The Gate

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THE GATE  rips open to a really fun 1987 scare-flick, one that offers likable characters, nifty effects, cool creatures, and chuckle-worthy dialog in a whiz-by 87-minute package that’s cleverly and thoughtfully crafted for a wide audience.  “We accident’ly summoned demons who used to rule the universe to come and take over the world.”  It’s best to do this when parents are gone for the weekend, though the cleanup job will likely result in being grounded for the rest of both junior and senior high school.

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Losing your treehouse is a bummer when you’re 12, but ‘Glen’ (Stephen Dorff, feature debut at 13) and his nerdy best friend ‘Terry’ (Louis Tripp) find what seems a bonus in the form of a watermelon-sized geode in the hole left from removing the tree. Folks off for some alone-time, 16-year old sis ‘Alexandra’  (Christa Denton) is left to mind the house and see the boys don’t come to mischief. She promptly throws a party. One thing leads to another as the geode cracks open, weird events rapidly accumulate, the boys trade insults with Al’s snotty teenage friends (“suck my nose until my head caves in!“) and with the help from lyrics off a heavy metal album Terry intones, with all the sincerity of a 13-year old who grasps that everything “normal” is rigged: “May the old devils depart! May they burn in the fires of their own damnation! May they freeze in the infinite golden darkness of their own hideous creation!  Glen’s cut-to-the-wise-reply: Isn’t that kind of insulting?”  Insults are shortly the least of their problems as the broken rock, the rock-lyrics and a few drops of blood summon a platoon of nasty, pint-sized demonoids from the underworld.

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Smart direction is from first-timer Tibor Takács, who made brilliant use of his $2,500,000 budget in a focused 32-day shoot, blessed with an array of delightfully retro stop-motion effects whipped together by Randall William Cook, warming up for his glories in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.  In a painstakingly created backdrop of forced-perspective sets, the scampering little fiend folk unleashed from Hell hearken to the kind of under-the-bed/what-lives-in-the-attic? chills that give little kids a reason to sleep with lights on and door open. They look mean, their teeth are sharp and they don’t make any noise–“silent but deadly”, if you will (if you get that, it means you remember being a kid). Under-lording the self-reconstituting spawn brood is a fearsome, four-eyed, quad-armed apparition that resembles a snake crossed with a parasitic worm mated with a—oh, never mind, it basically looks like something that belongs where it came from.  Don’t forget that yucksome corpse in the wall…

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The smiles come from Michael Nankin’s non-cynical, non-pandering script, which lets the well-chosen tween ‘n teens sound like real kids and not irksome, cuss-quipping movie brats. The relationship between the tousle-haired, quietly exasperated brother and the vexed but sweet sister is refreshing, and Terry’s loyal loner buddy is a winning dork with some dimension beyond being nearsighted and testy.

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As for those monsters, anything cruel enough to dessicate the family pooch and kidnap your cute big sister deserves a rocket in the mouth. Our heroes arsenal includes a Barbie, whose slim limbs make for a perfect gouging implement, and a Bible dropped down the backyard Hellhole. Who would ever think to use religion as a weapon?

Audiences responded with $13,539,000, enough that a sequel was generated three years later, The Gate II: Trespassers. It didn’t fare well, but this original is a deserved cult item with a regiment of defenders, this correspondent included. With Kelly Rowin and Jennifer Irwin. Craig Reardon designed the rubber-suit makeup effects for those mini-minions from homunculus-heaving Hades.

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