Director – Jackson Stewart
Cast – Graham Skipper, Chase Williamson, Brea Grant, Barbara Crampton, Matt Mercer, Justin Welborn, Jesse Merlin, Sara Malakul Lane, Henry LeBlanc
Release Year – 2016
Reviewed by John of the Dead
Beyond the Gates is a film I had wanted to see after digging its initial trailer. The storyline involves a video rental store that centers on analog / VHS, which brings back so many childhood memories. This nostalgic piece isn’t a grand slam, but it gets enough right to where it made for an enjoyable experience for me. If this flick is an indication of the work that first-time director Jackson Stewart has in store for us, I will definitely keep my eyes peeled for his name.
Seven months after their father goes missing, estranged brothers Gordon and John are forced to reconcile and handle their father’s business affairs – namely, his now defunct VHS rental store. When they find a mysterious VHS board game in their father’s office, they learn of its role in their father’s disappearance, and the deadly results for anyone who plays it.
As a kid born in the 80s I have a fascination with the nostalgia associated with VHS horror. My brother and I used to roam the horror aisles at our local Video Stop (and occasionally, Blockbuster), doing our best to convince our mother to rent the rated-R title with the grotesque cover art. Over the years we grew our separate ways, so it was even more engaging for me to see this film employ tow brothers going through a similar dynamic.
Writers Stephen Scarlata and Jackson Stewart (also the director) give us a simple story that does not try to do too much. It relies on the viewer reminiscing about the analog subject matter, and it succeeds at just that. The story moves quickly, reuniting the brothers under some less than favorable circumstances. Despite growing apart, their father missing for the last seven months has left them with no choice but to liquidate his store to sell off his assets. The writers do a good job of sing the first act to show us the dynamic, or lack thereof, between the two brothers. Gordon (Graham Skipper; Almost Human, Carnage Park) is the “square” one who left their small do-nothing town for better things. He is in a somewhat stable relationship, and he has a mortgage. On the other hand, his brother John (Chase Williamson; John Dies at the End, SiREN, The Guest) works odd jobs and stays on the couch of whatever girl will have him. Returning to the crusty old store brings back memories of times passed, allowing them the opportunity to be brothers again.
When they decide to play the board game they aren’t quite sure what they are supposed to do. Thankfully, the woman on the TV screen is not only the narrators, but the gatekeeper. Her presence is supernatural, as she can see what they are doing and she leads them further into her dimension. There are four keys that must be uncovered, and each comes at a terrible price. The tasks required to attain the keys are gory and result in the deaths of some supporting characters, which adds a nice kick to the film.
The story managed to keep me engaged throughout the 80 minute experience, and I am once again glad they did not try to drag this out. While not a lot happens during the first half of the film the writers added enough developments to keep the film flowing smoothly. This isn’t really a complaint, but I did notice that the third act is significantly shorter than the other two. I can’t say that this was an issue as the majority of the kills happen during the second act and leave the third act as the least important of the three. Simply put – I didn’t’ really notice so it probably doesn’t matter much. I do have one balk with the story, and it is that it lacks conflict. They are in a predicament that could result in them losing their father forever, and every obstacle they were faced with was conquered with ease. While the horror was well done this did hold it back from being even greater.
Speaking of the horror being well done, I was very impressed with Jackson Stewart’s direction of the film. He sets the tone early on and does a great job of delivering the nostalgic feel I was hoping for. His sets bring back memories of not just old VHS rental stores but also our homes growing up. The bulk of the story takes place in their father’s home, which was never adapted to the modern day. Everything is analog, and because of this I was able to envelop myself into this flick. His execution of the horror is great. He delivers solid live-action gore and he does this in a full-frontal fashion that never shies away from the goods. This is important given the film isn’t loaded with kills, so they were at least effective. Also impressive was the dynamic between the two brothers. I was glad to see Chase Williamson in another genre film after starring in the awesome John Dies at the End, and he does a fantastic job as the bum of the brother who steps up when he needs to. Jackson Stewart’s direction is nearly flawless, with his story the only thing holding it back.
Overall, Beyond the Gates is an experience I recommend to those with an appreciation, or memories, of the VHS days. This flick has its faults, but thankfully they are alleviated with good direction and solid kills. Bring a slightly forgiving attitude and give this a shot.