Released: 9th July 2019
Seen: 8th April
I know that I’ve been a little harsh on some lower budget features and I swear it’s not intentional. Lower budget features and first-time films tend to come with some serious drawbacks in terms of just what is actually available for the filmmakers to use. Your first film isn’t going to be some grand epic where you have access to the world’s best lighting and sound equipment or an editing bay with high tech CGI to correct issues you didn’t spot on the day. Let’s be honest, your first film will probably be made with mates, shot on a weekend and edited using a pirated copy of Premiere that you’ve had since you downloaded CS2 back in the early 2000s. Sometimes your first film will not look that good and the sad truth is that it’s a little hard to look past sometimes. I promise you, my problems with these films are never about the things that can be explained away by budget because we’ve all been there. Any film student who had to put together a 5 minute short film on a budget of nothing knows how it feels to try and make that work, I’m judging these films based on things that are fixable at any budget level… which brings me to today’s offering, The Black Gate.
When siblings David (Nicolas Couchet) and Sarah (Jeanne Dessart) go to visit their uncle to try and get some answers surrounding their past they end up discovering a few things, the first being that their Uncle is very very dead. The second, slightly bigger problem, is that he did something that would end up opening a portal between worlds and letting a whole bunch of hellish demons come out into the real world to torment them. Adding to their problems is the fact that three robbers have decided to use their home as a hideout and end up getting dragged into this battle against the terrifying creatures hammering at the door.
So, I have to state up the top that this is a French film and I do not speak French. This normally wouldn’t be an issue because most foreign films have subtitles and so does this one… except these subtitles were so awful (at least on the version I got) that I legitimately couldn’t handle them. If there’s some nuance in the story that I could’ve only gotten from the dialogue, unfortunately, that’s just not available to me. This might also present a barrier to potential viewers and it’s just sad because it’s out of the filmmaker’s control (one assumes).
This film feels like one of the stranger 80s horror movies, one where the plot was secondary to just creating a weird atmosphere and throwing a whole mess of weirdness up on the screen for the audience to revel in. Where The Black Gate works best is when it embraces that with practical effects. The gore and creature design of this movie is top-notch, genuinely some of the most viscerally disturbing stuff I’ve seen in a while. Their zombie designs are very effective, even though they couldn’t afford to get very many (there’s maybe a dozen of them at the most in any particular shot) they make the most out of them and they look terrifying. There are a few other weird little creatures in this, including black-cloaked beings with spiral portal faces, and they really are well designed and filmed in a way that makes the most out of them.
The acting in this is also very good, even though I can’t tell what anyone is saying (Thanks god awful subtitles for making my job harder) they’re really able to convey the emotion of the moment and make me root for them with ease. I might not know what actors played who because I didn’t know anyone’s names beyond the two leads (THANKS SUBTITLES) but everyone gave good enough performances that I was mostly engaged throughout the film.
Honestly, the thing that really lets this film down is when they used very cheap CGI to make up for whatever they felt needed it. Certain filters to create a night time look are just ugly, some key sets look really bad and some of the green screen is atrocious. Like, bad enough that I feel the need to point it out. Honestly, the practical work that’s on display is so good that I don’t even think they need CGI for most of the film. These guys have the skills that they could’ve pulled off everything practically and been much better off for it. As it is, they lean on filters to enhance things that really didn’t need enhancing and aren’t even consistent with it. It works best as a dark practical gory nightmare and when they stray from that, presumably due to thinking it’d save some money, the film suffers for it.
While it takes a little bit to get used to, if you give this film a chance to warm up it can be very viscerally disturbing and an effective little genre film. It’s the kind of film where you look and see the serious potential that’s on display and want to know what would happen if you gave these people access to a larger budget and better filming equipment. If they were able to fully realise their gloriously strange visions, there’s something special here. For fans of genre cinema who might be able to overlook the problems with the subtitles, it’s worth a peek.