Several programmers (Brainscan, Stay Alive, Hellraise Hellworld) have had gamers troubled by haunted computer games – ringing the changes in an amiably retro-way, director/cowriter Jackson Stewart builds this around a haunted example of the briefly-popular format of a board game played with prompts from a sinister host on an accompanying video. Along with the setting of an outmoded video rental store, the premise gives the film a nice throwback feel – as does an ‘80s-style reliance on Fangoria-friendly physical gore effects and an amusing yet sinister turn from Barbara Crampton who appears in black and white as the huge-eyed hostess of the Beyond the Gates game.
When their unreliable father (Henry LeBlanc) disappears, contrasted brothers – uptight Gordon (Graham Skipper) and slacker John (Chase Williamson) – have to meet up and go through his closed-down shop, where they find the board game apparently half-played. Tensions between the brothers, who have reacted in different ways to their messy upbringing, are neatly sketched-in, and Gordon’s girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant) – a potential third wheel – is interesting and odd enough on her own (she suffers from somnambulism) to add to the mix. The video hostess, whom only the three players see, tells Gordon and John that they must play the game to free their father’s soul – though there’s a high real-world price to pay for finding the four keys which are the crucial props. Instructions in the game lead the brothers to dig under a cross in their backyard, and John finds a ragdoll in a coffin which he has to cut open to get the key – only, through sympathetic magic, this means his wiseass boozing buddy Hank (Justin Welborn) is disembowelled at the same time.
The various challenges in the game are all a bit pat, and the script (co-scripted by Stephen Scarlata, of Final Girl) isn’t quite clear on how Beyond the Gates relates to the real world. Though there are good, gory,shocking moments along the way, the resolution seems much too pat – just when the game out to be getting trickier, there’s an easy out even if it doesn’t offer a completely happy ending. Another ‘80s throwback is the Hellraiser-type punchline as the sinister junk shoppe owner (Jesse Merlin) sells the game on to the next sucker. It’s a rare case of a horror film with solid characterisation and performances but not quite enough story to support them.