Sunday, May 20, 2018

Hellgate (1989)

... aka: Brama piekiel (Hell's Gate)
... aka: En las puertas del infierno (At the Gates of Hell)
... aka: Les portes de l'interdit (The Doors of the Forbidden)

Directed by:
William A. Levey

In 1958, a motorcycle gang terrorize a diner and then kidnap a pretty teenage girl named Josie (Abigail Wolcott) after ripping off her skirt to reveal black French-cut panties underneath, which would naturally be the undergarment of choice for all young, virginal girls in the conservative 50s. They then drag Josie to "Lucas Carlyle's Hellgate;" one of those tourist trap mock amusement park reenactments of a 1890s western town. Owner Lucas (Carel Trichardt) sees what the bikers are up to and, since he also happens to be Josie's father, gets mad and flings a hatchet into the biker leader's head, who then crashes his bike into Josie and then crashes through a brick wall, killing them both. Soon after, an old guy working at the park finds a chunk of glowing crystal and takes it to Lucas. Blue beams shoot out of it which cause a goldfish to grow, mutate and then explode. It then makes a stuffed turtle spring to life, which bites Lucas' face and then explodes. And for an encore it finally makes the old man who found it to melt down and then explode. Since it worked so well the first few times, Lucas then uses it to resurrect his dead daughter. What could possibly go wrong?

The above story has gone on to become a local legend in the area and one that's about to become more than just a tall tale for UCLA grad student Matt Coleman (Ron Palillo aka Horshack of Welcome Back, Kotter fame). While running late to meet up with his girlfriend Pam (Petrea Curran) and their friends Chuck (Evan J. Klisser) and Bobby (Joanne Warde), Matt encounters a young woman clad in white wandering the road in a daze. The girl is, of course, Josie, who is now some kind of evil seductress desperate for someone to love her. She takes him to her home and attempts to seduce him before daddy Lucas - who now has pieces of metal bolted onto his face (?!) - chases him off. Now determined to prove the legend is true to his buddies, Matt drags Pam, Chuck and Bobby along to explore a cemetery - where the deaths of those buried are conveniently etched directly onto their tombstones! - and then the ghost town. Ghosts and zombies or ghosts that look like zombies (it's hard to tell) show up, as do Lucas and his daughter.

Inept, absurd, senseless, irritating and moronic are just a few of the adjectives that aptly describe this train wreck. The credited writer is Michael O'Rourke, who may be the same guy who directed the very low budget slasher films DEADLY LOVE (1987) and MOONSTALKER (1989), and his screenplay contains awful dialogue, a plot that doesn't make much sense and near-constant annoying attempts at camp humor that are never funny. The cast here is also pretty terrible; so terrible that miscast name value star Palillo (who's at least 10 years too old to be convincing as even a graduate student and even less convincing playing the stud every woman in this film appears to lust after) seems like a master thespian by comparison. Not that he's great in this, mind you, but he's slightly less awful than most of the others.

The woman who plays the ghost may have the body to play a seductress (and gets naked several times to show off her surgical enhancements) but she speaks her lines like she just suffered from a massive stroke prior to filming. Minutes after seeing her boyfriend decapitated, the girl playing Bobby calmly sits in a saloon drinking and smoking and barely registers a change in facial expression when ghostly can-can girls suddenly appear on a stage in front of her and start dancing. Hell, she doesn't even seem all that bothered when someone then sneaks up behind her and starts strangling her with a rope. Another girl finds a severed, talking head in the refrigerator and responds to that by just rolling her eyes and slamming the door shut. And though the girl playing Pam is a better actress than most of the others, she's stuck playing one of the most irritating nags ever seen in one of these things and spends half her screen time having insecure jealousy fits over everything Horshack does and says. I hated all of these people.

I've seen lots of reviews noting this film has a low budget, but there should be some distinction made between films that are micro budget and those that are simply lower budgeted than the most expensive genre films. While Hellgate certainly doesn't have a huge budget, it does have a healthy, more-than-adequate budget as far as these things go. It's shot on film fairly well by Peter Palmer with stylish lighting and even crane and aerial shots, plus they had enough money for lots of makeup / special effects (or varying degrees of quality), lots of stunt / pyro work, car crashes, period costumes and vehicles and explosions aplenty. If a movie can afford to construct numerous buildings and then blow them up all up then it isn't that low budget. Certainly not low budget enough to excuse away all of the other areas this film is seriously lacking. That said, this does have some unintentionally hilarious moments. That may be enough for certain viewers.

Hellgate has been extremely well distributed over the years, with numerous VHS, laserdisc and DVD releases through numerous companies. There was even a blu-ray release in 2014 through Arrow Video. Director Levey, who appears briefly in a cameo as the refrigerator head, also made the genre films Committed (1991), which was also filmed in South Africa and features Pallilo, and Blackenstein (1973). And he's responsible for Slumber Party '57 (1975), a sleazy drive-in flick starring Debra Winger in her film debut, and Monaco Forever (1984), which features Jean-Claude Van Damme in his film debut as "Gay Karate Man." Quite the track record. None of his ten films are rated above a 5 on IMDb.

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