As years go, 2016 has been a rough one. The movie that’s helping me get through it more than any other right now is Beyond the Gates.
[Warning: This article contains minor spoilers for those who haven’t seen Beyond the Gates.]
This is the year that has claimed a number of brilliant and legendary artists. The year of more devastating terror attacks, of police shootings, and of Brexit. Like it or not, this is also the year that saw the election of a new president who has already been a more polarizing figure than any in recent memory. Reports of hate crimes are on the rise. America is irrevocably divided. This year has sucked, is what I’m saying. But Beyond the Gates gives me hope. Beyond the Gates is the movie the country needs right now.
The debut feature from co-writer/director Jackson Stewart, which hit VOD and limited theatrical release on December 9th, tells the story of two distant brothers (Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson) who come across a VHS board game while cleaning out their vanished father’s failed video store. The game, called Beyond the Gates (and “hosted” by the great Barbara Crampton, going full Black Sunday Barbara Steele), demands that they continue to play and leads to several very bloody deaths; failure to finish the game, however, could mean something far worse.
I’m going to try to talk about why this movie has the power to heal us without giving too much away, because it’s a movie that horror fans need to see. It wears its Italian horror influences proudly on its sleeve, primarily Lucio Fulci, who has two films referenced in just the title alone, and Fabio Frizzi, whose scores clearly inspired the gorgeous music composed for the movie by Wojciech Golczewski. Yes, there is comfort in these aspects of Beyond the Gates for those of us who have the same affection for Italian horror that Jackson Stewart does.
The movie is also aesthetically and tonally indebted to the supernatural horror films of the ’80s, as evidenced by its “haunted VHS tape” premise. It would be easy for Beyond the Gates to traffic in simple nostalgia and for us viewers to follow it down that particular rabbit hole, as there is a definite allure to disappear into the comforting things of our youth when things get as shitty as this year has been. But the movie is never just empty nostalgia; it may use some of the signifiers of ’80s horror and certainly nails the vibe when it wants to, but it’s no mere warm blanket of childhood memories.
Don’t get me wrong: all that stuff is great. It’s why Beyond the Gates is so much fun and pushes so many of my horror-loving buttons. But Stewart and co-writer Stephen Scarlata have more on their minds than references for their own sakes, and that’s where the movie goes from something I only like to something I love—something that’s going to help me navigate the difficulties of this year and the tough times I know are still to come. At its heart, Beyond the Gates is a movie about healing. The two brothers have experienced real pain in the past (in the film it’s alcoholism and abuse, but it could be applied to anything in the real world) and have responded to it in totally different ways. One loses direction; he’s sad but loyal, ever hopeful for something to change and a positive outcome to somehow present itself. One is angry and takes off, but can’t outrun his pain, ultimately turning the anger inwards and repeating some of the same cycles. We can recognize our own responses to hard times in both of them. But Beyond the Gates isn’t just trying to hold up a mirror for us. The film wants us to know that looking in the mirror isn’t enough.
It’s only in confronting the challenges that haunt us that we ever stand a chance of building a future for ourselves. Sometimes those challenges take the form of a toxic national discourse, hate speech, and the rights of others being trampled. Sometimes they take the form of ghost zombies brought to life by a demonic board game. In either case, we have to fight back. There will be stumbles and new obstacles, but Beyond the Gates recognizes that the imperfections within us can drive us to try harder and make the changes that need to be made. It’s about being someone who makes big mistakes and coming from a line of big mistake-makers. More than anything, though, it’s about our ability to do better. To be better.
Most horror movies are designed to break us down over their running time; we begin from a place of safety and security, and it’s through some encounter with a supernatural entity or a snarling monster or masked slasher that our place in the world changes from one of security to one of paranoid madness. It’s why Sue Snell wakes up screaming in the hospital bed at the end of Carrie, or why Sally rides away in the back of the pickup truck at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, half screaming and half insane cackling. But Beyond the Gates reverses this structure by being less about tearing us down and exposing our nerves and more about uniting us. It begins with two broken brothers and, through their experiences over the course of the movie, repairs their relationship and heals them as people. They’re able to eventually move from an incredibly awkward high five to a sincere and heartfelt hug.
At the end of 2016, I’m not even sure we’re at the awkward high five place as a country. We have a lot of work to do before we can get to the hug, but Beyond the Gates tells us it’s possible. All we need is the willingness to be better. And Barbara Crampton. Always Barbara Crampton.
In case you missed it, check out our previous coverage of Beyond the Gates: