Beyond the Gates (2016) is like Jumanji (1995) or Zathura (2005), albeit with nocturnal ghouls and gory exploding heads. Tipping his hat to all of the cheesy B-movie relics that he most likely devoured from one box cover to the next in the 1980s and early-1990s, director Jackson Stewart uses a VHS board game as a springboard to make his feature debut, working from a script he wrote with Stephen Scarlata. For a loving, micro-budgeted tribute to the long-past days of the faded VHS format and mom-’n’-pop video rental stores, this genre geek was ready to love it unconditionally, sight unseen. While the finished product is far more inspired in its conceit, and in specific moments as opposed to its overall delivery, Beyond the Gates is phantasmagoric, rich with a retro atmosphere that feels like something Don Coscarelli might make today.
Estranged brothers Gordon (Graham Skipper) and John Hardesty (Chase Williamson) must reunite under unfortunate circumstances: their alcoholic father disappeared without a trace seven months ago. With Dad presumed dead, the brothers are in charge of packing up the contents of their family’s obsolete video store, Mount RushMonster, which opened back in the summer of 1992. Gordon brings along supportive girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant) to stay with him in the house where he grew up, while John still lives in the area and hangs around with ex-con pal Hank (Justin Welborn, who looks like he came from the same gene pool as Larry Fessenden).
Once John locates a missing key to their dad’s office in the store, the brothers find an old VCR board game called “Beyond the Gates”, for which they have no nostalgia. Gordon, John and Margot decide to entertain themselves and play, but when they put in the tape and listen intently to the instructions of the game’s sinister hostess (Barbara Crampton), the trio gets weirded out when she says, “Only there can your father’s soul be saved.” It might just hold the key to their father’s absence and something from another dimension, but the cursed game has yet to have a winning soul.
Besides sneakily naming the Hardesty brothers after final girl Sally from a certain 1974 video nasty, Beyond the Gates is pretty loud and proud about its love of everything before DVD and Blu-ray. Though ample time must be dedicated to establish a little bit of the history between Gordon and John, the setup takes a long time to cook. Then about an hour in, our brotherly heroes finally enter the game reality, which is just a neon-infused version of their family home, and must obtain keys to unleash the game’s captured souls. Given the budgetary restrictions, director Jackson Stewart does his best to hide the seams with few locations and practical special and make-up effects, so points should be granted for the level of imagination with limited resources.
The cast consists of familar faces from the genre, including Graham Skipper (Almost Human, 2013), Chase Williamson (John Dies at the End, 2012), and Brea Grant (Halloween II, 1981). Skipper and Williamson both bring extra substance to their distinctive parts as Gordon and John; the former is buttoned-up and reserved but still getting past a drinking problem, along with the insecurity that he doesn’t want to end up like his father, and the latter is an aimless slacker still stuck in the good old days. Grant brings a nice charisma to the less-developed part of Margot, but once our characters roll the dice, she isn’t very well utilized into the proceedings. And then there’s Evelyn, the spectral host of the VHS board game played by genre veteran Barbara Crampton, who doesn’t show any interest in slowing down as her career has revitalized itself within the indie horror community. With her ageless beauty and big, eerily dark eyes, Crampton is having a field day, gloriously camping it up from TV-sized parameters.
Even by the end, Beyond the Gates leaves one waiting for it to still fully take off as the optimal midnight movie. If it never quite completes the landing as one expects or hopes, it still delivers a decent amount of investment and splattery fun in an over-the-top practical-effects sort of way that almost feels refreshingly analog in this day and age. The perfection of Brendan Wiuff’s board game design (the tagline on the box reads, “A New Dimension in Fear”) and a spooky-cool synthesizer score by Wojciech Golczewski (We Are Still Here, 2015) are also exciting bonus treats. Evoking the fun-yet-ghastly spirit of a Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996) or Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1990-2000) anthology episode back in their heyday, that’s not such a bad place to be for Beyond the Gates. If only it could be shown on VHS.