The Gate (1987)
BY TONY FRAME
I have a vague memory of watching this late at night with my cousin and sister in the living room of my parents house, back home in Dedridge, Livingston. I guess this would have been 1990 or thereabouts.
There were two places I would rent films back then. The first one was the Lanthorn library, which was less than half a mile from home. That was my main source of renting films.
Even to this day I remember when I turned 18 and had the privilege of being given my own video rental card from there. Which meant I had the freedom to rent whatever films I wanted. As opposed to the old system where I had to choose the films and hand them over to my father, who would then hand them over to the librarian for rental.
This meant that I couldn’t really rent risqué films like A Woman Scorned (1993) for the embarrassment of what basically looked like I was renting a pornographic movie.
Now every Wednesday was a big day; you could rent films for fifty-pence at the library, instead of the usual one pound. These were big savings for me being on the dole back then. And it meant that Wednesdays were always a film marathon day. I would stock up on coca-cola and Monster Munch and fizzy sweets from Asda for this momentous occasion.
The Lanthorn is one of those two-storey concrete blocks from the 1970s. It looks like an art-deco experiment built by college kids in their first year studying structural engineering. Tinged in a greyish-white render it stands alien in the surrounding landscape of council houses and a nearby park. I have a hazily reconstructed memory of the Hotel California album cover which reminds of the building.
As well as hosting the library it functions as a community centre equipped with a canteen and a large hall which was used for midnight mass back in my day. As soon as you enter the building the smell of instant coffee greets you amidst the faint din of the canteen workers going about their business.
The library was quiet — as libraries should be — and there was an excited anticipation as I neared the shelves stocked with video cassettes. The afternoon light shines in through the windows almost like a beacon that’s showing me the way to heaven.
Timing was everything. If you arrived too early you risked the previous day’s rentals not being returned – there may have been some good films coming back; people are careful what films they choose to rent when paying full price for them. Arrive too late and most likely all the good films are gone due to the popularity of 50p Wednesdays.
I would generally rent one miscellaneous film (crime, drama, sci-fi etc.) and a horror film. Always a horror film, no matter how bad it looked from the video cover and the blurb on the back of the sleeve. And I would always end the day by watching the horror film late at night. It was the rules. Horror films are meant to be watched at night in the dark. As close to the witching hour as possible.
Sometimes if the choice of films in the library was too good to be true then I would rent three films to indulge myself to the fullest degree. My problem was I stayed up too late, burning the midnight candle, playing computer games or watching films, writing bad screenplays – I was lucky if I was out of bed by lunchtime. Which meant that a good deal of the time I was faced to choose from the horde of B-Movies left on the Wednesday.
In fairness, some of those B-Movies were pretty good – like Monolith (1993) and Night of the Running Man (1995). Being a big horror fan had its advantages; it’s not a mainstream genre so there was always generally a good selection of films left for me. It was from here that I rented such horror classics like Scarecrows (1988) and The Blob (1988).
The other place I rented films from was the Shell garage, which was roughly about the same distance but in a different direction. And where my anxiety of crossing the road — a dual carriageway — was always put to the test.
The garage didn’t have as many films as the library, nor was the atmosphere as pleasant and relaxed — it was literally a shelf in one of the aisles — but they did have more quality films than quantity. And the one advantage it had over the library was that it was open until midnight whereas the library closed at 5pm.
I didn’t rent as much from the garage due the lack of choice, but when my cousin Stephen stayed with us one summer I’m pretty sure we rented The Gate from there.
I remember within five minutes of us watching The Gate that I knew it was my kinda film. It has all the elements of a great eighties horror: two young teens, Glen (Stephen Dorff making his film debut) and Terry open a gateway to hell in the back garden. And when Glen’s parents go away for the weekend that’s when the mayhem begins.
Even re-watching it to this day I still find the minion demons freaky and unsettling. The forced perspective shooting of them means that they blend in with the actors perfectly and look so uncannily real.
There’s lots of little memorable gems in the film throughout as well; from Terry playing his heavy metal LP record backwards—which has an incantation to dispel the demons back to hell—to Glen being levitated at the party his sister throws in the house.
And then there’s the story that Terry unwittingly makes up about a workman being entombed in the walls, when the house was built—which comes to fruition when the zombified workman terrorises them near the end.
Satisfyingly enough there’s no let down at the end either. The gate is fully opened and the master demon rises from the pit and Glen has to face it. The effects there, and throughout, hold up amazingly well for a film that is over thirty years old. And you really do get a feel for the end of world happening.
What makes The Gate work exceptionally well is the friendship between Glen and Terry as well as the love / hate relationship Glen has with his sister. It all adds to some nice character arcs which is rare for a lot of 80s horror films. Usually the characters — with the exception of the protagonist — are merely just victims waiting to be bumped off, one by one.
I feel The Gate is one of the penultimate horror films from the 80s. It has aged well and can be watched every once in a while. And I still find it as enjoyable now as I did way back then, all those years ago.