Writer: Michael O’Rourke
Producer: Anant Singh
Cast: Ron Palillo, Petrea Curran, Joanne Ward
Country: South Africa
Year of release: 1989
Reviewed from: R2 DVD (Anchor Bay)
This may possibly be the worst horror film of the 1980s. Hellgate is completely nonsensical and neither scary nor entertaining in the slightest. It is like watching randomly selected scenes from completely different films, all of which star the same actors wearing the same clothes. This is one of those films where you can’t actually tell, just by watching, whether or not it is a comedy. I’m still not sure and, frankly, it doesn’t matter because even if this was supposed to be funny, that doesn’t excuse or explain the cut-price special effects, the lousy acting, the appallingly bad production design, the hopeless direction or the utterly inept editing which seems to have been done in a shed with a pair of garden shears.
Nor, for that matter, does it excuse the awful 1980s fashions and hairstyles, but there’s not much anybody could have done about them, I suppose.
Blonde Chuck (Evan J Kliser: Space Mutiny, American Ninja 3, American Kickboxer), his short-haired girlfriend Bobby (Joanne Ward: Night of the Cyclone) and their permed friend Pam (Petrea Curran) are telling each other ghost stories in a lodge which they have rented while they wait for Pam’s boyfriend Matt. Bobby tells the others the story of the ‘Hellgate Hitchhiker’ which apparently everyone around there knows (suggesting that Bobby is local although this doesn’t otherwise seem to be the case).
“It all happened a long, long time ago,” she says, “way back in the 1950s.”
This is the first and last decent line of dialogue in the entire film.
Four bikers on three bikes roar down the highway in this opening flashback, demonstrating how hard they are by clenching their fists at each other in a display of macho posturing which would - in a more intelligent film - clearly identify them as homosexuals. They stop at a large isolated diner with a big neon sign - it looks more like a nightclub from the outside - which has a gas station next to it. Inside, they throw out all the customers apart from one bloke whom they seem to know so he might be another biker but there is no explanation.
The bikers harass the waitress (Lynda Powell) and then, when an attractive young woman enters, decide to have some delinquent fun. This is Josie (model Abigail Wolcott in her only screen role; she now markets a range of skin-care products and is married to celebrity chef Tom Valenti): tall, slim, ponytailed, softly spoken. The bikers grab her, rip her skirt off and - when the diner’s cook (Tom Hoskins) appears with a shotgun - carry her out to their hogs and roar off.
They head up to ‘Lucas Carlyle’s Hellgate, an authentic 1890’s ghost town’, as it says on a sign over the entrance, complete with incorrect apostrophe. This appears to be some sort of tourist attraction although it is clear that the makers of this film didn’t really work out what it was supposed to be. Basically it’s a collection of new-looking (and flimsy-looking) wooden buildings in the style of the 1890s but with flashing fairy lights strung along every roof. Various people wander up and down the main street, despite this being the middle of the night.
The hoods torment Josie in a sequence which seems gratuitously misogynist even to me (and I’m someone who loathes film critics who accuse films of misogyny so that should indicate quite how bad this is). She runs away but is cornered down an alley by the two lead bikers, Zonk (Lance Vaughan), who looks like Gary Busey, and Buzz (Frank Notard: Rebel Storm) who looks like the lead singer of Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
No, honestly. Zonk.
A moustachioed fellow who bears a passing resemblance to John Astin appears and yells, “Stay away from my daughter!” This is Lucas Carlyle himself, played by Carel Trichardt. He flings an axe into Buzz’s head at the same time that Buzz flings a chain which wraps itself around Carlyle’s left wrist, almost severing his hand. As Zonk revs up his bike to leave, Carlyle uses his other hand to throw a knife although we don’t see where that goes because of the crap editing.
There is absolutely no indication of what happens to the other two bikers, identified in the credits as Fast Freddy (Alan Pierce) and Nervous Norman (Jonathan Taylor) but as they share a bike and one of them is what is known (I believe) as a ‘bear’ it’s not unreasonable to assume that they got married and lived happily ever after. Zonk makes it back as far as the garage next to the diner where we see him remove the knife from his thigh, producing the traditional spurt of blood. (You know, a severed vein just causes blood to well up. If the blood is pumping out in rhythmic spurts that means an artery has been sliced and the victim is going to die very, very soon unless a tourniquet is applied immediately and urgent medical attention sought. But anyway...)
Back in 1989-era present day, Bobby continues with the story...
Some time later, business is poor at the ‘ghost town’; this second flashback is the only time we see the place in daylight, incidentally. There are a few simply written notices attached to various buildings but no sign of any marketing or, I don’t know, prices or anything. No real attempt has been made to make this location - whatever and wherever it is - look like an actual tourist attraction, successful or otherwise.
We now meet Jonas (Victor Mellaney: Safari 3000, Cyborg Cop II, Operation Delta Force II, The Last Leprechaun), a grizzled old timer who helps out around Hellgate fixing things. He goes into a small cave which is supposedly dressed up as a fake gold mine but which in actual fact merely has a sign inside saying ‘Genuine gold ore nuggets’. In attempting to repair this sign, Jonas is distracted by the crappiest looking, plastic, joke-shop bat that I have ever seen. He whacks it with his shovel - an essential tool for anyone planning to repair a notice on the wall of a fake cave, apparently - and it falls to the floor.
Then Jonas sees a pulsating blue light coming from behind some rocks and discovers a large, glowing crystal which fires a beam of blue light at the bat - which promptly flies up off the ground again. The old man rushes off up to see Carlyle, who lives in a huge mansion within easy shuffling distance of the ‘town’.
Now, it is not clear when this flashback takes place as everyone wears fake period clothes but it seems to be closer to the 1950s than the 1980s. Carlyle has a large black and white photo of his daughter on the wall behind his desk and we are meant to think that Josie died that night that the biker gang (whom we later learn were called ‘the Strangers’) came to town. But if so, why does she have very 1980s hair and make-up in this portrait? Well, apparently because the film-makers merely used a photo from Abigail Wolcott’s modelling portfolio and weren’t bothered about the anachronistic styling.
Anyway, Jonas shows Carlyle the crystal and tells him about the bat. Carlyle decides to test the crystal’s life-restoring properties on a goldfish, swimming in a much-too-small bowl on his desk, despite the fish not actually being dead. Zapped by the ray, the fish grows and mutates into an ugly fish monster, shattering the bowl and subsequently exploding. Carlyle then turns the ray onto a stuffed turtle which he just happens to have lying around and the thing comes to life as a distinctly shoddy hand-puppet. Delighted, Carlyle sticks his laughing face right up against the turtle’s beak and is promptly savaged.
You would think that any film which features a man being attacked by a zombie turtle would be at least slightly entertaining. But you would be wrong.
The turtle then explodes.
Finally the crystal blasts a beam at Jonas who suffers through a series of incremental make-ups which show him either getting old or melting (it’s not clear) as he screams and starts to smoulder.
He also explodes, albeit off-screen.
Carlyle of course thinks that he can use the crystal to bring his daughter back to life; his daughter who is buried in a large, genuine cemetery just outside the minute, fake town, under a slab surmounted by a crude, life-size, recumbent statue of herself.
Has any of this made any sense yet? No? Well, buckle up because we’re just getting started.
Now we see Matt (Ron Palillo from Friday the 13th Part VI, top-billed here as token name value on the basis of having been in a 1970s sitcom called Welcome Back Kotter; he was also the voice of the title character in a cartoon series called Rubik the Amazing Cube), stopping off at the diner from the first flashback where he is chatted up by the waitress (Kimberleigh Stark: Cyborg Cop I and II, Project Shadowchaser II, Terminator Woman). He also buys some gas from the garage which is now run by Zonk (Lance Vaughan again, with some really, really bad make-up and hair that does absolutely nothing to make him look 30 years older). Back out on the road, Matt nearly knocks down a mysterious woman clad in a white shift, whom we recognise as Josie. She has lost her ponytail and her 1950s innocence and now has the ability to affect cars (although it’s unclear in what way) using her glowing eyes.
Thinking she’s not well, Matt offers to drive her home, a journey which takes them through Hellgate where he sees people wandering around in a daze, including (we notice, briefly) Buzz. At Carlyle’s mansion, Josie tries to seduce Matt but they are interrupted by the arrival of Lucas Carlyle himself. Carel Trichardt’s ageing make-up is not as bad as Lance Vaughan’s but is still not convincing. Carlyle has a stump where his chain-damaged hand was removed (except of course his fore-arm is now that much longer) and three metal clamps on the side of his head, presumably repairing the damage down by the zombie turtle.
Before it exploded.
(Incidentally, although Carlyle did indeed use the crystal to resurrect Josie, there is no explanation of why she didn’t explode too.)
As Matt makes his escape, Carlyle blasts a couple of rays from the crystal: the first causes a small explosion, the second slices the end off a water-ski sticking out of the back. When Matt makes it to the lodge, Chuck is annoyed to see that his water-ski is damaged. There is never any other suggestion that any of this takes place anywhere near the sea.
After Matt and Pam have made out because they haven’t seen each other for nearly a day(?), Matt and the girls head off to the diner (in a purple jeep) to eat - with only a cursory explanation of why Chuck isn’t with them. On leaving they drive as far as the gas station (ie. next door) before Matt yells to stop the car because he has to explore the place. He finds some newspaper cuttings about the disappearance of Buzz, which look rather less than 30 years old, and is then thrown around the room by Zonk before leaping into the back of the jeep, which roars off.
Picking up Chuck, they head up to Hellgate, which still has those same twinkling fairy lights. In the cemetery, Matt finds his jacket (which he had lent to Josie) being worn by the statue on her grave, even though the statue is lying down. When they actually enter Hellgate, things start to get really weird.
From this point there is nothing to be gained by my trying to recall the narrative sequence of events - because there isn’t one. Here are some of the things that happen:
- Bobby sees a piano playing itself. A man appears from nowhere, playing it, then fades away. The others tell her it’s just a player piano.
- A curtain is pulled aside to reveal an attractive woman, who smiles at the boys then walks away through a wall. Despite this ghostly activity, Pam protests, “She’s a zombie.”
- The quartet find a dozen or more classic cars, some of which have been there since the 1960s according to the documents inside. Chuck proposes taking a couple and selling them. Bobby is nearly grabbed by a cadaverous, Cryptkeeper-like ghoul in one car. Then all the headlights come on at once.
- Dead bodies rise from the graves in the cemetery.
- Dead-looking people materialise in chairs.
- A small crowd of zombies advances down the main street but is completely forgotten about a minute or so later.
- Bobby announces, “My ankle’s sore. I think I’ve twisted it.” This is notable for two reasons: because her pronunciation makes it sound like “My uncle’s sore” and because how can you only think you’ve twisted your ankle? A sprain, a fracture or a break can’t be determined without a medical check, but you either twist your ankle or you don’t. There can’t be any element of doubt. It’s like saying. “I think I’ve got a headache.”
- Carlyle takes the keys from the purple jeep, carries them a few yards down the street then just drops them on the ground. When Chuck and Bobby make it to the jeep, Chuck goes looking for the keys and fortuitously finds them. At this point, Carlyle slices the young man’s head off with a sign. Yes, a painted sign that apparently has razor-sharp edges. In the actual effects shot, it is noticeable that Carlyle is wearing the moustache and costume from the 1950s scenes, rather than the metal faceplates and 1980s costume which he wears in the shots before and after.
- Bobby, understandably traumatised, finds Matt and Pam but they leave her in the saloon (“Can you think of a better place than a saloon?” asks Matt, without a hint of irony). She looks at the stage - or rather, we cut to the stage, because there is nothing to indicate that this is in the same room - where she sees an MC appear out of thin air. This bearded, bowler-hatted, English-accented chap tells a couple of crap jokes and then introduces five cancan dancers (who also fade into existence), the last of which seems to be Bobby herself. Except that crap direction means we never get a good enough look to be sure, and there is no reaction on Joanne’s face because it looks like the actress wasn’t even told what she would be seeing.
- While Bobby watches the dance with a glassy expression, Carlyle appears behind her and puts a length of stout rope across (not around) her throat, which causes blood to dribble from her mouth. When we cut back to her after another shot of the dancers, she is dead. There is a rope burn on her neck but no sign of blood on her chin.
- Every so often, we cut to shots of Josie, lying on a bed and murmuring, “Matt...” The make-up team have given her a pasty face but her neck, shoulders and arms are still nicely tanned.
- We also get a couple of cutaway shots of Zonk, back at the garage, sharpening first an axe and then a machete.
- Matt and Pam, attempting to escape, see the purple jeep pull up in front of them with the undead Bobby and Chuck in the front. So they take a different car and head up to the mansion (the one that old man Jonas was able to walk to).
- Inside this colonial-style building are all the trappings of a gothic castle, complete with suits of armour and large amounts of cobwebs. Matt goes upstairs while Pam explores the kitchen - which doesn't match the rest of the house at all. Inside the fridge she finds a severed head which sings: “I just want my body.” (This is director William A Levey himself, apparently ripping off a gag from Young Frankenstein but without using a real song.) Pam says, “Get a grip of yourself!” and shuts the fridge door.
- Upstairs, Matt is seduced, again, by Josie. Pam appears but is knocked to the floor. Josie then moves a knife very, very, very slowly towards Matt’s throat, giving Pam enough time to wake up, take in the situation and knock the knife away. Except she doesn’t knock the knife away, but Josie stops what she’s doing anyway.
- Pam and Matt escape but find that Carlyle is on the roof of their car. Instead of just screeching to a halt and letting momentum take its course, they deliberately crash into a building. As Carlyle struggles to his feet, Zonk suddenly appears, standing on the back of the car, waving his axe and machete. Carlyle blasts him with the crystal and Zonk falls to the floor, never to be seen again.
- The building collapses on top of Carlyle but as it seems to be made of only very light planking it’s no surprise when his hand emerges from the wreckage.
- Matt and Pam drive away from Hellgate but stop close enough to look back and see the buildings blowing up for no apparent reason.
There is undoubtedly more but I have blocked it from my memory. This should however be enough to demonstrate that there is absolutely no attempt at continuity or sense. I wondered at one point whether this was all supposed to be a nightmare, or a Carnival of Souls-type situation, but I don’t think it is because, apart from anything else, whose nightmare would it be? Most of the really weird things happen to Bobby and she dies before the end. Throughout all of this, incidentally, there is constant thunder and lightning but never a hint of rain.
The number of questions raised is probably longer than the actual film script. Prime among them are:
- Is the town inhabited by ghosts or by zombies?
- Why does a fake town have a real cemetery?
- What do Carlyle and his daughter actually do?
- Why does Zonk go to the town and why do we only see him for about a second and a half when he gets there?
- And possibly the most important question of all: can I get my money back?
Actually, I’m reviewing this from the same disc that I was sent to review for SFX. I received the DVD on Friday, watched it on Saturday, wrote the reviews on Sunday and Monday and by Tuesday the disc had achieved that rare feat of being on sale in a charity shop before it was actually released.
Hellgate really is unremitting shite from start to finish, scraping the barrel in terms of direction, script and production design to the extent that the crappy special effects and the wooden acting seem to rise by comparison to the level of mere mediocrity. A large part of the blame must lie with director Levey who started his career with the worst blaxploitation film ever made, Blackenstein, and followed it with Wham Bam Thank You Spaceman and The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington. This was his last film, thank the Lord. He may have been working from a crappy script, and perhaps the producer interfered, but much of the direction is simply incompetent. One of the most extraordinary things about the film is that it wasn’t directed by Alan Smithee, because it’s difficult to see why anyone would keep their name on this rubbish.
Scriptwriter Michael O’Rourke wrote and directed two other crappy late 1980s horror movies, Deadly Love and Moonstalker, before disappearing from whence he came. Producer Anant Singh’s other credits include Sarafina!, Cry the Beloved Country, The Mangler and Bravo Two Zero. Observant readers will have gather by now that this film, although set in California, was actually a South African production. Cinematographer Peter Palmer was second unit focus puller on Shaka Zulu, which is about as low as one can go in the pecking order of crew members without actually doing the catering.
Speaking of people with minor credits, the sleeve of this DVD repeats the claim from the original New World video that the film comes “from the special effects masters behind Hellraiser and Hellbound.” Which is odd as Bob Keen did the effects for those two movies. A close analysis of the credits finds that one of the members of Keen’s Image Animation team on Hellbound was Alan Hedgecock and that Allen Hedgecock is one of three people credited with the effects on Hellgate. It is obvious that he made only a very minor contribution to Hellbound and if he did any work at all on Hellraiser it wasn’t enough to get a credit. (An unpleasant addendum to this is that in 2007 Alan Hedgecock was found guilty of possession of child pornography and conspiracy to rape a minor and setenced to prison. - MJS)
Astoundingly for such an ineptly edited film (or maybe not so astoundingly) there are three credited editors: Alan Baard, Max Lemon (Picnic at Hanging Rock and, um, Gor) and Chris Barnes - who started out working for Hammer on Plague of the Zombies and continued through to The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, fifteen films later. He also worked on The Last Horror Film, Masks of Death and Sammy's Super T-Shirt. No production designer is credited and that also says a lot.
Also in the cast are Len Sparrowhawk (Terminator Woman, American Kickboxer, Zulu Dawn, Lethal Ninja) and Alan Granville (Black Terrorist, Prey for the Hunter) as a couple of deputies who decide not to go to Hellgate (so what was the point of including them?).
Sometimes even crap films get a decent DVD release, but in this case the normally reliable Anchor Bay have apparently gone insane. Not only are there no extras of any kind, not even a trailer, they have actually listed the fact that the film is presented in the wrong ratio as a feature! The US release, also through Anchor Bay and double-billed with something called The Pit, was 1.77:1, formatted for 16:9. I’m not a stickler for aspect ratios but the ‘features box’ on the back of the UK sleeve actually crows “Fullscreen presentation (1.33:1)”. Just astounding. The film runs 87 minutes which matches the 91 minutes of the NTSC version; some sources list the original film as 97 minutes but I certainly don’t want to ever sit through another six minutes of this tripe.
As somebody whose job it is to watch films that most people would consider “the worst film I have ever seen” I try to avoid using specious phrases like “the worst film I have ever seen” - but this really, genuinely is (one of) the worst film(s) I have ever seen. It is relentlessly, unremittingly, mindbendingly bad on every level and in every way without a single thing in its favour.
MJS rating: D-
review originally posted 13th February 2006