The Film: 3/5
Hellgate is the type of low frills, late 1980’s independent horror film you might have desired to check out on a slow Saturday night when your poorly stocked local video store was fresh out of sensible viewing options. It bypassed theatrical release and went almost immediately to home video back in the day when films produced exclusively for that market were normally shot on video with barely enough of a budget to finance the purchase of a used 1986 Ford Escort that its previous owner, a kindly old lady from Indiana, only drove twice a week (both times to the grocery store so she could pick up her prescriptions and restock on those giant-size packs of sliced cheese that weren’t individually wrapped). Though the film never caught on even with the usually nondiscriminatory readers of Starlog and GoreZone various video companies have fought tooth and nail over the years to keep the movie-going world at large from forgetting about its existence. Either we accept the fact that Hellgate was made and we all just have to deal, or the DVD and Blu-ray reissues will continue on until someone - ANYONE - admits to both having seen and loving it.
I am convinced that curiosity value alone was responsible for keeping Hellgate in cultural critical condition in the 25 years since it was made, because its “Scooby-Doo has a drunken three-way with the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and the original 2000 Maniacs” plotline was doomed in its quest for empathetic acceptance from the mainstream. It was written by a guy named Michael O’Rourke with no other film or television credits worth mentioning (seriously, go to his IMDb page and weep with laughter) and directed by the one and only William A. Levey. If that name seems unfamiliar to you then maybe some of his internationally celebrated filmography will: Blackenstein, Wham! Bam! Thank You, Spaceman!, The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (starring Joey Heatherton in the title role), the no-star-studded disco flick Skatetown, U.S.A., and Monaco Forever (which introduced the world to Jean-Claude Van Damme in the role of “Gay Karate Man”). These are not the film credits of a rank amateur, though you would be forgiven for thinking so. Levey has nearly single-handedly delivered unto an unsuspecting world some of the most lethal-to-our-precious-medulla-oblongatas (that’s right, I pluralized that shit) genre flicks ever devised with equal amounts of ambition and avarice. He deserves a lot of merit for making most of these rancid hunks of celluloid pork loin moderately viewable by piling on the entertainment value and throwing caution to the wind (or at least pushing it out of a moving car), and Hellgate is most likely his masterpiece. That’s not saying much, but at least the film’s voluminous flaws add to its oddball charm rather than justify its status as a cinematic obscurity.
First of all, Hellgate marks a critical moment in the history of the known universe when the forces that created the stars and build the evolutionary ladder one rung at time converged to create a rare beast whose presence would never again be known…. a film starring Ron Palillo. Yes friends, the late artist forever known as Arnold Horshack is the biggest name in the cast of Hellgate, and for that alone he nabs star billing. In retrospect it makes perfect sense as Palillo is the most talented member of the cast, so before you consider watching this flick just allow that to take hold of your innermost intellectual musings. Hellgate opens with three friends - Pam (Petrea Curran), Bobby (Joanne Warde), and Chuck (Evan J. Klisser) - sitting around an isolated mountain cabin telling scary stories while waiting for their friend Matt (Palillo) to finally make his long-awaited appearance. What the hell kind of party are these people having that can’t officially begin until Ron Palillo shows up? Anyway, one of the ladies decides to recount the horrifying legend of “the Hellgate Hitchhiker” (Abigail Wolcott), a local woman and daughter of rich amusement park owner Lucas Carlisle (Carel Trichardt) who was kidnapped by a biker gang in the 1950’s and accidentally killed by her father and then mysteriously resurrected from death by her father using an all-powerful crystal with the ability to reanimate the dead and turn goldfish and turtles into slobbering mutants. The father then assigned his undead daughter to wander the lonely and dusty back roads of their microscopic mining community and kill any and all strangers who dare violate its borders. So take a guess what happens when Matt arrives.
The unsuspecting college stud (disbelief, prepare for the suspension of a goddamn lifetime) thinks he got lucky by picking up a beautiful, ethereal lady on the side of the road as he searched for his friends’ current location in vain. She entices him back to the opulent mansion she shares with her dear ol’ deranged Pa. Just as they’re about to get down to some sexy time the father comes home and reminds the ghostly fruit of his loins of her sacred mission to kill Ron Palillo and all of the Palillos of the world. That gives Matt enough time to escape, though he never acts as if his life is in terrible danger. Once he makes it to the cabin he rallies his friends to accompany him to the Carlisle clan’s ghost town funland, aptly titled Hellgate, to unravel the origins of the weirdness they’ve been encountering ever since they came to town. First, we get to see Palillo getting buck-ass naked to give his equally nude girlfriend a sensuous massage. There’s a lot of nudity in this film. Make your peace with your libido, then prepare for a third act erupting with all manners of goofy shit. I’m talking unconvincing zombies, decapitations, many panes of glass exploding in slow-motion, and one of the greatest lines of dialogue in the history of the moving image - “Take this, you zombie bitch!”
Still with me? You’re much stronger than I because my check-out point was reached several paragraphs ago, and I’m the clown writing this fucking review. But I’m happy to report that Hellgate is not only far from a total waste of time, but it’s a pretty entertaining flick if you’re willing to switch off all mental activity for approximately ninety minutes. Movies like this silly, late 80’s gorehound nostalgia trip were what you might have watched at a sleepover with friends while the parents were out for the night. Levey knew exactly to make an exploitation flick that never bored even when it barely made any bloody sense. He crams several different subgenres of horror into a blender, spikes it with some warm tequila and a sprinkling of peyote, and purees it all into an unholy mess that has absolutely no reason whatsoever to work as coherent storytelling, but against every odd imaginable it succeeds. The meager production budget shows at times despite making good use of the film’s South African locations (a flashback to the 1950’s looks more like scenes from a 50’s-themed restaurant on opening night in 1986). You kind of have to accept these flaws long before you commit to watching Hellgate, otherwise you might start developing expectations. Believe me friends, this flick was not meant to meet or exceed expectations. It’s just happy when people take notice of its presence.
The acting is mostly passable, with Palillo dancing as fast as he can to convince us of his irresistible charms and total lack of annoyance. Wolcott was clearly given as little dialogue as possible due to a noticeable deficiency in the acting ability department, but she gives off the aura of a lost soul yearning for true love forever prevented from entering a higher plane of existence and finding eternal peace and that makes up greatly for her inability to emote with professionalism.
The cinematography by Peter Palmér, whose early credits in film include working as a focus puller on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 classic Space Mutiny, isn’t the best but it works well enough to serve the escalating lunacy of the story. I didn’t spot any wayward boom mikes or poorly-framed scenes. I could do without the uninspired synth soundtrack from Barry Fasman and Dana Walden, whose other composing collaborations include My Mom’s a Werewolf (an HBO daytime fave from my elementary school years) and the Steve James-Reb Brown-John Leguizamo epic Street Hunter. Levey required a three-man editing team to whip his twisted flick into comprehensible shape. The less said about Mark Baard the better, but his fellow editors Chris Barnes and Max Lemon have some mighty impressive credits between them. Barnes cut most of Hammer Films’ best horror films of the 60’s and 70’s including The Plague of the Zombies and Dracula: Prince of Darkness, while Australian Lemon served as the editor on Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave. He also edited the first Gor, but hey man even great cutters have to do what they must to put dinner on the table.
Arrow Video’s presentation of Hellgate on Blu-ray compresses the film from its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio to 1.78:1, but there doesn’t appear to be any loss of visual information or distortion in the print. Filmed in Technicolor 35mm and remastered in 1080 high-definition for this release by current owner Lakeshore Entertainment, the picture features much grain and other instances of permanent damage in the opening scenes, but after the first five minutes things improve greatly and remain that way for the duration. Colors are very vibrant and lively and fine picture details are a substantial advance over previous VHS and DVD presentations. The sole audio option is an uncompressed English LPCM 2.0 mono soundtrack that replicates the original Dolby sound mix with commendable results. Dialogue comes through clear, the classical music selections mesh well with the chintzy synthesizer score, and there is only occasional mild distortion. Manuel volume adjustment is never a requirement. No subtitles have been included.
Anchor Bay Entertainment first released Hellgate ten years ago on a double feature DVD with the early 80’s Canadian oddity The Pit and included no bonus features. Arrow has produced nearly an hour of brand new retrospective interviews for this Blu-ray; director Levey (36 minutes) talks at great length about the problematic production and reflects on its finished form and the cult following it has received over the years; filmmaker Howard S. Berger (13 minutes) discusses Hellgate and other films in the career of Levey from an enlightened fan’s perspective; and finally, B-movie jack of all trades Kenneth J. Hall (8 minutes) talks about the rise in popularity of horror films made exclusively for the evolving home video market of the 80’s and 90’s that helped make it possible for Hellgate to find an audience, though Levey’s feature is never mentioned. That wraps up the disc-based supplements. Arrow has also included their customary reversible cover art featuring the original poster art and a newly-commissioned image by Graham Humphreys on alternating sides and a collector’s booklet with a new essay on Hellgate by Fangoria writer Lee Gambin and archival stills from the film. A standard definition DVD copy with the new extra features is also included.
Though a large part of me (and not my colon) wishes Hellgate would have gone further in its desire to be a slick slice of late 80’s exploitation cinema, the feathered fish we received in the bargain is still a worthy enough schlock shocker with its fair share of shameless entertainment value to appease the ravenous masses. Arrow saw fit to resurrect this nutty little tarnished jewel with a fine upgrade in picture and sound quality and some fascinating supplemental interviews, giving it far more attention that it probably deserves. Recommended if you’re into this sort of thing.