[VESTRON WEEK] Latchkey Heroes, Satanic Panic, & Practical SFX Fuel 1987’s THE GATE

THE GATE, released in 1987, belongs to that special spate of dark 1980s movies like THE GOONIES and THE MONSTER SQUAD where kids had to figure out the forces of evil and save the day. With its forced perspective special effects and its references to Satanic panic and latchkey children, THE GATE feels like a film that is definitely a product of its era, but still remains enjoyable today.

In a setup typical of ‘80s movies, Glen (a young Stephen Dorff in his first official film role) and his sister Al are left to fend for themselves when their parents go out of town. The film’s events are prophesied by a fictional dark metal record album in the movie, THE DARK BOOK by the Sacrifyx, owned by Glen’s good friend Terry. Terry is described by Glen’s parents as a disturbed since his mother died, Increasingly bizarre things begin to happen, including Glen levitating during a party, which might mean Terry is on to the truth. For that matter, Glen has just gotten into trouble for launching model rockets. These kids are not exactly juvenile delinquents, but rather goofy misfits who seem to yearn for parental affection that is non-existent in the film. It seems telling that there is a dream sequence where Terry embraces his dead mother only to have her turn into Glen’s dead dog, and there is another sequence where Glen’s parents seemingly come home, only to be revealed as demons.

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That Terry’s metal album would include a book of demonology does not seem outlandish in the days when backwards messages from the devil were expected to be buried in many metal songs. The lyrics in the record relate to a hole in Glen and Al’s yard created by the removal of a tree, and a mysterious geode the boys find there afterward. Terry realizes by listening to THE DARK BOOK the hole may actually be a portal to hell, which requires sacrifices to open it. The lyrics of the record continue to guide Glen as he figures out the sacrifices the gate is taking one by one when he is left alone one weekend with Al and Terry. The demons beyond the gate are referred to as serving the “old ones,” an appropriately Lovecraftian reference to an evil beyond the boys’ understanding.

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When one of Al’s friends accidentally completes a summoning by dropping their recently deceased dog into the hole and opening the gate, Glen and Terry realize what has happened when demonic arms try to pull Al under her bed. It is also noteworthy of the era of satanic panic that Terry tries to read the Bible to close the hole. This seemingly works until the three are plagued in their house by demons, perhaps symbolizing the null effect Biblical attacks had on dark metal and horror for misfits. Here begins a variety of interesting and memorable special effects.

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Another time-capsule aspect of the film is the special effects. Showing off some old-school pre-CGI effects, THE GATE effectively used stop-motion animation and forced perspective, actually filming several men running around in rubber suits and using scale to make them look like tiny demons. For a low-budget movie, the makeup on the construction-worker corpse unleashed from within the wall and the eyeball in Glen’s hand all create lasting nightmarish imagery on a shoestring. The effects seem dated, but not necessarily in a bad way; in a way that reminds us sometimes creativity is much more powerful than money.

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Like many other child-centric films from the ’80s, kids do end up saving the day. Glen counts the sacrifices as predicted in THE DARK BOOK as both Terry and Al are taken by The Gate. Model rockets, something that initially got Glen into trouble, turns out to be a symbol of love and light he feels he can use against the demons. Once again a specifically ’80s concept of the latchkey child hero is employed as he uses the rockets against the demons to save his sister, friend, and family’s house. It is worth commenting on the fact that the rockets work because they are something he is personally invested in, again using an interest of the misfit to advantage against evil.

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THE GATE originally became a cult classic thanks to perpetual airings on cable television because so many of us watched it as children and were disturbed by some of its animated demons, which would give Ray Harryhausen a run for the money. However, it endures because it creates a record of a certain period of time, a time when kids were first viewed as more independent, which was reflected in our cinema. A time when metal records were correlated with satanic rituals and demons. A time when special effects were less complicated and somehow, more effective. THE GATE holds up as a nostalgic piece that is still a lot of fun to watch today.

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