I remember THE GATE as the movie I didn’t get to see when I was a kid. Instead, I was dragged to an excruciatingly bad kids’ comedy that shall remain nameless, a comedy that I was forced to watch on three separate occasions. Almost thirty years later, I realized I never did get around to seeing THE GATE. What I discovered was a gem of a cult classic.
It’s an 80’s movie about kids who summon demons by following the instructions in a heavy metal album. Pretty standard stuff, right? Not quite.
What sets this B-movie apart is the ingenious special effects, accomplished with a budget of $2.5 million. That’s two point five. The film was directed by Tibor Takács, from a script by Michael Nankin, who went on to direct several episodes of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. But the real star is special effects supervisor Randall Cook.
Cook, with the right combination of old-school training and youthful enthusiasm, pushed the abilities of practical effects to the limit, making up for the small budget by putting in long hours until the effects were exactly right. Some of the standout scenes are the possessed handyman who falls to the floor and disintegrates into a horde of tiny demons; the kid running across his living room floor as it collapses into an abyss; and the gigantic multi-limbed beast that appears at the end and has a creepy “E.T.” moment with the kid, leaving him with an eye embedded in the palm of his hand. The movie fools the viewer by constantly switching between different techniques, including stop-motion, puppetry, green-screen, and the most radical use of forced perspective ever committed to film. Many scenes leave you wondering, “How did they do that?” Watch the movie first and be amazed; then look up the various interviews and learn how they did it.
There was a sequel that took the story in a darker direction. Despite having three times the budget, it’s not nearly as good or inventive as the original.
I’ve often wondered why low-budget movies from the 80’s are so much better than their modern counterparts. I think it’s because they were able to draw on a level of expertise that no longer exists: not just in special effects, but in lighting, cinematography, and writing. With the advance of computer technology, film studios discovered that they could replace skilled craftsmen with semi-skilled, low-paid CGI artists. The result is bland, homogeneous, soulless movies. In the process, they destroyed the infrastructure that made the old kind of filmmaking possible.
Between the mega-studios that crank out lowest-common-denominator pablum, and indie studios that crank out postmodern nihilism, I’d rather read a book.
The good news is that a savvy filmmaker can use digital technology to supplement, not replace, old-school techniques. Intelligent use of technology can lower cost without sacrificing quality. So what’s missing? Great writing. The kind that kicks the postmodern Zeitgeist in the teeth. For that, you need a cultural revolution. Not the Maoist kind that annihilates the past, but the kind that rediscovers it.
Hate the modern incarnation of Star Trek, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, Transformers, etc? Imagine your own sequel, informed by the values and myths of the past. Then write it, but using your own worlds and characters. Sooner or later, the SF insurgency will find its way to the big screen.