Who would have thought that 2016 would be this glorious revival of all things 80s? Everyone’s new favourite streaming fix, Stranger Things (opens in new tab), is like sinking into a hot bath of references to everything that made the decade great and now no-one can get enough. I hate to sound like the smug one who heard that band first when no one knew who they were but horror has loved the 80s since, well, the 80s. This is a world of synth Carpenter soundtracks, no room for mobile phones to ruin the gory fun and, most importantly, the home of the VHS.
These wondrous tapes, now lying dusty and discarded on top shelves, were portals into the unknown. The first and only access to movies for most. A physical representation of a genre almost mythical in its ability to send viewers hiding behind cushions in terror. Horror just loves VHS so what better way to celebrate the medium by dragging a pair of dysfunctional 21st century brothers into a VCR board game that just happens to open an actual portal into another dimension? Welcome to Beyond the Gates.
Two men head back to their missing father’s video store to clear it out and stumble upon a mysterious VHS board game. Just like you or I if we found our copy of AtmosFear in the attic, the discovery excites the pair so much that of course they open the box and pop in the video tape. Horror legend Barbara Crampton flickers up on the screen and the rest is brilliant fun that manages to effortlessly walk that oh-so-perilous tightrope between effective horror and cackling dark comedy. Oh and their father’s disappearance? It might just be linked to the game.
If you’re unlucky enough not to remember VHS board games - or under the age of 20 - the premise is simple. The dungeon master on screen talks you through proceedings and you still do all your actual playing on the board itself. Open up Beyond the Gates on the other hand and you’ll get a rather different experience. Sure, there’s a board and even pieces - skulls of course - but the keys to the titular gates start appearing in the very real world and it wouldn’t be horror if that didn’t mean some risk and serious gore. The fact that John, Gordon and his girlfriend Margot end up putting the keys on the board still covered in blood should be a good indication that you’re in adult Jumanji territory now. As the doors of the pair’s father’s house start to clunk unlocked as they progress, the three end up opening a world of horrors that they’re just not prepared for.
It would be a pity to spoil the fun of Beyond the Gates here but the sheer simple joy of fiction blurring into reality is relentlessly entertaining. A video waiting patiently for its viewers to respond veers into creepy pasta territory and while there’s no out and out terrifying scares here, it rollicks along happily on the ghost train, creepy jumps in the dark here and the odd laugh out loud moment of ridiculousness there. Perfect popcorn fun if you don’t mind a few flecks of blood in there too. It’s good for your iron intake.
While the addition of a creepy antique salesman raises a stack of knowing laughs, the characters on offer here satisfyingly aren’t just cut outs. Gordon makes no qualms about hating returning to his home town with girlfriend Margot and his demons that don’t come from a hell dimension are plain to see. His relationship with his brother, John, is strained and there’s some enjoyable awkward as the pair reunite. Director Jackson Stewart and his co writer Stephen Scarlata have found a balance between horror and character that so many modern nasties just can’t match. The gore might be comedic and ridiculous but like 80s classics, you actually give a damn who lives or dies and in a movie about a haunted board game, that’s not bad going.
Here’s the key. Beyond the Gates. Go. Well, maybe not right now. Wait for the Q1 2017 release. That’ll be easier. And look how cool the poster is.