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Following a car accident during a visit to Thailand that left him in a coma and his wife and son dead, Jeff (Cary Elwes, Saw) awakens to discover he is able to see the specters of people who have died horribly. Seeking peace of mind, Jeff is led to a spiritual adviser (William Hurt, A History of Violence) who explains that these souls are trapped in a shadow world, forced to relive their own deaths for eternity - and that Jeff's family is facing the same fate. In order to save them, he must pass into the shadow world and set their souls free, without losing his own to the demons within. Haunting, tense, and thrilling, Hellgate is an unforgettable journey to the other side.
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But to free himself from the hauntings he has to let go of his family but doing so involves battling demonic creatures who seek to keep his family’s souls for themselves. Matthews eventually meets another American who also lost a family member to the demonic creatures. Warren Mills (William Hurt) is a fellow American and kind of an old hippie sage who agrees to lead Matthews to the Hellgate in order to finally put his loved one’s souls to rest. But to do so he has to cross over into a spirit dimension populated by slavering demons who want to keep him there.
Hellgate is a very low budget film and apparently what budget they did have went to Elwes and Hurt because it certainly didn’t go towards any convincing visual effects. What effects the film does have comes mainly in the way of makeup. A lot of it is typical Asian-style horror makeup…you know, women with long dark hair and dark eyes popping out to provide cheap scares. The “demons” look more like zombies with mouths dripping in blood and pale eyes.
Elwes and Hurt are old pros and give fine performances as you would expect but they are caught up in a production with bad material which crawls at a snail’s pace.
"Hellgate" does have an interesting premise and writer-director John Penney does create an atmospheric looking film, he just fails to create memorable characters with any sense of depth.
When Jeff Matthews (Elwes)travels to Thailand he finds his life filled with tragedy--his wife and son are killed in a car accident while traveling with Matthews. When Matthews recovers he discovers that he can see the shadow world--a world between the living and the dead where restless, trapped spirits exist along with creatures that are trying to pull Matthews into their world. With the assistance of Choi (Ploy Jindachote in a woefully underwritten part)his care giver and Warren (Hurt) a man who has experienced the shadow world before, Jeff tries to find a way to protect himself from the shadow world before it consumes him.
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The film looks impressive especially given its small budget ($5 million)but, ultimately, the film just doesn't deliver and isn't much better than a Syfy channel original movie. It's a pity because the premise of the film and the performances from Elwes and Hurt are much stronger than the film itself.
If you feel compelled to see "Hellgate", I'd suggest a rental.
(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.