When I was about five years old, my younger brother Paul and I often went to a babysitter down the street after school. Her house was a great place to hang out because things were pretty relaxed: there were arcade games around for amusement and the most bad ass, giant jungle gym, which clearly rivaled my own family’s rickety, aluminum swing set. It was a place where we could get away with a lot of shenanigans, but where we were generally safe and secure. However, things occasionally got out of hand. One time I attempted a cherry drop from the bars of the jungle gym and ended up bumping my head. Paul managed to fall headfirst onto a metal bowl full of popcorn and cut his ear so bad that he needed stitches. I have a feeling that such incidents would be frowned upon in this age of helicopter parenting in our hyper-litigious country, but they were pretty run-of-the-mill occurrences at our babysitter’s place in the late eighties.
Similarly, the regulations around TV and movie watching seemed much more flexible than my household’s rules, which is why I write this entry about The Gate, a 1987 Canadian film starring a very young Stephen Dorff. I must have been about six years old when I saw this PG-13 horror film at my babysitter’s house, yet I remember my response to this day.
The basic plot: a young boy, Glenn, (played by Dorff) and his older sister, Al, stay home alone while their parents go on vacation. Through a series of random events, Glenn and his friend Terry accidentally open a gateway to a hellish world through a hole in the backyard. In their vulnerable state, little creatures terrorize the kids. One scene in particular sticks out in my mind as particularly terrifying: in the midst of their distress, the parents show back up unexpectedly much to the kids’ relief; however, the parents turn out to be demonic mirages used to trick the kids. I also vaguely recall a scene where the telephone melts in the older sister’s hand. All of this frightened me because it played upon my fear that if left alone, bad things would happen to me. Here’s the trailer:
Today, I wonder if a movie like this marketed to children would even be feasible. When first released, The Gate fared well at the box office, earning about $13 million according to Box Office Mojo and justifying a sequel. Poltergeist, Critters, The Witches, Gremlins, and their sequels also featured kid protagonists and/or puppet creatures attractive to children. With PG or PG-13 ratings, these films were easily accessible to young viewers and parents could feel comfortable letting their kids watch them. Such movies seem to have dwindled as the nineties progressed, possibly due to the increased concerns of parents or merely due to changes in taste. These days, an animated film like Coraline most closely resembles this kind of kiddie horror, and the similarities between the two are slight.
The kiddie horror genre, embodied by The Gate, may have been a product of the growing phenomenon of the latchkey kid during the Reagan Era. The film itself reflects the anxieties that a latchkey kid might have: concerns about safety and the ability to reach parents in a time of need pervade the film. The Gate shows its age in other ways: eighties fashion (i.e. crimped hair, spandex, and neon colors), politically incorrect insults (i.e. “retard,” “fag”), and vinyl records abound. The special effects verge on hilarious, with claymation monsters dominating the latter half of the film. I do appreciate, however, that the film uses actors in their teens and pre-teens, something you see infrequently in horror films these days.
On the whole, watching The Gate brought back a lot of memories, but failed to impress me, aside from the brief uses of surrealist imagery. Admittedly, the film may have been somewhat compromised by how I viewed it–a DVD copy of The Gate is difficult to come by, so I watched it on YouTube–but more likely, the film’s clunky pacing and silly plot twists prevented me from engaging with it entirely. The elements that did interest me, such as sister Al’s struggle to define herself in terms of teenage femininity, failed to develop into anything substantial. Still, the film reminded me of the specificity of my childhood viewing experiences to my socioeconomic conditions, and for that, it was well worth a revisit.