Good horror films have the intent to inspire fear, terror, or wincing revulsion (the good kind that only gore can inspire.) Most of the plots are unbelievable, but a good horror film draws you into its world so well that you don’t question the defiance of logic or reason. You strap in for the ride and embrace the adrenaline rush that comes with being scared.
Some horror movies take a more comedic approach by being self-aware of their ridiculousness, dropping bits of comic relief to show the viewers it isn’t taking itself too seriously. It doesn’t make these films bad because, again, they draw you into the story well enough to make you invested in the story.
Then there are horror films like Hellgate (1989) that are so incoherent and non-threatening that you can’t help but keep watching to see if someone tried to tape together the pages of two movie scripts that went through a paper shredder, or if there is some sort of ultra-meta film awareness going on here. With Hellgate (1989), I’m betting on the former.
Movie: Hellgate (1989)
Plot: A gang of college students find themselves in the urban legend of a ghostly hitchhiker that dupes unsuspecting drivers to take her home, which is a roadside ghost town attraction, where her protective father kills them and turns them into zombies, or ghosts, or zombie ghosts with the power of a glowing crystal that one of his former handymen found sitting almost in plain sight at the mine attraction of the town. It’s a bit hard to nail down what these creatures are. Let’s call them ghosts and go from there.
Killer: A protective father starts out as the main baddie in this movie, but the real killing power forcing its will on the body count is an evil crystal that looks like it could be bought at the gift shop of any roadside abandoned cave attraction. Maybe it was. Handyman Jonas sure found it pretty easily.
Critique: If you want to watch a horror film that will terrify you, or make you revel in its gore, or make you laugh at its campy production, or at least have coherent plot, theme, or acting, Hellgate is not what you are looking for. Hellgate is everything and nothing at the same time.
It’s a horror movie revolving around a mysterious power that reanimates the dead and twists the living into monsters, but it’s never actually scary. It’s a film rife with bits of comic relief, but the bits are so awkwardly out of place that they are never funny. It’s a film that uses both detailed puppetry and gritty make-up effects while filming, and sci-fi lasers in post. It’s a film that will blatantly give the male lead a license plate that reads “THEHERO” but won’t even hint at what is actually going on in the story.
But through all of the bad acting, storytelling, and special effects, Hellgate is watchable if you understand what you are in for, if only to laugh at how bad it is the whole time. But this isn’t “so bad it’s good” territory, or even “so bad it’s funny.” This is The Room territory, where a film is so bad from the beginning that you can’t help but keep watching to see if it is some sort of practical joke. You won’t get your answer by the end of the film, so you’ll drag other people out for a movie night to watch Hellgate and have a blast critically dissecting this film. Actors will write books about the film’s production, and there will be cult screenings in small theaters where the director will hold awkward Q&A’s after the film’s credits that won’t answer the main question, “Why did you make this?”
Better yet, why did I watch this? And why am I telling you to watch this? The power of the crystal lives…
Scene of Awesomeness: It took a lot of digging into this film to find something that could be remotely considered a scene of awesomeness, but I think the scene where Lucas Carlyle first tests the crystal out on his living goldfish and dead, preserved turtle deserves some recognition. If nothing else, this scene showed off some creative FX design.
Scene of Ridiculousness: How do you choose a scene of ridiculousness in a movie that is itself ridiculousness? Well, there are scenes of ridiculousness, and then there are scenes that are so ridiculously built up through the movie that you can’t help but laugh at how anticlimactic they end.
The build up for the scene of ridiculousness has Zonk, the former biker whose gang kidnapped Josie and led her to her death, spending what seems like half the film sharpening up his hatchet and knife in order to raid Hellgate and take out Lucas Carlyle. He finally makes it to the ghost town in a surprise, Hulk-style action hero display, only to be zapped by the crystal and fall down dead. Long, ridiculous build-up, short ridiculous end.
Body Count: 6 people, 1 bat, 1 goldfish, 1 turtle confirmed, 3 people unconfirmed
1 hatchet to the head, thrown at least 20 yards
1 crushed by a motorcycle running into a brick wall
1 bat smacked with a shovel
1 monsterized goldfish that explodes from the beam of a magic crystal
1 monsterized turtle that explodes from the beam of a magic crystal
1melting handyman before exploding from the beam of a magic crystal
1 decapitation by store sign followed by the headless body running down the street (Awesomely Overkill Award)
1 rope strangling
2 killed by car explosion (not sure if they were zombies, ghosts, or random people driving into the fake town)
1 killed by crystal laser blast
1 potentially killed in a prop house explosion
2 pairs of breasts, 1 pair twice
Actors/Actresses of Note: The only actor that rises to the top of the B-movie talent that makes up this cast is Ron Palillo, best know for his role as Arnold Horshack in the ’70s sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter and best known in the horror genre as Tommy Jarvis’s grave-robbing accomplice in the beginning of Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.
Quote: “Take this, you zombie bitch!” – Pam
Grade: D. It should be an F, but I can’t help but recommend that Hellgate be watched once in your life, so I have to up it a grade.