Beyond the Gates

Retro Horror

/ Remi
Beyond the Gates cover

Brothers Gordon and John’s father has gone missing and is presumed dead. His sons have the unenviable task of going through his possessions, which includes his old-school video store, one where he even refused to carry D.V.D.s. Yes, Beyond the Gates isn’t just a nostalgia-fest, it’s a V.H.S. nostalgia-fest.

The brothers soon find a board game with a bundled video-tape, and when they, alongside Gordon’s girlfriend, Margot, pop it in the player, things start going weird. The game-mistress is aware of who is playing the game and tells them their ultimate goal is to free their father’s soul or die trying. To reach the soul, they’ll need to travel through the gates of hell themselves.

Beyond the Gates is a bit of a mess story-wise, but its creepiness hits home effectively. The filming is pristine, shuffling from realistic, earthy tones to a restrained use of saturated blues and purples. It’s the look of what nightmares are made of. Wojciech Golczewski has put together a score reminiscent of Fabio Frizzi’s work in Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (this movie’s principal inspiration), which bolsters an underlying feeling of dread. When it starts playing, you know something is about to happen – not a quick, sharp shock, but rather a creeping sensation.

Those are all tentpoles of Fulci’s work, and Beyond the Gates does serve well as an all-out homage to the maestro’s films. The problem is, if you’re going full Fulci, you will also inevitably have unintended oddities in your movie.

Take the character of Gordon. It is stated early on – and many times after – that he has alcohol dependency issues. But so what? The characterization has no implications on the story, so why spend time on it? It is a symptom of a more significant problem: not a whole lot happens in the initial forty-five minutes. The group watches the V.H.S., a dollop of creepiness occurs, and the brothers go back to cleaning out their dad’s video store. Rinse and repeat. I assume the intention is to show how the brothers have grown apart, but it is never played out in any way I felt emotionally connected to.

Other side-stories – like where the game was purchased – have seemingly no end-game either. Out of the eighty-four-minute runtime, only about twenty have much meat to them.

Which is too bad, because the good parts really are good. Barbara Crampton gives an eerie performance as the game-mistress, leading a cast of younger semi-unknowns that hold their own. Technically and performance-wise, Beyond the Gates is more than a solid movie. It’s the implementation of what probably sounded like good character developments that fall flat one too many times.

By all means, do give Beyond the Gates a watch if you have Hulu. It’s worth sitting through the short runtime for the good parts. Just don’t expect to be constantly entertained or enthralled.

The Lighthouse

Mind Bender

/ Remi
The Lighthouse cover

How long can two men be stuck with each other on an isolated island without killing each other and/or go insane? That is the question The Lighthouse posits in what is one of the more bizarre movies over the last few years.

Thomas (Willem Dafoe) is a lighthouse keeper on an island somewhere off the coast of New England, where he is joined by his new assistant, Winslow (Robert Pattinson). Thomas is a crusty keeper, salty, and adamantly insists on things being done his way. Only he is allowed to tend to the light itself.

Winslow is scheduled to spend four weeks on the island, and as a simmering mutual disdain is stoked by heavy drinking, the assistant slowly starts losing grip of reality. That is if he actually had a shred of sanity when he arrived on the island.

The Lighthouse is disorienting – the one thing an actual lighthouse is not supposed to be. Winslow starts seeing visions of merfolk, and time starts losing meaning. As he is berated and bullied by Thomas, things get – no pun intended – foggy. How long has Winslow actually been on the island? Who is out to get whom? And what makes the light so special that Thomas allows no-one near it?

It’s a strange-looking movie, too, yet gorgeous to look at; well deserved of its Academy Award nomination for best cinematography. It is filmed in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio – practically square – and 35 m.m. black and white looks appropriately eighteen-nineteens.

Too, the wind and rhythmic fog horns sound haunting, with a dull emptiness that suggests the two men stuck in a purgatory. Religion is a general theme that flows through the movie – Winslow even parallels Prometheus, the Greek titan who stole fire from the gods.

Small details are strewn throughout the dialogue, giving hints of what may or may be happening, and echoes of them can often be seen in the background. The Lighthouse is a painstakingly detailed movie.

Dafoe and Pattinson both knock it out of the park with their performances, too. They are for all intents and purposes the only actors on screen – with apologies to the mermaid – and both display an intensity that makes every scene just a little uncomfortable to watch. Their respective beard and mustache are pretty much salty characters in themselves.

It’s a complex and disorienting watch, The Lighthouse, yet constantly entertaining. I might not quite grasp what’s going on all the time, but that’s part of what makes it fascinating. It’s a well-balanced movie.

2019 was a good year for movies, and The Lighthouse ranks right up there with the best of them.


Mind Bender

/ Remi
Bliss cover

Bliss is, in all technicality, a vampire movie. I use technicality, not in the sense that the film is trying to hide its vampire-ness or to suggest that a vampire concept is bourgeois. Instead, Bliss uses the conceit as a means to present a movie which true premise is focused on creativity and addiction.

We follow Dezzy, a punk rock cover designer and artist. She has hit a creative block, and the central painting of her soon-to-open exhibition has stood untouched for three months. If she can’t finish it, her show will be canceled, and she will be out on the street.

Desperate, angry, and fed-up, Dezzy trapes to one of her old haunts, and lapses back into a drug binge after an extended period of sobriety. The substance, Bliss, hits like an intense hallucinogenic, and Dezzy descents into the darkest corners of her mind, using the lapse to re-fuel her creativity. With every nightly binge, her work turns darker, and visions of previous evenings come back to her in pieces: visions of being bit, visions of drinking blood, visions of eating someone. The realization creeps in that she has been turned into a vampire.

The vampire angle pairs well with the addiction theme, to the point where it might even be too on the nose. Cravings, blackouts, etc. – it’s somewhat predictable, yet a good fit none the less.

More importantly, Bliss does not fall victim of going the she’s happy and creative when the highs hit, dejected after route. Dezzy is miserable through each binge, the Bliss being as intense as it is numbing. Her creativity doesn’t happen because of the drugs, it happens despite them. The real tragedy of the story is that Dezzy could have created something better, had her destructive side not taken over.

Visually and sonically, Bliss mirrors Dezzy’s surreal descent. Colors and sound marry into scenes that transition fluidly from dreams to nightmares. As Dezzy slips into the darkness, the world around her turns paradoxically saturated, with strobing lights and high-pitched sounds piercing through it. It makes for both a disconcerting viewing and listening, well-matched by a hard-hitting punk rock soundtrack.

And Dora Madison as Dezzy? Rarely have I seen someone throw themselves so convincingly into a role. Her raw portrayal of anger and confusion does not let up throughout the film. It’s a performance that matches the script absolutely perfectly. Even this early on, I’m sure it will stand as one of the year’s best performances.

(Also, George Wendt is puzzlingly in the film. I do not know why, and his two minutes of screen time seems wasted.)

Bliss deep dives into a difficult and uncomfortable subject without any sugarcoating. It’s a heavy viewing for sure, but also thoroughly fascinating.

The Wave

Time Traveling Shenanigans

/ Remi
The Wave cover

Justin Long stars in The Wave as Frank, an objectively unlikable lawyer. He is in the insurance racket, with the sole purpose of poking holes into as many claims as possible. He’s good at it, and on the night of a promotion, he goes out celebrating with his friend, Jeff (Donald Faison). One hallucinogenic trip later, and Frank’s world and its time-stream start warping. Frank finds himself bouncing back and forth in time, through situations that he, in one way or another, needs to interconnect for the time-warp to end.

It’s worth reiterating here, how much of a butt Frank actually is. It’s bad enough that he ruins lives to countless people through his work, but he’s also the type who goes out celebrating without telling his wife. To hit the trifecta, he decides to pursue one of the ladies in the bar, too.

The movie’s key goal is for Frank to find redemption, but there’s really no way for The Wave to achieve that. Ninety minutes is not nearly enough time to redeem Frank.

Yet, it’s not all bottom of the barrel, The Wave. Justin Long is a capable actor, and he does what he can with his character. Making Frank likable would be too tall of an order for anyone, but Long at least makes him seem human. It’s also nice seeing Faison again, who I mainly know as the sidekick in Scrubs. Here he holds his own as a wisecracking sidekick. Even Frank’s wife, who is scripted to be the overused nagging wife trope, is portrayed well by Sarah Minnich. The Wave might not be a trove of interesting characters, but the cast does what it can to make it seem like it is.

Too, the time-traveling was intriguing enough to hold my attention to the end. Things like what happened to Frank’s wallet, and where he stashed the drugs he stole from some murderous dealers, were questions I was able to hold out ninety minutes for the answer to. I sat through to the very end, hoping Frank’s redemption at least would be interesting.

In that sense, the time-traveling could have been worse, but the mystery of what happened during Frank’s evening is a whole lot more The Hangover than it is Primer.

And in the end, The Wave just feels banal. It doesn’t achieve saying anything, and its take on what redemption actually is is iffy at best. It never felt like Frank cared about the error of his ways; rather, he just wanted the time-warp to stop.

I don’t think a movie has to say anything particularly meaningful to be worthwhile – look no further than the Happy Death Day duology for time travel fiction that simply is entertaining. The Wave doesn’t succeed in being either fun nor profound.

With that said: the film’s final shot is gold and a reminder of Faison’s talent for deadpan deliveries.