‘Beyond the Gates’: LAFF Review

Courtesy of LA Film Festival
More humorous than murderous.

This low-budget horror-comedy co-starring Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson enthusiastically revisits familiar '90s genre conventions.

Supernatural shenanigans and amateur sleuthing add up to mild-mannered entertainment in Jackson Stewart’s affectionately quirky directorial debut. Deliberately retro in both style and substance, Beyond the Gates sometimes unsteadily straddles the divide between psychological and body horror. Stretching a goofy premise to fit the film’s rather forced conceptual framework will probably work best in home entertainment formats, which not coincidentally serve as Stewart’s principal inspiration for the feature. 

We first encounter Gordon (Graham Skipper) as he returns home to assist his younger brother John (Chase Williamson) with cleaning out the family’s independent video store following the unexplained disappearance of their father Bob (Henry LeBlanc), who originally set up the shop when they were kids. Among the battered DVDs and old VHS cassettes, they find an unfamiliar board game in their dad’s private office. The game Beyond the Gates pairs with a black-and-white VHS tape featuring a mysterious blonde woman named Evelyn (Barbara Crampton), who directly addresses the two brothers in an eerily disembodied voice as soon as they pop the tape into a VCR.

She informs them that after trying out the sinister game, Bob has succumbed to the consequences and that they can only save him by winning at Beyond the Gates. Despite their better judgment and the reservations of Gordon’s girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant), the trio delves into the challenge. The dice-based game requires the players to retrieve four keys that will unlock the gates to an alternate realm once they’ve been placed on the board, enabling them to search for Bob, but the process of gathering the keys together may exact a heavier price than any of them can anticipate.

Interactive video board games were short-lived 1990s entertainment products that combined a traditional game board with a VHS tape containing instructions and commentary that contributed to the outcome of the real-time gameplay. (The Robocop, Star Trek and Star Wars franchises were among the better-known entries in the field.) Viewers unfamiliar with this somewhat obscure hybrid game format may be puzzled by the characters’ absorption with Beyond the Gates and their susceptibility to the guidance of the ghostly Evelyn, but it’s a serviceable enough premise to maintain interest.

Stewart and co-writer Stephen Scarlata’s script is quick to establish the lingering animosity between the semi-estranged brothers, but fairly vague at clarifying the cosmological principles underlying the unusual board game. Not that refined logic is required to pull off the campy premise, so it helps that the principal cast, all boasting B-movie horror credits, can at least generate moderate enthusiasm.

Skipper (Almost Human) faces the biggest challenge with the role of Gordon, as he attempts to appear both concerned and horrified by Bob's unlikely disappearance, although Williamson’s (John Dies at the End) task maintaining tension between the two brothers over some vague interpersonal issues requires a noticeable effort as well. Grant's (Halloween 2) Margot tries to remain above the fraternal fray without appearing disloyal to Gordon, but can’t match the icy aloofness of Crampton playing the imperious Evelyn.

Along with cinematographer Brian Sowell and production designer Jenny Messer (as well as board game designer Brendan Wiuff), Stewart has a field day playing up the film’s low-budget '90s references, including the often contrasting lighting that attempts to mimic VHS-quality imaging and some outrageously excessive gore effects.

Venue: LA Film Festival (Nightfall)
Production companies: Easy Open Productions, Thunder Warrior Productions
Cast: Graham Skipper, Chase Williamson, Brea Grant, Henry LeBlanc, Barbara Crampton, Matt Mercer, Justin Welborn, Jesse Merlin, Sara Malakul Lane
Director
: Jackson Stewart
Screenwriters: Jackson Stewart, Stephen Scarlata
Producers: Amanda Mortimer, Barbara Crampton, Ian Keiser, Jon Kondelik, Jackson Stewart, Stephen Scarlata
Executive producers: Mike Murphy, Ted Kinni, Donna Kinni, Tim Kinni, Lynn Kinni, Cyrus Stewart, Tony Zika, James West, Gabriela Lugo
Director of photography: Brian Sowell
Production designer: Jenny Messer
Costume designer: Maria Perry
Editor: Josh Ethier
Music: Wojciech Golczewski

Not rated, 84 minutes

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