Horrorvember Diary #4: The Gate (1987)


Eleven-year-old me would have loved The Gate. But eleven-year-old me didn't watch horror movies.

The closest I got was the occasional illicit viewing of Tales from the Crypt on HBO, which certainly qualifies as horror and could be pretty great at times. But actual horror movies – the ones whose VHS boxes lined the shelves of the Horror section at Mr. Movies, the local video store – were not a part of my life. Many times I walked among those shelves and marveled at the grotesque cover art of movies like Ghoulies, which featured a disgusting, grinning green monster coming out of a toilet. Or Fright Night, with a terrifying ghoul's face forming in the clouds above a house. Meanwhile, my mom was probably renting something like Awakenings or The Hunt for Red October.


My parents were not the types to rent that sort of scary movie (I never bothered asking) but as fascinated as I was, I paradoxically rejected these movies out of hand. They must be complete garbage, I thought, schlock fests full of irredeemable gore, horrific monsters, sex and nudity. Of course, I was actually curious about all these things; what eleven-year-old boy isn't? But I thought it must be bad, and bad for me, somehow. I'm not sure how this got in my head. My family wasn't religious, and I don't recall anyone specifically forbidding these movies. Perhaps through cultural osmosis I'd been influenced by the "satanic panic" of the 80s, when liking heavy metal or Stephen King was enough to make you morally questionable.

So for a long time, the only horror movies I put much stock in were the respectable kind, like Psycho, Rosemary's Baby, The Silence of the Lambs, or The Exorcist. I knew these movies were revered by film buffs (including my parents, to some degree) and horror fans alike, and some had even won Oscars, which set them apart from the grubbier likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Creepshow.


Tibor Takács's The Gate would have been a good bridge – err, gateway – into that world of unfairly ghettoized, unprestigious horror. Starring a preteen Stephen Dorff in his film debut, The Gate begins with a tree uprooting behind his family's home after a lightning strike. The tree leaves a cavity in the ground in which Glen (Dorff) and his friend Terry find a geode, a hollow rock with crystals growing inside. This hole is actually a gate to Hell, and through a series of mishaps involving the geode and a set of incantations, the boys accidentally invite demons into their world. Disturbing hallucinations follow, and then the demons themselves – little grey, horned figures who seem like more of a nuisance than anything – until something bigger arrives. Glen's parents are away for the weekend, and he, his sister Al and her friends get caught up in the hellish mess. With the help of a heavy metal album by the hilariously fictional band Sacrifyx and the "pure love energy" of model rocketry (really) and, most importantly, family, Glen manages to close the gate.


Nothing in The Gate particularly scared Adult Me, but there are some standout sequences. In one, Terry accidentally falls into the hole/gate, and must claw his way out as the little grey demons – which are actually a pretty well-done practical effect – nip at his heels. One dread-inducing dream sequence involves Terry's deceased mother and a dog. And while the Big Bad at the end is obviously a stop-motion puppet, it interacts with Glen in an unexpectedly weird and intriguing way. Eleven-Year-Old Me probably would have been a little freaked out by The Gate, because the basic premise – What if a gateway to Hell opened up in your backyard? – would have had my imagination firing on all cylinders. Heck, it still kind of does.


I'm reminded of a similar example of pre-adolescent wish fulfillment from the same decade – Joe Dante's Explorers (1985), which featured Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix in their film debuts. In that film three young boys build a spaceship out of junk and video game parts, launch it to space and find trouble. Explorers and The Gate feel like cousins, one sci-fi and the other horror, and both are tame enough to qualify as “family entertainment,” depending on the family (The Gate being PG-13 and all).


The Gate is the kind of horror movie I'd describe as “pretty good” with a light shrug, the implication being, “pretty good for a kinda cheesy, kinda kid-friendly horror movie that certainly isn't great.” Some moments will definitely stick with me, and I'm grateful for the gate it opened in my own memories to Eleven-Year-Old Me's growing fascination with horror. As for Adult Me, I've come to appreciate horror in a broader way, and The Gate reminds me that even in the lesser strata of horror, there are pleasures both ephemeral and personal to be found.