The Gate (1987)

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Ah, kids in peril. Is there a more pointless genre of movie for adults to watch? With the advent of multiplexes and kids getting serious disposable income, scumbag movie producers (who would make literally anything if they thought they could turn a quick buck) saw there was yet another untapped market and swooped in. There’s the occasional diamond in the rough (“The Goonies”, er….) but by and large it’s pandering nonsense where kids have to save the day thanks to absent / disbelieving parents. And by the construction of this paragraph, you should have an inkling of what I thought about “The Gate”.

 

Stephen Dorff was an odd-looking kid (plus, someone should really update his IMDB profile – it describes him as “one of the most respected young actors in Hollywood” despite him being 43). He’s got an older sister who’s just leaving behind childish excitement and is trying to be cool, a best friend who’s seriously into heavy metal, and an old dog. One day, his parents decide to get rid of the tree from their back garden, and underneath the roots are a couple of geodes. Well, geodes and a seemingly bottomless pit, but the pit’s existence or otherwise seems to be a matter of some debate. Splitting open the geodes causes a bunch of mini-demons to come streaming out, and then it’s on!

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DOES THE DOG DIE? Yes and no. He appears to die early on, to provide the sacrifice that the demons need to push the gate open, but then is fine again at the end.

 

Thanks to the exceptionally thorough booklet provided with a heavy metal LP by the band “Sacrifyx”, our heroes know what they need to do, sort of – stop the demons doing two human sacrifices in order to turn Earth into Hell. The sister having a party provides the movie with some cannon fodder (although no-one dies, because it’s a kids movie), an array of the most awesome 80s fashions and a ghost story section (seriously, the dancing and the music stops and they all sit around telling campfire tales in the middle of the living room. Odd).

 

The mini-demons, and all the special effects really, are excellent for the budget they had. The creatures themselves are just people in rubber suits, but shot with such perspective that they look tiny compared to the humans – a clever touch. There’s a smidgeon of stop-motion in there too, I think, and the chief demon, when he shows up, is decent too. We even get a couple of zombies towards the end who are way better-looking than they have any right to be, and the makeup job on the “parents” gave some smaller children nightmares for weeks, I’d imagine.

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There are a few decent touches, too, that show someone bothered paying attention. The altered family photo, the way the kids are smart, but not too smart, the bonding of the feuding brother and sister…there’s things that work well here.

 

And I think that’s quite enough of being nice to this movie. After a totally decent opening, it suddenly stops having anything interesting happen til about the halfway point, and even a casual ponder of it will leave you scratching your head. Why is there a demon-infested pit in the suburbs? Why does no-one notice the thousand-foot tall column of smoke which comes out of the pit towards the end? Why is it called “The Gate” when there’s no real gate in it? Why is everyone so obsessed with rockets? And, of course, some good old fashioned 80s insults – “retarded” and “fag” are used by people we’re supposed to be cheering on.

 

We appear to be wandering dangerously close to being Tibor Takacs completists here at the ISCFC. We’ve covered “Sabotage”, “Mansquito”, and “Ice Spiders”, and the weird thing is this would appear to be one of his most beloved movies. He also directed the sequel a few years later, featuring a young Pamela Adlon; but I’m not sure I can be bothered with that one. Life’s too short for the aggressively mediocre.

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Rating: thumbs down

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Sabotage (1996)

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Quentin Tarantino cast a long shadow over 90s action cinema. You all know this, but “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” established a template which a horde of lesser talents used to make a seemingly endless series of movies with wisecracking pop culture referencing central partnerships, verbose villains with weird little tics and quirks, near-autistic “heroes”, standoffs and super-bloody set-pieces. There’s more mainstream ones like “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead”, “Two Days In The Valley” and “Get Shorty”; less mainstream ones like “Coldblooded” and “Palookaville”; and absolute garbage like “8 Heads In A Dufflebag” and “Very Bad Things” (although I’ll never watch it again, I thoroughly enjoyed “Boondock Saints”, ignore all the asshole reviewers who loved it at the time but want to convince you it’s garbage now).

 

I’m just listing movies (sorry) because I’m still trying to figure out how to describe this, and hope you’d be distracted – plus, I’ve seen a lot of too-cool 90s garbage. “Sabotage” is the work of two people long-term readers will be familiar with – director Tibor Takacs, who’s behind ISCFC favourites “Mansquito” and “Ice Spiders”; and star Mark Dacascos, from “Drive”, “Kickboxer 5” and “Double Dragon”. Not two names you’d associate with Tarantino-esque thrillers, I think you’ll agree, but read on. Or don’t. I get paid the same (£0) either way!

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Starting off in the first Bosnia / Serbia war, Bishop (Dacascos) is a sniper / general badass who is so awesome he survives an encounter meant to kill him – first, an almost impossible rescue mission, followed by a freelance assassin (Tony Todd) shooting him seven times, then blowing up the building he was in, while walking away. Quick aside: when was the first incidence of the “guys walking away from explosions” thing? TV Tropes calls it the “Unflinching Walk” and the earliest example they provide is from “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” in the late 80s. Anyone got an earlier one?

 

Anyway, this is a fun opening, but we’re immediately whisked to the present day (well, 1996) where Bishop is now a sharp-dressed bodyguard for the Trents, a couple of billionaire arms dealers. Tony Todd, in what you imagine must be a heck of a coincidence, has been tasked with killing the Trents just a few weeks after Bishop started working for them…of course there are no coincidences in this world. Bishop manages to save the wife, but the killing of the husband and a few of his other bodyguards brings in the FBI, in the shape of Agent Castle (Carrie-Anne Moss, a few years before “The Matrix” would briefly elevate her into the A-list).

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Around here is where my notes run out, because the film becomes one of those pointlessly convoluted crime dramas so beloved of the time. Castle’s boss has some weird relationship with CIA guy – and extremely obvious villain – Nicholas Tollander (Graham Greene); then there’s Bishop’s old mentor Follenfant (John Neville), who has a younger Dacascos lookalike as his manservant / eye candy. I guess the implication is that Follenfant did more than just mentor Bishop? No-one seems unhappy about the arrangement, so it’s hard to tell. Anyway, he knows more than he’s letting on, and then there’s Todd and who he’s working for, and who the FBI guy is working for, and why “they” didn’t kill Bishop when they had the chance. Considering pretty much everyone but Bishop and Castle are scum, the reveals, when they come, are like “oh, that bastard is dead now. Never mind”.

 

One of this movie’s redeeming features is the quality of the cinematography, courtesy of the extremely busy Curtis Petersen. Everything looks chilly and miserable, and even though there’s a slight overuse of the bullet-POV cam, the atmosphere created by his filming and lighting elevates what is as generic a thriller as they come. When you have a couple of old hands like him and Takacs in charge, at least things will look okay and have a beginning, middle and end. Don’t laugh – as our previous reviews will testify, that’s far from being a sure thing.

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Dacascos is great in this – for a guy who’s a fantastic martial artist, he only has two (fairly short) fights, having to get by on his acting. Curious choice, but one that works, and he solves way more problems with his brain than he does with his fists. Everyone else feels a little too…written? Like they’re speaking lines that sound too clever-clever, not quite right when said out loud, if that makes sense. The writers are Rick Filon (who wrote “Kickboxer 5” for Dacascos, and never worked again after this) and Michael Stokes, who’s done nothing but kids stuff since the turn of the millennium.

 

“Sabotage” feels like a movie trapped between two stools. Like, it was going to be a straight Dacascos ass-kicking fest until the enormous success of “Pulp Fiction” made them retool it to go for that dollar. Or it was going to be a chilly, cool thriller until one of the producers went “we got Dacascos!” and they altered it to play to his strengths. There’s a whole chess thing (Bishop and Castle, plus the main villain is referred to as the “White Queen”) which isn’t really developed, and the end is just twist, twist, ooh that character is a badass now, end.

 

I think your opinion of this movie will depend on how you feel about Dacascos, Moss, and that thankfully-dormant genre of super-twisty crime thrillers. Like any two of the three and you should be okay, like all three and you’ll have a good time. Not essential, but decent fun and a reminder of a less simple time.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Ice Spiders (2007)

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Tibor Takacs has been making ISCFC-worthy movies his entire career. From 1987’s “The Gate” to 1997’s “Armageddon” (the Rutger Hauer / Mark Dacascos one) to 2013’s “Spiders”, he’s the guy you call if you have a movie with a weird premise and a low budget. Although we’ve only reviewed one, the fantastic “Mansquito”, he’ll be showing up again, and he’s behind one of my favourite SyFy Channel movies, “Ice Spiders”.

I want SyFy to be more like Roger Corman who, during his 60s heyday, would do stuff like write a script in a day if he suddenly got access to a cool set. I’d like to think something similar happened here, where SyFy were offered a ski resort and something that looked a bit like a military base for a weekend and knocked up a film with the first monster that came into their heads. The gist of this particular one…can you guess from the title?…is we have a group of teen skiing superstars going off to a resort for training; plus the owner of the resort (famed TV writer Stephen J Cannell, doing a spot of acting); his head trainer, former Olympic hopeful Dan “Dash” Dashiell (Patrick Muldoon) and the hot scientist from the local research place, Dr April Sommers (Vanessa Williams, 44 at the time and not looking a day over 25). It’s this lot up against the head scientist from the local research place, who’s been doing illicit experiments on some prehistoric spider DNA, and a bunch of gigantic spiders, who are fine in the snow and have got a taste for humans.

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“Ice Spiders” manages to separate itself from its SyFy brethren in a number of ways. First up, the entire main cast can act so there’s no wasted time getting embarrassed on their behalf. The characters, by and large, behave in a sensible manner. And there’s a good sense of fun on display – the first reaction of the two hunters who die at the beginning of the movie isn’t to run, or get help, when they see a giant spider, but to try and kill it; Dash’s pathetic attempt to hit on April; and a truly magnificent mid-air death.

Although there’s a lull (only a small one) Takacs understands that you need to change things up a bit in the middle of a cheesy giant spider movie, so we get all sorts of different attacks, methods of defence, camera styles and perspectives. There’s a great scene where the teens are watching some of their friends try and make it to the school bus, at extreme distance, so their commentary runs over the footage of tiny figures trying to dodge spiders – not a world-beating scene, I admit, but visually unique in terms of the rest of the film. This is rare, is what I’m getting at.

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There’s a fun final battle, some magnificent black-and-white morality at the end, and a decent satisfying coda. What more could you ask for (from a SyFy Channel original, about ice spiders)? It’s also got one of those odd credits that almost guarantees an interesting story – listed as “executive consultant” is Brian Trenchard-Smith, who we’ve covered with “Drive Hard”, but has a long and famous career in Ozploitation and in being one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourites. What did he consult on, I wonder?

Anyway, while it’s not perfect, it’s loads of fun, Muldoon is a great B-movie leading man (although he does come out with one too many lame sexist “jokes”), and you’ll have a great time if it’s on.

Rating: thumbs up

44 years old. I think she's a vampire.

44 years old. I think she’s a vampire.