Beyond the Gates Review (Film, 2016) #31DaysofHorror
This will shock any long time reader of this site. I once had an obsession over a board game. Yes, shocking news from your friendly OCD critic here. It was called The Harbingers and was part of a VHS board game series called Atmosfear. I was obsessed with this game. My parents knew that I would just focus in on every detail of the story and character design to the point of losing sleep, so they held off on getting it for me until a year after its release. It became a Christmas gift that gave me many sleepless nights of crafting backstory and essentially fan fiction before even pressing play on the tape once.
I’m clearly not the only one. Beyond the Gates, the debut feature length film from writer director Jackson Stewart, is clearly inspired by this horror VHS game series, down to what I firmly believe to be painted tokens from that game being used as the player pieces for the in-film game. I sight as evidence our shared birth year placing us in the target demo for the game, the convoluted rules of the game within the film, the requirement to follow the rules of a person in charge of the gates to the other world (a gatekeeper, if you will, though not called one in the film), and a bizarre series of horror-themed challenges to collect game pieces only available when the tape says they’re available.
In Beyond the Gates, Gordon returns to his hometown to help his brother John box up their father’s video store. Their father disappeared months before and is presumed dead. As they sort through the stock, they find a video board game they don’t remember from their childhood sitting in the locked office: Beyond the Gates. They bring it home and start playing with Gordon’s girlfriend Margot. The woman on the tape seems to be speaking directly to them as she declares the only way to free their father’s soul is to collect the keys and open the gate.
Despite what I consider clear evidence of the real inspiration for the film (a loving tribute, if you will), Jackson Stewart and screenwriter Stephen Scarlata craft a compelling and wholly original horror film. It’s even more impressive for how much the pair cram into this screenplay. The three main characters are really well developed with their own clear backstories, motivations, and character arcs in the film. Even the supporting characters who become NPCs in the board game brought to life feel real with far more depth than your typical horror victims get. The lore of the game is pitch perfect in its ambiguously creepy nonsense. Much like the real VHS games from the 80s and 90s, the more you give in to the absurdity, the more sense it starts to make.
The game has this wonderful, heavily inked style that stands out against the alternating realistic and neon 80s nightmare lighting design of the film. The sepia toned board—more Clue in style than what the VHS games tended to look like—is reminiscent of Edward Gorey’s illustrations, down to the hatching for shadows and black and white outline-heavy human characters. This style naturally expands into the world when the players start discovering the hidden objects throughout the property. The objects are cute until ripped open to uncover keys needed to open the locks on the tape, in the game, and growing on the magically appearing gates in the basement.
The story itself just works. I initially questioned focusing the story on Gordon’s perspective, but any doubts about why this needs to be Gordon’s story disappeared once the game within the film began. He has the most to gain in finding his father and also the most to lose if the game really can have deadly consequences. John and Margot are more dynamic characters, but it’s Gordon’s stoic disconnection from the grieving process and his memories of his childhood that force them to act that way. Gordon starts revealing a whole lot more about himself and even showing emotion as the game progresses, allowing John and Margot to actually support him in their shared quest to complete the game.
Beyond the Gates is a tight, high-concept horror film. In under 90 minutes, we’re brought into a world where a horror board game from the 80s naturally comes to life and takes over the lives and minds of the people unfortunate enough to play it. This is a very precise horror film that knows exactly how to pull the audience in and misdirect in the best way possible. Stewart weaponizes the inanity of the VHS board game concept to keep the audience on edge and invested in some intentionally bizarre twists and turns.
Beyond the Gates is currently streaming on Netflix.
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