There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
The Gate, a kid-friendly horror film that was modestly successful at the box office in the summer of 1987, became a sleepover staple once it hit VHS. Written by Michael Nankin and directed by Tibor Takács, the film stars a teenaged Stephen Dorff in his first movie role, playing Glen, a nerdy suburbanite who unearths an enormous geode in his backyard, and he accidentally opens a portal to a demon-infested alternate dimension. Alongside his older sister Alexandra (Christa Denton) and his metalhead best friend Terry (Louis Chandler), Glen tries to repel an invasion of tiny, devious monsters, while doing some speedy research — mostly via Terry’s “satanic” hard rock albums — to figure out how to seal this devilish doorway. Combining the middle-class malaise of Poltergeist, the youthful adventure of The Goonies, and the nifty low-budget special effects of the Evil Dead series, The Gate is both smart and scary: an ideal introduction to the genre for anyone not yet old enough to watch anything R-rated.
Why watch now?
Because The House with the Clock in Its Walls is in theaters now.
John Bellairs’ 1973 young adult novel (with Edward Gorey illustrations) was published at a time when horror fiction was beginning to move out of the pulp magazines and onto the best-seller lists, thanks to the massive popularity of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. For The House with a Clock in Its Walls, Bellairs drew inspiration from the public’s rising fascination with the occult as well as the perennial success of intrepid juvenile heroes like Tom Swift, Danny Dunn, and Nancy Drew. He created plucky orphan Lewis Barnavelt, who finds himself living with his eccentric magic-practicing Uncle Jonathan in a house previously owned by a sorcerer couple who intended to use the property as a weapon to destroy the world. Lewis would go on to star in many more Bellairs-penned adventures, all of which mix chilling supernatural elements into tightly constructed mysteries aimed at bookish 10-year-olds.
The House with the Clock in Its Walls has been adapted to the screen twice: first as a 20-minute segment of the 1979 TV special Vincent Price’s Once Upon a Midnight Scary; and now as a big-budget Amblin Entertainment production, adapted by Supernatural creator Eric Kripke and veteran horror filmmaker Eli Roth. The TV version is cheap-looking and overly abridged, but it has some retro charm. It’s like a less-angsty version of ABC’s old Afterschool Special. The movie version, meanwhile, aims for the special effects-driven wonder of the Harry Potter films, with big-name stars Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Kyle MacLachlan, and Renée Elise Goldsberry bringing zany energy to a story of ancient magical curses and one courageous kid.
Both adaptations and the book face the problem of being spooky enough to appeal to children, but not so off-putting that parents object. What’s great about The Gate is that Nankin and Takács don’t seem to care much what moms and dads might think. Either way, they don’t spare the shocks. Once the demons start plaguing Glen, Al, Terry, and their school chums, those little buggers are relentless. They burst through walls, they slither under doors by devolving into wriggly worms, they morph together into the form of a zombified human… basically, they pop up anywhere at any time. The Gate isn’t an especially gory movie, but it is a violent one, with a fast-paced plot designed to keep audiences unsettled.
Who it’s for
Adventurous youngsters and open-minded horror aficionados.
The phrase “isn’t an especially gory movie” may be an automatic turn-off for fright-fans who tend to rate a supernatural thriller by its levels of human viscera and stomach-turning monster grotesquerie. The Gate’s beasties are pretty gnarly — all the way up to the towering “big bad,” with its multiple writhing heads — but the demons are also kind of adorable, and awesome. The seamless shift between stop-motion animation and forced-perspective puppetry is enough to make anyone who loves good, handcrafted special effects feel positively giddy.
The fashions, the music, and the lack of CGI definitely date The Gate, and yet the picture’s themes are timeless. The tension between the characters isn’t just demon-related; the story is also about Alexandra beginning to run with the popular crowd, ditching her nickname “Al,” and leaving behind the days when she worked on model rockets with Glen. The movie shows how an adolescent boy learns to be more mature, independent, and responsible. It’s a sweet coming-of-age story, that just happens to be populated by flesh-eating hobgoblins.
Where to see it
Tubi.TV. Be warned that this is not some 4K remastered edition of The Gate. But that’s okay. This movie should look fuzzy and faded, like a VHS tape that’s been watched a couple dozen times.