beyond_the_gates_4Year: 2016
Director(s): Jackson Stewart
Writer(s): Stephen Scarlata, Jackson Stewart
Region of Origin: US
Rating: Unrated
Digital, Color, 84 mins

Synopsis: Two estranged brothers reunite and discover a VCR board game which may hold the key to their father’s disappearance.

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Turn the lights down and the volume all the way up. That’s an actual title card seen within director Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Gates, and it’s what best describes his playful, throwback midnight movie. Sporting an electro score, high concept premise and scream queen Barbara Crampton as the host of a haunted VCR board game, there’s lots to like about the mischievous debut, even if it succumbs to a rather slow midsection. At its best, the film is a fun mixture of Insidious and Milton Bradley, all held together by the chemistry of stars Chase Williamson and Graham Skipper. It ain’t rewriting the rule book, but the nostalgia and performances invest us enough to overlook most of its faults. 

The story is refreshingly simple, beginning with the reunion of two estranged brothers, John (Chase Williamson) and Gordon (Graham Skipper), a few months after their father’s disappearance. They reunite to close up shop and liquidate their father’s abandoned VHS store, but find a mysterious video tape in the process. The tape ends up belonging to a VCR board game called Beyond the Gates, and thinking that it’s harmless, the brothers and Gordon’s girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant) decide to pop it and and take it out for a spin. They soon find out that they’re in over their heads, when the game’s host, an eerie pale woman (Barbara Crampton) begins to taunt them and offers them a way to save their father’s soul. Reluctantly, the trio have no choice but to complete the game, which requires them to complete four challenges in order to win their lives back. 

When the film is on point, it feels as if we’re participating in the game along with its characters, and there’s a charm that emanates from its mixture of schlock and gore. Stewart does his best to work around a modest budget, and it allows for some creative solutions, perpetuating the game and getting his characters to complete a series of real world challenges. It’s also nice to see how character driven the story is, focusing on John and Gordon’s sibling bond and how they’re essentially fighting for their family and closure. On the other end, the story takes a little too much time to introduce up the stakes and map out the rules, holding back a little too long before really ramping things up. 

beyond_the_gates_3Distracting from the film’s familiarity, is the candid charm of the cast. As John, Chase Williamson is instantly likable – he’s that relatable slacker brother or friend you’ve known your whole life, well meaning, endearing and emotionally stunted. Williamson, who was also great in John Dies at the End, helps the film from taking itself too seriously – his performance is lighthearted and lively. As the older, uptight brother, Graham Skipper’s Gordon is a nice contrast to Williamson’s looseness. He’s the voice of reason and and Skipper gives a restrained performance that relies on inner conflict. Together, the two are effortlessly watchable. As Margot, Brea Grant is the heart of the film, dialing in some of its more emotional moments and giving a few scenes some weight. The inclusion of a supernatural, glowering Barbara Crampton steals the show however, and I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of iconic actress in a larger capacity. 

In the end, Beyond the Gates is a commendable mix of family drama and escalating funhouse thrills. There’s heart and some ingenuity throughout, with the film playing out like an extended Twilight Zone episode, even if you wish it would’ve pushed just a bit further. Sporting one of the most original ideas of late, the film’s worth a watch if you’re looking for a nostalgic trip. There’s no doubt that this thing was created by a genre fan for fans, so VOD it with some friends and enjoy.