Tibor Takacs’ 1987 horror hit “The Gate” may be forever remembered as an amusing footnote in the infamous “Ishtar” saga.
“Ishtar” was a lavish, problem-laden production starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, with a famously out-of-control budget and terrible word of mouth. “The Gate” was a tiny horror romp being released by a mini-distributor with little fanfare.
As fate would have it, the two opened on the same day and, while the toxic (and not entirely fair) pre-release buzz on “Ishtar” sealed its doom, “The Gate” wound up stealing its opening weekend box office glory.
“Ishtar” technically came in first place with $4.3 million (not a great opening figure, even in ’87). “The Gate” followed close behind with $4.2 million and had almost the exact same per screen average.
While “The Gate” wound up grossing an impressive $13.5 million (an excellent return on a $2.5 million budget), the $50 million “Ishtar” never came close to recouping the monumental costs of showcasing a desert with no dunes, vultures, a blind camel and its stars singing (intentionally) off-key.
The cult of “Ishtar’ deservedly rises every year, but the indie success of “The Gate” was a shot in the arm for the horror genre. Also, whereas “Ishtar” is entertaining for ways that aren’t entirely intentional, “The Gate” is a wild, scrappy and skillfully crafted genre offering for young teens.
Starring a 14-year old Stephen Dorff in his film debut, “The Gate” depicts a group of youngsters who find a gate that opens a portal with all sorts of bad things waiting to pop out. With its PG-13 rating, Takacs’ film is intense enough for horror fans but plays like an edgier variation on the same year’s “The Monster Squad.”
While the build-up is R.L. Stine-light, Takacs’ film has a consistently creepy mood, is full of charming stop-motion animation effects and has an Earth-shaking, all-bets-off finale that delivers on its premise.
FAST FACT: “Gate” director Takacs said that while the first film took pains to ensure its PG:13 rating he was under orders to make the sequel “R” rated.
For a film about opening a doorway to hell, “The Gate” manages to avoid being heavy-handed or unpleasant. It’s a macabre boy’s adventure tale with maximum entertainment value. B-movies like this can be adorably creaky, but they’re rarely this much fun.
Two years later, Takacs returned to the genre with his horror/fantasy/pulp novel throwback masterpiece, “I, Madman,” which also demonstrates a love for practical effects and efficient genre filmmaking. A year later, he made the inevitable but better-than-expected “Gate II [Blu-ray]” (or, as some releases tout it, “Gate 2: The Trespassers”).
Dorff moved on to pursue a prolific career as both a leading man and in-demand character actor. With his unavailability as a lead, the star of “Gate II” is now “The Gate” co-star Louis Tripp. Playing Terry, survivor of the first film, Tripp leads a group of dumb and very curious teens on an ill-considered journey to re-opening the titular gate.
Why? A real reason isn’t given, aside from there would be no movie if anyone onscreen did the smart thing. A subplot about Terry’s alcoholic commercial airline pilot builds genuine interest, and “Gate II” doesn’t skimp on creature effects or B-movie highlights, either.
This nutty sequel falls a bit short of matching the original but has more than enough B-movie thrills and memorable moments to recommend it.
Tripp lacks the intensity of Dorff but still carries this with quiet authenticity. Co-star James Villemaire, playing a bully-turned-ally, appears to be doing a tryout for his equally funny turn as “Harvey Starkweather” in Joe Dante’s wonderful “Matinee” (which appeared the following year).
Rarely do the special effects fall short of their ambition. The bulkier $6.5 million budget allows for forced perspective shots, stop-motion animation gags and elaborate monster make-ups that are exceptionally well done.
Whenever the focus is on the monster (or the gross aftermath of characters getting what they wish for), this fulfills its promise as a curiosity item. Takacs’ “I, Madman” remains his best film and this one unravels at the end. Following an ambitious but goofy climax, “Gate II” concludes with a poorly conceived closing scene, though a post-credits button is hilarious.
The new Scream Factory “Gate II [Blu-ray]” is presented with a 2K scan of the interpositive, allowing for the best presentation of the film and a vast improvement over the VHS version.
The best of the special features is an extended interview with Takacs and a few other collaborators on the film’s artistic achievements and limitations. It’s a great listen and an informative lesson on low budget genre filmmaking.
There’s also a gallery, the effective trailer and, a real treat for anyone with a love for VHS rental shops, a promo for a “Gate II” video store contest.
The best thing I can say is that this is the kind of movie that would pop up on TNT’s “Monstervision with Joe Bob Briggs” and I would stay up all night to finish it. For all the camp and very-’90s feel it evokes, “Gate II” has an appreciably dark sense of humor and makes a determined effort to keep its audience completely entertained