Hey, remember VHS board games? Those state-of-the-art non-Nintendo video games that combined all the fun of rolling dice and moving pieces around a board with all the pains of constantly stopping and starting a video tape filled with pretty bad acting and instructions for how to proceed? Anyone who has ever actually played one has probably thought, “Hey, what if the cursed tape from The Ring were part of one of these things?” and that’s where Beyond the Gates comes in. It’s time to VHS-game FOR YOUR LIFE!
Brothers Gordon (Graham Skipper) and John (Chase Williamson) are damaged youngsters, in search of their negligent father; he has disappeared yet again, though this time under more significant circumstances than the usual. Packing up the contents of dad’s now-abandoned video store, they find the VHS game of the title, and realize the old man was probably watching the included tape right before he vanished.
The brothers try watching, but the tape strobes very strangely, and before they realize it several hours have passed in an instant. Realizing that at the very least this could be a clue, they decide to play on at home, with Gordon’s extremely understanding girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant) joining as player three. And yes, with each move, creepy things start permeate the real world—like a random zombie who shows up at night sometimes, and real working voodoo dolls.
These elements are only creepy in theory, however. Beyond the Gates takes a halfway decent story idea (Jumanji/Zathura, only with a horror game this time) and renders it oddly inert. Director Jackson Stewart cowrote the script, but doesn’t serve it as well as he could behind the camera. Unfortunately for him, long pauses in and of themselves aren’t always dramatic, nor are night scenes inherently scary; it’s all in how you execute them. And he does so with minimal coverage, little/basic editing, and blandly obvious lighting choices.
As the video host, Barbara Crampton is the highlight here, with her silent movie-ish makeup and washed out, black-and-white aesthetic—I wished many times that the movie I was actually watching were as stylishly done as the video the characters within it find themselves enthralled by.
Said game itself has a wonderful aesthetic, with Edward Gorey-inspired, hand-drawn art that may remind the viewer of the pop-up book in The Babadook. A production design more like that would have been promising, but at least when the gore arrives, those moments have a crazy, go-for-broke energy that the other scenes lack, with blood and guts spraying freely on everyone in sight. You might say the contrast is the point, except that it’s a point that doesn’t last, or add to the story.
On that topic, the most aggravating thing about the plot is how far ahead of the main characters we are at all times. Even if you’ve never seen Jumanji or Zathura, it should be obvious from literal square one that playing the game to the end is the only real option; having people hesitate before making another move doesn’t add to the suspense—it just makes you want to yell, “Get on with it!” at the screen.
From time to time, the soundtrack busts out a synth-driven score that’s inspired by John Carpenter—great, more of that, please. Why not throughout the whole movie? The film would have gotten probably 50% better on that alone. And Brea Grant is so good in the thankless love interest role that you’ll wish she were the lead instead of dull Gordon. Skipper may or may not be a fine actor, but he’s not believable as an abusive ex-drunk, and just to prove it, The Signal‘s Justin Welborn shows up to demonstrate how to do it right.
While horror remakes in general are a bad idea, I’d love to see what somebody else could do with this material. Both Jumanji and Zathura were already scary movies to the kids at which they were aimed; a version that could scare adults too is a worthy goal. Maybe Stewart himself will be the one to take another pass, after he’s made a few more films and figured out what his directorial vision is.
Move ahead 1.5 out of 5 burrito spaces.
Images: Easy Open Productions/Thunder Warrior Productions
Luke Y. Thompson is weekend editor at Nerdist, a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and other fun stuff. Plus he has a Twitter.