen was going to stay that height forever. He’s even called a midget by one of the teenagers, a thug called Brad obviously. Well, I say teenager, the guy playing him looked about thirty, as was normal back in the eighties.
Actually there are a lot of things that are very eighties about this film. Its full of going concerns at the time, like rock songs giving satanic instructions when played backwards. The gadgets of the era feature heavily, toy rockets are shot about, a ghetto blaster is lobbed at a zombie’s head. The teenage fashion is just awful with huge silky, bright coloured shirts and crimped up hair. And that’s just the boys. The girls have some shockingly unflattering jeans on and far too much make up. Its even pointed out to them: Terry fails miserably to impress anyone of the opposite sex by continuously insulting them. “Buzz off clown face” he tells one girl with too much slap on. If Terry had have wanted to pull one of the girls he should have gone the handsome stud Eric’s route and offered to take their dead dog down the vet for disposal. For some reason the girl’s all think this is super hot, rather than just desperate. Eric also thinks this is a cool way to pull the chicks. Even when the vet turns out to be closed Eric drives around with the dead dog sitting up right in the passenger seat as if this just makes him look cooler. This is all played straight and not for laughs.
There is some comedy in here to lighten the stress. When Terry captures some moths in a jar he wonders how long they can live without air. “That’s cruel,” says Glenn. “No its not, it’s neat” Terry replies. Actually that’s not funny, the dwarf is right, it’s just plain cruel. Most of the film aims to play on children’s fears. Terry’s mum is dead and Glenn constantly wants to call up his parents as he can’t seem to cope with gates to hell in the back yard. What a wuss. The film also plays on the fear that when your parents do show up they’ll actually be demons and the fathers face will collapse into a slimy mess in your hands while your mother looks on laughing. God only knows that worry kept me awake at night.
Even if this is a horror movie aimed at children it still suffers from the same trouble adult horror movies do with people acting like complete morons. The teenage twins (the aforementioned Clown Faces) are the worst example of this. After the house is attacked by demons, the sister is nearly pulled under the bed by giant monster hands and a holy ritual is performed in the back garden, the twins invite some teenage boys over for some teen-based fun. Not only that but the boys hide in a cupboard to scare the sister. Maybe never having been a teenage girl I don’t understand the importance boys play at that age but why did the twins think this was a good idea? What are they? Some sort of clowns?
Anyway, is this scary? Well no, but it might at least be mildly diverting for kids. There’s still a little bit of gore here and there: someone gets stabbed in the eyeball with a Barbie doll which is, as Terry would say, neat. Except its Terry who gets the doll in his head so maybe not so neat after all, eh moth killer? Also the small monsters that show up are pretty good. Small monsters was all the rage for a few years back in the eighties when Gremlins set off a series of more and more terrible small monster movies like the Critters films, the Puppet Master ones and Ghoulies, which involved creatures that spend a lot of time hanging out in toilets, which probably explains why they looked like shit. The mini demons here are actually rather well realised. Effectively using men in rubber suits and forced perspective, they have a vicious little character all of their own. Its a shame they didn’t get their own film, or at least have a cross over with the Demonic Toys.
There’s also a big stop motion demon who rises up out of the ground for the climax, and, while no Harryhausen masterpiece, is still a welcome sight with a good amount of personality. There are also some nice optical effects like the floor falling away to reveal a tunnel to hell and an amazing bit when the zombie falls to the floor and bursts into a dozen demons. The films is probably worth watching for these bits alone. One of the best effects is when Glenn suddenly receives a third eye on the palm of his hand. Wisely he decides to cut it out. Seeing as he is almost at puberty, masturbation would have been one weird ass experience with a hand’s view of the event.
Not that they deal with such issues here of course. Its a kids film.