Writer and director Jackson Stewart has taken a bigger and bolder step forward from his previous short films with his Beyond the Gates, which likely sounded very good on paper and the initial concept, dealing with a niche market of the 80s involving the usage of VCR games. While Stewart used a real VHS shop, to capture the attention of fans, a problem arises trying to convey it to modern day fans of horror, fewer and fewer ones know anything of the board games let alone the VCR based Clue and Nightmare (Atmosfear) series. It perhaps is a reason that the horror theme board-games of yesteryear find themselves increasing value due the limiting of audience and availability, however mentioning to the younger fans, and they give one the strangest looks ever, like you have a third arm growing out of your head. Hence Stewart needed to give more setup for the film, noting the board, the concept, rules all making for a sluggish opening, the games plays emitting crackling ghoulish sounds, oh so scary.
Essentially a low-budget indie horror flick, accompanied by retro title creation, which opens the viewers to very different brothers John (Chase Williamson) and Gordon (Graham Skipper recently in The Mind’s Eye) at their father Bob (Henry LeBlanc) video-store, Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee (a real place in North Hollywood, and tourist location for horror fans). The problem, their father vanished without a trace over 7-months ago, presumed dead. We learn that Gordon, a straight narrow type, got married to Margot (Brea Grant) moved on in life, while John typical slackers brushes with the law. Unsure what to do the brothers tidy up the store venturing to the back office and finding the VHS board game called, Beyond the Gates. They turn it on, lean back and there appears Barbara Crampton as Evelyn in the mode of an Elvira host for the game, her look and voice, encourage their playing. They find themselves addicted to playing the game and unlock the gates to a dangerous world of real deaths and supernatural terrors. A strange game-play evolves some, which lies in voodoo aspects, but gives a thick free flowing gore the comforting blood loss makes it appealing to the passing fan. Depending on the age of the viewer or their knowledge of the genres, merchandise factors into their understanding of some the uniqueness in the script, and this might lose other viewers, and hence shrinking the core audience and appeal. As the game progresses and more cryptic clues drop, it feels for a moment like the film Brainscan (1994), where real life actions dictate what needs to happen for the game to move forward, whether the players want it or not.
The sluggish setup prevents the story from getting to that important next level quickly, while some of the set designs work well, glaring issues become striking when dealing the basement and cross scenes, it all looks a bit amateurish. The special effects relied more on CGI than practical, and if trying to tap into something retro, use the old-school methods more frequent. Composer Wojciech Golczewski’s work does a lot of heavy lifting of the scenes making the work more effective, hinting to pieces of Goblin’s work. Screenwriters Stephen Scarlata (his first horror film) and Stewart movie gives the flow to the dialogue an even flow and character depth a cursory glance, a normal aspect in family brotherly traits the good versus slacker, i.e. stereotypical cliché.
The fond remembrance of the old VHS stores, a place where one could become lost in the racks of slick covers, discovering the new releases each week, a Blockbuster or West Coast Video, all now lost to time and memories. The general cinema fans unaware of the passion the both horror fans and sci-fi enjoy in vast collecting of DVDs, the coldness of Best Buy or a Walmart never gets the interaction the way the old VHS stores did, many had fans of various genres, it to them was more than just job. It’s what Beyond the Gates tries to capture and convey with the games but the production wanes at times and loses the audience with a set of cryptic rules and consequences.