Was this the mid-80's, I've no doubt that HELLGATE probably would've created a bigger sensation. Its drama/horror hybrid story definitely would've found an audience in the home video market. Its flashy images of blood-drenched cannibals would've been the stuff of popular nightmares. And its second-tier stars - Cary Elwes definitely trying to pull his best Brad Pitt and William Hurt at the tail end of a usually impressive career - probably would've given the flick some `street cred' with typical viewers. Therein lies the problem - it isn't the mid-80's; every studio in the market is churning out affordable horror flicks by the dozen; and too much of the film is presented with a languid detachment more interested in the passing scenery than it is with bringing a true horror concept to the centerstage.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you're the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of a few modest hints at `things to come,' then read on ...)
Jeff (played by Cary Elwes) only wanted to take his wife and son to visit their family in Thailand, but a freak automobile accident robs his loved ones of their lives. He's left behind - broken and battered from the crash - but, when he awakens, he realizes that he's been `blessed' with the ability to see into the Shadow World, a frightening bridge to the Other Side where those suffering in a kind of proverbial limbo share a bloody afterlife. However, this psychic bridge is slowly sucking Jeff's life away. With the help of spiritualist Warren Mills (William Hurt), Jeff learns that he needs to cross over if for no other reason but to say goodbye to his wife and son so that he may get back to the business of living his life.
Writer/director John Penney has a respectable resume - moreso as writer than director - and, to his credit, he peppers much of HELLGATE with a heavy atmosphere of dread. Much of it looks good - its smartly photographed and fairly well assembled with an almost workmanlike efficiency - but the problem I had with the narrative is that so little of his proposed `Shadow World' makes perfect sense. The story tells us it works one way, but - moments later - we see it working differently, and this happens with increasing regularity as the picture wears on. Come the end, we learn that (apparently) from only one place on the planet - the remains of a temple in (fortunately) a nearby jungle - can the residents of our world cross into it, and this serves as the catalyst for Jeff to right this supernatural wrong.
Like so many horror films, HELLGATE isn't a bad film. Much of its failings are in its execution - a too easy script, some too predictable moments, and some too unattached performances. As I said above, in other time and another place HELLGATE might've received a warmer welcome. Sadly, Elwes slumbers through what seems to be an Ambien-fueled performance while Hurt delivers many of his lines like he's mimicking William Shatner, so the real punch that could've lifted the mundane to the exciting gets lost in the shuffle. Still, there's enough legitimate atmosphere that it may earn a respectable cult following now that it's seen the broader light of day with this DVD release, but only time will tell if HELLGATE will earn another passing.
HELLGATE is produced by Angel & Bear Productions, Capitol Motion Pictures, and Hybrid Pictures. DVD distribution is being handled through MPI Media Group under the IFC Midnight label. As for the technical specifications, the film looks and sounds above average, but I thought quite a bit of Cary Elwes vocal delivery left some of nuances more than a bit to be desired. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that HELLGATE won the `Best Film' award at the Bram Stoker International Film Festival as well as the `Best Horror Film' at Italy's Fantasy Horror Awards. As is often the case with these smaller releases, there are no special features to speak of except the theatrical trailer.
RECOMMENDED. Heavy on atmosphere but light on smarts, HELLGATE suffers from its two main actors mostly `phoning it in.' Heck, even Elwes expression looks most of the time like even he doesn't believe what he's saying. The ideas here are interesting, but they just didn't get fleshed out enough for them to seem fully formed. As it is, it's easily forgettable, though it has moments of true horror inspiration when it loses itself in the shadows.
In the interests of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MPI Media Group provided me with an advance DVD copy of HELLGATE for the expressed purposes of completing this review.