Horror Double Feature: Beyond the Gates and Dead Silence
It’s another lazy weekend, which means it’s time once again for another horror two-hitter, courtesy of Netflix. Today’s pairing was really nothing to write home about, but enjoyable enough to write a blog post about, so let’s get right to it.
First up, 2016’s Beyond the Gates, directed by Jackson Stewart, and winner of the midnight-movie audience award at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The film, like many indie horrors of the past few years, is a throwback to a golden era of horror cinema (the 1980s; not that I’m complaining about that), and overall I found it a fairly charming effort, though I admit the pacing and tone seemed a shade uneven. Though the movie wasn’t really scary, had a somewhat slow first half, and was obviously a bit hamstrung by its nothing budget, I gotta say I’m looking forward to what this director comes up with in the future, as this was a pretty solid and generally entertaining horror-comedy.
The movie deals with two estranged and polar opposite brothers, uptight and nerdy recovering alcoholic Gordon (Graham Skipper) and shiftless bum John (Chase Williamson), who reunite in their home town in order to pack up their Luddite dad’s old-school video rental store. Seems that dear old dad, also an alkie, has been prone to binges and disappearances for some time, but since his most recent vanishing act has lasted more than seven months, the guys are assuming that this time, their father is never coming back.
Gordon decides to stay at his parents’ empty house while he’s in town, and he’s soon joined by his sweet and supportive girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant), who we later learn was the reason for Gordon giving up drinking, since he hurt her once when he was drunk. Before too long, John also asks to stay there, since apparently the couch he had been surfing on ejected him back into the streets for failure to cough up any rent money.
As the brothers are sorting through the vast and shadowy store, they discover in the locked back office the last thing their father had been watching before he vanished: one of those interactive VHS games that were fairly popular back in the 80s and early 90s, called, naturally, “Beyond the Gates.” The guys watch part of the tape (which features the wonderful Barbara Crampton of Re-Animator fame as the “host” of the game; she is easily the best part of the movie, peering creepily out of the TV screen with her kohl-rimmed eyes), and eventually come to believe that the game had something to do with their father’s disappearance, and finally they figure out that they’re going to have to play the game to the end to find out what happened to him and help him escape from whatever hell-dimension he got sucked into.
This movie did have quite a lot to recommend it, especially if you love cheapie 80s horror flicks and the more recent movies that pay homage to them. Barbara Crampton, as I said, was fantastic; some of the funniest/creepiest parts of the movie involved Gordon, John, and Margot hemming and hawing about the game, and Barbara Crampton (ostensibly on an old black and white VHS tape) just staring intently at them, waiting for them to make their next move. I also really liked the whole retro feel of the opening credits and the movie as a whole, including the Goblin-like opening theme and the predominance of neon pinks and blues. The look of the video store also brought back some pleasant memories, and the tone of the film was overall very similar to a movie of this type from the era. I also loved the design of the board game itself, which had a wonderful homemade gothic aesthetic going on.
I also liked that the movie took its time establishing the relationships between the characters, though I’m not sure it was entirely successful on that score, as I never felt fully engaged with them. And honestly, I felt like the plot could have been sped up a tad, as the first half of the movie seemed to drag somewhat before we got to the actual gameplay. And once the game actually started, there seemed to be a lot of scenes of the characters arguing about whether they should continue playing or not, which got a little repetitive.
I should also say that I felt like the balance between the horror and the comedy was a bit strange; much of the humor was fairly low-key, which is fine, but then there were a couple scenes of over-the-top gore that were clearly supposed to be funny (and they were, for the most part), and a brief comic turn by Jesse Merlin as a ghoulish antique shop proprietor, but the funny stuff didn’t really seem to fit in with the mostly serious relationship drama going on between the brothers and between Gordon and his girlfriend. So as I said, the tone of it was a bit off.
It was also painfully clear that budgetary constraints forced the filmmakers into a box; the journey “beyond the gates” and into the evil dimension was simply facilitated by an ordinary iron gate sitting in the house’s basement, and the evil dimension was just the basement shot with creepier lighting and a smoke machine, but I’m not gonna fault the movie too much for that, because making an indie movie and having to squeeze every penny is hard enough without assholes like me dinging you for having more ambition than cash. And it could be that they shot it like that on purpose, in order to give it that legit 1980s low-budget schlock touch.
So all in all, a decent 80s throwback that should please fans of the same, though it could have done with a bit more cohesion and a slightly quicker pace.
Next up, a film I only just got around to seeing, even though it came out way the hell back in 2007. James Wan and Leigh Wannell, obviously best known at the time for the Saw series, made Dead Silence three years after their breakout debut, and though it’s a completely different kind of film than any in the Saw franchise, I came away feeling sort of meh about the whole thing. I should note here that while I can see why James Wan became such a horror behemoth, most of his movies (The Conjuring, Insidious, even Saw) never struck me as anything particularly special. I realize that’s just me; for some reason his movies, while I enjoy them for the most part, don’t resonate with me, and I tend to forget them shortly after seeing them. I can’t really articulate why that is, but maybe in the course of writing out my thoughts on Dead Silence, I can clarify what I mean.
The premise, for the three of you who haven’t seen it, is that main character Jamie (Ryan Kwanten) and his wife Lisa (Laura Regan) receive an unmarked package that contains a creepy ventriloquist’s dummy named Billy. Even though Jamie (and maybe Lisa too, this wasn’t clear) come from a small town where there’s a scary urban legend about a ghostly ventriloquist and a perception that ventriloquist’s dummies are portents of death, Jamie doesn’t immediately chuck the thing out of the nearest window or set it on fire, but instead leaves it in the apartment with his wife while he goes to grab some takeout. Predictably, the doll murders Lisa, ripping out her tongue and leaving her with her mouth wrenched open like a vent figure’s. This prompts Jamie to return to his hometown of Ravens Fair to try to figure out who sent the doll and why it killed his wife, and on the journey, he is pursued by the endlessly shaving and wisecracking Detective Jim Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), who is convinced that Jamie is responsible for the murder.
First of all, I have to say that this movie looks terrific. Very gothic and atmospheric, which is always a plus in my book. I also dug the whole ventriloquist aesthetic, with the old-school theater and all the trappings of 1940s showbiz, and I gotta admit that the dolls were effectively eerie, as vent figures in movies tend to be. Ghost ventriloquist Mary Shaw (Judith Roberts) was also cool-looking and easily the scariest part of a not-very-scary movie; overall, the visuals and the sound design of Dead Silence were admittedly pretty rad.
Where the movie failed, I felt, was in the plotting and the characterization. The characters were not engaging or charismatic, made dumb decisions (by gum, I think I’ll drive to a cemetery in the middle of the night with a haunted doll sitting right beside me in the passenger seat!), and spouted lame, cliched dialogue. The acting performances were not all that great, with Donnie Wahlberg’s detective seeming like a weird parody of a character and the guy who played Jamie just kind of bland.
The way the story moved along also felt too pat and obvious: for example, Jamie is all, I’m gonna go ask my estranged dad what’s going on with all this murderous doll ghost business, and then he goes to his dad’s house, and his dad’s like, I don’t want to tell you, and Jamie’s like, no dude, tell me, and dad’s like, okay, then, we all killed Mary Shaw back in the day and now she’s killing all our descendants in revenge, sorry I never laid all that exposition on you before, my bad. You get my drift? I just felt like everything was over-explained, like the movie didn’t trust the audience to figure anything out and had to make double-dog sure we were all on the same page, even though viewers were not only on the same page, but had finished the book a long time before the movie did.
The “twist” at the end of the movie was sort of neat, but not entirely unexpected. I don’t know, the whole gestalt of the movie reminded me of some of the lamer, PG-13 horror flicks of the era, like Darkness Falls, except a bit gorier; it seemed as though it wasn’t really made for adults. I watched the whole thing through and didn’t get too annoyed, but overall I thought it was just kind of there. But then again, I feel that way about a lot of James Wan’s movies. I think I would have liked this flick a lot more if I had watched it with the volume down and played some music to it instead, because it would make a gorgeous long-form goth-rock video, but as a movie…eh, not so much.
That’s all for now, and until next time, steer clear of retro VHS games and tongue-stealing vent puppets, and keep it creepy, my friends. Goddess out.