Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The “Midnight Madness” movie genre is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence in recent years thanks to film festivals like TIFF and Sundance featuring it as a category unto itself. Typically they are “genresploitation” flicks that are either balls-to-the-wall action-adventure, or gory, weird horror driven features. Director Jackson Stewart’s 80’s inspired horror BEYOND THE GATES may be missing some of the polish of a few recent midnight madness festival films (like THE RAID, YOU’RE NEXT or HARDCORE HENRY); however, for what it lacks, it makes up for it with independent spirit and scrappy gumption.
Responsible Gordon (Graham Skipper) and his estranged slacker brother John (Chase Williamson) have been tasked to liquidate their missing father’s video store. As the pair box up the place, they stumble upon a creepy, seemingly homemade VHS game called ‘Beyond The Gates.’ They pop in the tape and away they go. As video vixen Evelyn (played by a flawless Barbara Crampton) dispenses with the game’s rules, which are to be followed to the letter, the brothers learn there’s a tie between it and their absentee dad (Henry LeBlanc). Skeptical of the game’s authenticity, the brothers reluctantly begin to play. Little do they know it’ll hold deadly consequences affecting friends and loved ones – including Gordon’s steadfast girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant), his high-school best friend-turned-policeman Derek (Matt Mercer), and John’s sleazy friend Hank (Justin Welborn).
BEYOND THE GATES’ fairly insular, straight-forward concept is what makes things insanely attractive; kids find mysterious relic/ kids play/ trouble happens. Stewart and co-writer Stephen Scarlata’s script is clever enough to keep audiences entertained, balancing the fractured familial dynamic with the ensuing horror hijinks. With only a blessed few jump scares, Stewart mostly relies on atmosphere and ultra low-budget gore to serve the story. Wojciech Golczewski’s synth-driven score is absolutely resplendent. Plus, it wisely leaves the door wide open for a sequel that could either repeat the same pattern or, depending on the filmmaker, possibly subvert it.
I only wish I had more praise to bestow. Through no fault of the performers, there are more than a handful awkward pauses that bog down the narrative’s momentum. It’s tangibly missing a “zing” of energy in between the frights (which aren’t as innovative as maybe a larger budget could have provided). The atmosphere can feel almost stagnant in parts. Things come to a screeching halt every time Stewart holds for too long at the end of an actor’s line, or when focusing on Evelyn staring back at the brothers through the TV screen as they decide if they will answer the call. In fact, the characters’ reticence maddeningly eats up a huge block of time, where you’ll wanna yell, “Just play the damn game already,” at the screen.
That said, this should still serve to please the midnight masses – so long as that crowd keeps their expectations within the gates.
BEYOND THE GATES played the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 2 and 6.