In the 1980s, VCRs were the wave of the future, and board game makers took notice. What better way to improve sitting around a cardboard rectangle and moving plastic figurines than to add a video tape into the equation? It was brilliant! At least, that’s what the makes of video board games hoped people would think. And so a whole new world of gameplay was born! No longer would board game players simply roll a dice and read an instruction card. Instead, they would slide a VHS cassette into their VCR and let some crazy person scream directions at them.
One of the most popular video board games was Nightmare, wherein players would have to find their way to the center of a board while a cloaked man with an indiscernible accent bellowed at them. It was about as fun as it sounds (not very). Video board games quickly died out, but they retained a certain kitschy charm in the years to come. The power of nostalgia kept them alive in spirit, if not in practice. So it’s surprising that the horror film genre, which traffics so heavily in nostalgia, had yet to come calling. Until now.
Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Gates is a horror movie that sends-up video board games while also tipping its hat to them in the process. When their troubled father goes missing and is presumed dead, estranged brothers Gordon (Graham Skipper) and John (Chase Williamson) reunite to clean out his old video store. The two brothers are polar opposites: Gordon is stiff and respectable while John is a scruffy screw-up. Despite their separation and hints of resentment, the brothers fall into sync going through their departed father’s things — and that’s when they discover Beyond the Gates, a video board game unlike any other. When the brothers pop the tape in, their greeted with seizure-inducing strobe lights and a mysterious hostess (Barbara Crampton, the hardest-working woman in horror). Things get even weirder when Crampton’s character seems to start talking directly to the brothers, and tells them she has knowledge of their father’s whereabouts. Now Gordon and John, along with Gordon’s girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant) have to play the game or risk the consequences — like death and dismemberment.
It’s a solid-enough premise, but Stewart and co-writer Stephen Scarlata are in no real horror to cut to the chase. Beyond the Gates builds towards its horror, and the film suffers because of it. It’s admirable that Stewart wants to take the time to attune his audience to his characters, but the problem is the pre-horror elements just aren’t very engaging. Pacing becomes a major issue — there are moments of silence that hang there that could’ve easily been edited out. Long, almost interminable seconds are spent with the camera fixed on a TV while Crampton stares out silently, leaving us all to wonder when, if ever, someone is going to say something and get the ball rolling.
Once the horror kicks into gear, Beyond the Gates finds its footing, splattering gore galore. Crampton, always a welcomed presence, makes the most of her spooky hostess role, and the cast in general commits fully to Stewart’s overall vision. But Beyond the Gates is wobbly; a victim of its own pacing and plotting. Genre stalwarts might find something to latch onto, but for others Beyond the Gates will likely fade away like the video board games that inspired it.