The Gates, 2023.
Directed by Stephen Hall.
Starring John Rhys-Davies, Richard Brake, Michael Yare, Elena Delia, Christine Mulhern, and David Pearse.
A serial killer in Victorian London is sentenced to death in the electric chair, but that is just the beginning of Bishopsgate prison’s problems.
The image of a gurning Richard Brake on a movie poster is fast becoming iconic in the horror genre, and when he is playing a serial killer in said movie you can guarantee that somebody is going to get hurt in all manner of violent ways.
In this case Brake plays William Colcott, a serial killer in Victorian London who is murdering women by using their bodies in occult rituals to try and resurrect his dead wife. After being captured, Colcott becomes the first British prisoner to be put to death using a newfangled machine from America called the electric chair, but as the killer is adept in the black arts you can bet that things don’t go smoothly.
This is all in the first seven minutes of the movie, and quite frankly, it is the best seven minutes in the movie as Richard Brake goes full-on horror icon in the tradition of Anthony Hopkins or Robert Englund, chewing the scenery and being terrifying at the same time. However, after the title card we switch to Frederick Ladbroke (John Rhys-Davies) and his niece Emma Wickes (Elena Delia), who are postmortem photographers, and guess whose corpse they are called in to take pictures of?
Afterwards, Emma notices something unusual about the close-up of Colcott’s face, as if his spirit was looking at her. Dismissing it as a double exposure, the photographer’s go off to do their other job as they are also paranormal investigators and are trying to sell their latest invention, the Atmosiser – a large mechanical box that can attract spirits – to the Paranormal Society. All does not go well but it does introduce investigator Lucian Abberton (Michael Yare) into the plot and, eventually, we end up back at Bishopsgate prison as Frederick, Emma, Lucian, the prison warden, a couple of guards, a few prisoners and the wife of one of the guards who has sneaked in are all present as it becomes clear that William Colcott is not quite as dead as his corpse would suggest. As the remaining prisoners start behaving as if they were possessed and begin killing themselves, all the investigators must pull together and use what technology and religious forces they have at their disposal to defeat the evil killer once and for all.
A tempting plot on paper to be sure, and there are moments of excellence here as co-writer/director Stephen Hall does manage to create a convincingly oppressive Victorian atmosphere (despite the prison looking a little too clean and tidy), and as well as the aforementioned pre-credit sequence there are scenes that are genuinely scary, such as a cat-and-mouse chase between a priest and a possessed victim that makes fantastic use of shadows and silhouettes. It is a little predictable where it goes but the imagery manages to create the right effect.
However, moments like these are few and far between as Stephen Hall doesn’t seem to be able to decide whether he wants to make a graphic horror movie with gore, shocks and jump scares or a deeper, more thoughtful procedural that taps into ideas of religion versus technology – the old ways versus the new – and the nature of evil. Unfortunately, he goes with the latter for most of the running time whereas the movie is more effective when it dishes out the former; after all, why have Richard Brake and his distinctive evil grin plastered all over your marketing if you aren’t going to show it?
Brake himself is excellent when he is onscreen – which only totals a few minutes in the 101-minute running time – and proves yet again that he should be headlining his own horror franchise by now (although a little bit of text at the end of the credits suggests this may yet happen, but there is also a certain nightmare-based franchise that needs a new iconic face. Just saying…). John Rhys-Davies is also a joy to watch as he plays the kindly Frederick Ladbroke, clearly a riff on Van Helsing but without the more heroic elements, and the actor is obviously having fun with what he is given to do. It is with the rest of the casting where the film under-performs, as the supporting cast are fairly bland and don’t add much sparkle, with only Elena Delia adding some naïve charm with her portrayal of Emma.
With a few anachronisms here and there, the occult details being too vague and an ending that can only be described as underwhelming, The Gates is too uneven and certainly too long to make the impact that it should, given its cast and plot. Had Stephen Hall chosen the visceral over the procedural then the movie that the lurid poster suggests would have been what we got, as Richard Brake in full demonic mode going up against a pompous John Rhys-Davies in a leaner, tighter horror script sounds a lot more fun.
When it leans towards its more obvious or clichéd – in a good way – horror elements, The Gates works well and has some memorably chilling moments but if you go into it expecting a Richard Brake-led gore-fest then be prepared to have your expectations lowered. Worth a watch for its two leads, but apart from that pre-credit sequence and the overall suggestion of remaking Shocker with Richard Brake in the lead (oh, just imagine it!), The Gates is a little bit of a disappointment.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★