William A. Levey
Review by Thomas Scalzo
Posted on 16 January 2005
Source Anchor Bay DVD
A low-budget laugher, Hellgate is the rare late-80s horror film that effectively recalls the drive-in and straight-to-video genre glory days, a movie that eschews any and all attempts at believable special effects, and pastes its thin characters onto a plot that is, at best, confusing, and at worst incomprehensible. Honestly, if it weren’t for the persistent references to Miami Vice, I would have pegged this as a film straight out of 1981.
Any summary of Hellgate’s befuddling story must begin with a detailed description of one of the more impressive examples of pathetic special effects wizardry to come down the pike: the Hellgate crystal. While in appearance nothing more than a jagged cluster of white prism-shaped protrusions, the crystal is in actuality a source of unspeakable power, owing to the astonishing force of its bright blue laser beam. If the target is alive, the beam kills, if the target is dead, the beam revives, and if the target is inanimate, the beam makes it explode. It is truly a testament to the makers of this film that they not only dared to include such a ridiculous prop but actually based their entire story around its powers.
To wit, we have Josie’s father, the proprietor of Hellgate, a tourist ghost town, who uses the crystal not only to reanimate his deceased daughter and kill the hapless motorists she lures into town through her hitchhiking seduction, but also to reanimate each of Josie’s victims for subsequent induction into his zombie army. Strangely, the pack of revenants exists only to help Josie’s father trap new victims, kill and reanimate them, and then added them to the army: a horrifically cyclical existence for one of horror’s most oddly motivated antagonists.
On the protagonist side, we have Matt, played by Ron Palillo of Welcome Back Kotter fame, and his three college buddies, who just love ghost stories and can’t pass up a chance to wander the deserted streets of Hellgate after hours. Thus we have a seemingly perfect horror scenario: a zombie town filled with foolish young people, and a madman with a laser-shooting crystal. Unfortunately, our exposure to the undead turns out to be severely limited, as Josie’s father insists on killing everyone himself, and while old man’s murder scenes are somewhat enjoyable (the decapitation scene is most memorable), on the whole, the film never allows itself to completely indulge in the wonderfully and horrifically bizarre scenario it constructed.
The fun in watching Hellgate, then, stems not from the film achieving many memorable moments of horror, but rather from our attempts to piece together the slew of dissonant plot points (I haven’t even mentioned the odd role of the aged biker), and watching the paltry special effects at work. If the bat on a string doesn’t impress you, the exploding mutant goldfish surely will. Don’t expect to be scared, but don’t expect to be bored either.