The 1987 Canadian horror film The Gate is a cult classic by today’s standards, and it’s easy to see why it has such success. Its loving homage to horror – from its heavy metal devil worship to its H.P. Lovecraft-esque leanings documenting old gods and demons – certainly helps viewers get in the mood, but its more important offering is a heaping dose of nostalgia for people who caught this film at a younger age. Garnering a PG-13 rating and sporting a cast almost entirely made up of young kids and teens, The Gate hits the same sweet spot that The Goonies and The Monster Squad managed around the same time period, and the film’s exploration of youthful ignorance and the difficulties of managing responsibility quickly make it stand out in the horror genre.
A lot of the success is owed to Michael Nankin’s script, which is full of energy and creativity even early in the film. Glen’s (Stephen Dorff) lawn is upturned to reveal a magical geode and a yawning hole, and The Gate wastes no time working in both creepy horror moments and a solid mix of humor and pathos. Despite its PG-13 rating and often comedic nature, The Gate also offers some truly spooky scenarios, including the film’s opening sequence in Glen’s nightmare and a zombie workman spawned from Terry’s (Louis Tripp) own imagination. Nankin’s ability to weave youthful curiosity with tense moments keeps the viewer plunging forward, even when the actual gate of the film’s title doesn’t open until after the film’s halfway point.
But The Gate also owes a lot to its leading actors, not just Dorff and Tripp but also Christa Denton as Glen’s sister Al. There’s a childlike playfulness in their interactions, but the film finds a lot of humanity in these children as well; left home alone for three days, their main goal is to have as much fun as possible without their parents, but in their naivete they forget that outside life and responsibility can intrude on their good time. Dorff and Tripp are extremely likable, with two different personalities: Glen is a bit more innocent, but Terry has changed since his mother died the previous year. The Gate works in these real-life intrusions, not explicitly but as asides: like the supernatural demons and minions that eventually threaten the children, life itself is also unpleasant, and Terry’s the one that has experienced death firsthand.
This humanizing element gives director Tibor Takacs room to get creative with the demons, including tiny minions that wouldn’t be out of place in an Evil Dead film and a couple of gory effects that are played up as much for laughs as they are scares. The film excels in its second half as the stakes increase, and because Takacs does such a good job developing his characters early, there’s some tension in hoping that Glen will succeed in vanquishing the demons and bringing his sister and Terry back from the demon realm.
But ultimately this is an allegory, a coming-of-age story, and The Gate is a solid 85 minute film about children dealing with responsibilities and death steeped in fantasy. The film is fun, bold, and often surprising, and it’s no wonder that many fans’ memories of The Gate are steeped in nostalgia: there are so many moments that would stand out after seeing this film as a kid, and it’s a good representation of the types of moralistic fantasy tales that have remained steeped in lore since their release. If you haven’t seen The Gate yet, rectify that as soon as possible – especially if you’re fans of the aforementioned film titles or Stranger Things.