VCR board games were always fun. Whether it was NIGHTMARE with that creepy guy yelling at you, or one of the weird mystery games that flooded the isles, there was always something irresistible about them. The same holds true for BEYOND THE GATES, Jackson Stewart’s love letter to horror fans upbringing in dusty video stores and dark living rooms.
Gordon (Graham Skipper) and John (Chase Williamson) are estranged. John hasn’t quite figured out life and seems to lack direction. With only a purple muscle car to his name, he survives through odd jobs and the help of crass friend Hank (Justin Welborn). Gordon on the surface appears to have it together but is recovering from some dark problems of his own. His girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant) has suffered an injury due to their relationship so all is not so rosy.
After the disappearance of there father, they return to the family business, a video store, to pack it up and close it down proper. Among the thousands of tapes and papers, they find a VCR horror game still in the player in dad’s office. Curious what he watched, they press play and the game begins and drags all three into a hell where the only escape is to finish.
BEYOND THE GATES has endless replay value! From the homey but creepy atmosphere to the creative and surprising deaths (courtesy of Josh and Sierra Russell), this film delivers. As much as the film is about the a supernatural soul stealing game, it is also the story of a family putting itself back together.
As he often does, Graham Skipper (Mind’s Eye, Almost Human) creates a character that is relatable and layered. He seems stiff and cold when we first meet him, but as his recent past is revealed, he becomes a man who is hiding from himself. Opposite him, John played by Chase Williamson (John Dies At The End, SiREN) turns in his best performance yet. John is someone who life has gotten away from and struggles to get by day-to-day. The great thing about John (and the performance) is that he is never burdened with cliché problems that have created his problematic situation. He is neither a criminal or addict , just an everyday guy with obstacles that have become all too common in this day and age. Rounding out the trio, Brea Grant gives a strength and understanding to Margot. A woman who is attempting to rekindle her relationship after a bad night of drinking leaves her with a broken wrist and heart. You get the sense that she is the strength in the relationship with Gordon. As she takes the reigns in most decisions that she is involved in throughout the film.
As strong as our leads are, they also get grade A support by genre favorite Matt Mercer (Mind’s Eye, Contracted 2) and Justin Welborn (Justified, SiREN). Mercer brings a familiarity to Derek, a childhood friend and now police officer. He only has a handful of scenes but each one helps create the past for these characters that is tangible. The same goes for Welborn as Hank. He is sleazy and unruly, but never to the point of being cartoonish. His character is dangerous because he simply is who he is. He says what’s on his mind and you just have to deal with it. You can see how John may have gotten mixed up with him.
The game itself is lovingly designed by Brendon Wiuff and echos those classic board games to a T. As good as the box and game contents are, it’s Barbara Crampton that gives BEYOND THE GATES its beating heart. It’s a subtle performance that perfectly recreates those found in games of this ilk. There is no camp in her delivery, no satire, and that restraint is what makes Evelyn the gatekeeper real and chilling.
In his debut feature, Jackson Stewart has nailed what makes a horror film work. These are real people with real history and you grow to care about them as much as you would any Stephen King creation for example. Equally as important is the world they live in. It’s often hard to create icon locations like a mom and pop video store because those memories are relevant to each individual, but Stewart creates a video store atmosphere that anyone can relate to and many would love to get lost in.
The other key to the film’s success is that it is a throwback without ever trying to be. It never feels like a film that is trying to be retro, it simply exist with a certain style. No fake grain and jumpcuts, no spoon-feeding the audience. He captures the era with score, font, production design and above all else, honesty.
If you are looking to relive that window in time when VCR board games were a thing and video stores were the cool place to hang out, this movie is for you. If you are too young to remember and want to see what you missed, this movie is for you. Basically, this movie has something for every horror fan out there with the sense to seek out something new. Just like we did at those old video stores, back in the day.