Jackson Stewart on his VHS throwback ‘Beyond the Gates’; At The Brooklyn Horror Film Festival 10/15

The term “throwback horror” gets tossed around a lot these days in reference to horror films making the festival circuit. While many may aim for that nostalgic vibe, few manage to hit it on the head as solidly and satisfyingly as Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Gates. Making effective use of a small cast and economical plot, the film walks the line between tightly-wound supernatural horror and cleverly-amusing throwback. While humorous, the concept’s never played for wink-and-nudge laughs in Beyond the Gates, and the film unfurls like the kids in The Gate grew up.

We spoke via Skype with director Stewart regarding his friendship with one of the film’s producers and stars, Barbara Gordon, as well as how the movies he enjoys influenced the tone and pacing of Beyond the Gates.

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I didn’t know that you had met Barbara when you were working for Stuart Gordon. What’s the story behind that?

Basically, I met Stuart through his daughter, Jillian, at the New Beverly in 2009 or something. We ended up seeing True Grit, and I met him there. I was looking for an internship at the time, because I had left this post-production house I was working at, and I had always been a fan of his.

I found his office number on IMDB Pro, called him up, and met with him, and pretty immediately hit it off. We had pretty similar taste in movies, and he gave me a couple of scripts to read, to see if our tastes lined up on that front. The two I read, I really dug, and it was just basically a test to see how everything would work out, and I passed it, so I ended up working for him for a little while.

Then, I got a job at Supernatural in the writer’s room as an assistant, and ended up leaving, but stayed in contact with Stuart, and would end up helping him out and giving him a hand when he needed something. I met Barbara through that, when they were doing the Re-Animator musical.

If I understand, you first contacted her about help with funding, and then she came in as an actress?

Yes. It was kind of weird. I do this thing that’s probably detrimental to my career, where I’m friends with someone and don’t ask anything of them. [laughs] I’d been friends with Barbara for about five years at that point. She’d expressed an interest in producing, and I had a pretty small amount of money I was looking to get so we could fund the movie and get it made.

I just reached out to her and was like, “I have this much money in the bank right now, and I need X amount of dollars and I know you’re interested in producing. We’re shooting in a month, and we’re interested in seeing if you’d like to fill in this last gap of financing we’re missing.” She read and really dug the script right away, which was nice.

We originally had another actress playing Evelyn role. I feel like such an idiot for not choosing Barbara for the role, but we had three people were choosing from, and one of them really scared me in another project, and I didn’t want for [Beyond the Gates] to be like a VCR board game. Like in Nightmare, for instance, where the host is pretty ridiculous and campy and over-the-top. If you’re aiming to make it campy, it just always feels like a spoof.

There’s this weird translation thing I feel a lot of throwback movies have fallen into when they’re trying to ape the ’80s slasher movies, where they’re like, “This person has a really dumb haircut, so we’re going to focus on that,” and they just drill down into the cheesy elements. That’s rather than the thing that they did back then, which is where they’re trying to tell a good story and make a scary movie – the same things we’re trying to do now, but they just ended up dating it because someone had a huge Jheri curl mullet or something.

We had another actress, and we shot some footage with her, and for a couple of reasons, it just didn’t end up working. There were some technical issues with how it turned out, based on the makeup and some other stuff. She was based in another part of the country and we needed to fix it right then. I’d been toying with the idea of Barbara for the role, and it dawned on me that she had such a great connection to all of these movies we were lovingly referencing. It felt like a perfect bit of stunt casting. Plus, I felt like it would be interesting to see her in a more villainous role, kind of like a Black Sunday type of environment.

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I feel like Beyond the Gates gets to have the best of both worlds, because there is Barbara Crampton in a very “Barbara Steele in Mario Bava movies” role, but also with Jesse Merlin’s performance, there’s this nod to Fright Night and all those very campy horror hosts, so you do actually get to have it both ways.

I really like that you made the connection between the two of them, too, because there’s sort a reason the two of them stand out a little bit more and feel like a little more otherworldly from the other actors. I’m glad that you picked up on that. Jesse was very much supposed to be – Peter Vincent’s a much nicer character – but a Hammer [type]. Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, one of those guys. Jesse brings his own sort of devilish flavor to that – it’s all him. When we meet him, he feels like a man out of another time, and he really locked into that. I think he and Barbara both did a terrific job.

The movie has definite influences – it’s very much as if the characters from The Gate or The Monster Squad are now adults – but in addition to that innocence, there’s this really hard edge in terms of practical effects that are brief, but bloodily effective.

Absolutely. When I was writing it with Steve Scarlata, our main idea was that we wanted it to feel like it was in the vein of those movies, but feel a little bit different than them, while still paying homage in an appropriate way, without it feeling like a joke. My interest was telling this story about these two brothers that have kind of diverged down their separate roads in life.

Chase [Williamson]’s character, John, is sort of hanging on by a thread, but he’s this loveable scoundrel type character. Gordon, Graham [Skipper]’s character, is very much this buttoned-up dude, basically exerting all this control over all the elements in his life – so much, that he’s starting to lose it. I felt like having Graham as that Type A character would be an interesting turn from him, because I’ve seen him in several roles, all over which he’s been effective in, but I’ve never seen him in a “Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs” type of performance.

He’s so different from this character, too. Graham is just the kindest, funniest, most friendly dude you could fine. I felt like it would be interesting to give him this nasty story with his alcoholism. He definitely made some big mistakes while he was drunk, and he’s sort of trying to atone. I feel that’s an interesting arena to play in: where people are confronting these issues of their past that have been hidden for a while.

One of the things that works well in the movie is that all the main characters have these dark backgrounds. It’s a horror trope to have a secret, but it seems more realistic in this case, because they’re working through them rather than them being hidden, then discovered, ruining everything.

Thank you for saying that, because that was completely the plan! I think that a lot of recent movies – not just horror movies – they do this thing, where there’s a big reveal, and it’s like, “I can never trust this person again!” My experience in life is that things don’t usually work out that way. You can learn something shocking, but you’re still ultimately connected to your family or your friends, and you try and work through it. Maybe it happens, or maybe you cut ties with that person, but it feels like using those elements as an Elizabethan “I caught you!” kind of moment is very untrue to real life, and I wanted to avoid that.

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Realistic situation in an unreal setting – absolutely. I also enjoyed the fact that Beyond the Gates is tightly paced and tightly plotted, but at no point does it seem like it’s rushed, with you trying to move things along to the next set piece. How do you write for those sorts of beats without feeling like you’re dwelling too much on plot for a horror film?

That was something I was very conscious of in the horror movies that I’ve liked. We sort of subvert a few things in there: we don’t have a big opening scare in the first minute and a half, you know? What’s interesting to me, in these movies, is when they treat it like a real narrative, not an excuse to jump from set piece to set piece, constantly trying to outdo the last one. I feel that if you’re on board with these characters, it’s just 1000x more effective.

A good, recent example of this is Ti West’s House of the Devil. Jocelin Donahue’s character in it, you like her so much, you’re riveted basically watching her hang out in a house for 70 minutes before the shit really goes down. It’s so cool that they did that, because there’s a thing with people’s attention spans recently, with cell phones eroding them. To me, it just seems that you need to tell these stories as best you can and make each scene as engaging as possible.

Even if it’s just two people talking in a kitchen, you really want there to be some meat to that, versus it being a filler scene until the gory stuff happens. You want to try to make each thing have some weight and importance in the overall narrative.

Beyond the Gates has its New York premiere as part of the first annual Brooklyn Horror Film Festival on Friday, October 15, with Stewart doing a Q&A. More information can be found here.

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