I have to confess Hellgate was one trashtastic title which seemed to pass me by in the 80’s, and after reading some of the scathing reviews online my expectations were at an all time low when I pressed play to review this recent release from Arrow. With reviewers commenting on the bad acting standards and messy script, it seemed Hellgate did not have a whole lot to offer, but after watching I am going to have to conclude were they watching the same film as me? For a low-budget, low-grade, trashy direct to video horror, Hellgate delivers in spades; based on its bizarre nature, trashy gore, and laugh out loud diabolical scripting. There were moments during this film in which I literally could not breathe I was laughing so much, and this was not for the intentional ‘comedy horror’ set-up, but for the pure and simple fact, this was one of those cases ‘when it’s so bad, it’s good’.
I think to understand this film, and to ‘get it’ so to speak, you have to put it into context. The 80’s direct to video boom was a rare time, one that those of us who were there to be part of it tend to hold with great affection. These were the days where you rented tapes based on their cover art, and eagerly consumed large amounts of trash horror with glee, nothing was too rubbish, as long as it had gore, and boobs, and things getting stabbed or axed up, it was great. I supposed because of this, and of course if you look back to the good old era of drive-in grindhouse trash which preceded it, for those of us who have consumed a large amount of this type of cinema things like standards, and acting, or script tend to get left by the wayside, for other values such as entertainment or salacious elements. I am very much with Kenneth Hall who speaks on one of the features for this release when he says you cannot rate this type of movie in normal terms such as quality, because you can’t, they do not function in this way, not in the wider forum of cinema in general, because if they did none of these films would ever get watched. The fact that they do get watched, and still remain immensely popular is just testament to the fact that there still are enough of us who have had our thinking warped, for want of a better word, by these early experiences to appreciate trash horror in all its glory. As soon as direct to video came along with films such as Blood Cult, and Video Violence, the doors opened for an entire generation of renegade filmmakers to start picking up some cheap equipment and turning out their own efforts, so of course people like Fred Olen Ray, Charles Band, and on the real bottom of the scale The Polonia Brothers, came along and churned out masses of films, which young horror fans lapped up. If you look at the generation before this you had people like H.G. Lewis, Andy Milligan and Roger Corman leading the way in cheapo, trashy fun, and it was fun, very much so. So I think if you want to talk about the acting level in Hellgate, or the production values, if you put it into its wider context, it really is not as bad as first apparent, it is definitely way above the level of early SOV, Andy Milligan and Fred Olen Ray, and sits somewhere between Charles Band and Troma. I think in these terms this film will not appeal to those who like their horror slick, because Hellgate is anything but, it is clumsy, awkward and badly executed, and provides no scares, but if you take it at face value it makes the perfect beer night film for a bit of mindless amusement.
I have no idea how I can begin to review a film like Hellgate, the script/plotline is insane, and makes no sense, it consists of a bunch of convoluted ideas which make for a confusing mess on-screen, this is all for the good however. The story takes places with a group of college kids recounting ‘ghost stories’ (college kids played by 30 nearly 40 somethings, or one is at least), and they come to the tale of Josie (Abigail Wolcott) the poor girl who was abducted by a bunch of bikers in the 50’s, and killed, only to be resurrected as a ghost/zombie to lure unsuspecting hitchhikers. Then for some reason our lead Matt (Ron Palillo) is seen encountering said ghost/zombie chick, for reasons only known to the scriptwriter (Michael O’Rourke) and he is drawn into the town of Hellgate, which as well as Josie, is also populated by a hoarde of bizarro zombies, including Josie’s father Lucas (Carel Trichardt) who parades around with pieces of metal stuck on his face and is quite angry that men are looking at his daughter’s ample boobs (which she has on show quite a bit). The plot also follows a sort of flashback, present time formula for the first third, recounting how the town of Hellgate has evolved into the town of the living dead it has become today; this involves a weird crystal which resembles kryptonite, shoots crappy blue rays and makes things explode. The film is comprised of three very different sections, before Hellgate, coming to Hellgate and then of course the showdown with the kids being stuck in a town full to the brink with the undead, and because of this the first two-thirds limps on with occasional moments of hilarity until the final act, which loses the plot totally (as if there was one to lose in the first place).
So what does Hellgate offer, well for a start exploding fish. The exploding fish I have to say was a particular highpoint for me, on testing the crystal Lucas blows up his own goldfish into a grotesque latex creature which then explodes, then inexplicably makes a weird turtle and blows off the head of his hillbilly assistant. The cheesy effects are fabulous and very reminiscent of something from say Troma or Charles Band. We also have things like rubber bats floating on strings, stupid make up effects, and a zombie horde who look like they have accompanied Mr. Benn on one of his visits to play in the costume shop; literally we have an entire myriad of costumes that have no coherence to time or place, including cowboys, nuns, can-can dancers, and someone in a Mexican sombrero.It also has bags of nudity especially from the lead Abigail Wolcott as Josie who walks around with her boobs out most of the time. Although some of the naked forms are not as welcomed, for example in a scene featuring Ron Palillo sat naked giving his girlfriend a back rub and when he flips over it literally leaves nothing to the imagination, this was not welcomed, although it needs to be seen to be believed. This is also the only film I think I have witnessed a zombie burlesque can-can show, and definitely the only film I have seen people smash-up their own places of business for no apparent reason. Of course there is also the gore, which is especially trashy, old school, and fun; decapitations, axes in the head, fingers being cut off, garotting, and exploding heads.
If the script is bizarre, the casting equals this in levels of insanity, placing outwardly gay Ron Palillo as our hero Matt, his spindly form and lack of chin apparently acting as a pussy magnet in this alternate dimension for all the women in the cast, especially zombie lover Josie. This guy is so not a leading man in any form, and yet here it works to add to the levels of pure absurdity, and provides masses of unintentional humour. The fact that he is also in his late 30’s provides another element of hilarity as he comes off as looking completely awkward stuffed in some sort of college kid attire. I agree Ron Palillo along with the rest of the cast are probably not the best actors in the world, but they certainly aren’t the worst either, and if you allow yourself to just go with the flow, it all adds to the ambience. With this film being tagged as ‘comedy horror’ and the copious amount of bad puns slotted into the script you do have to wonder how much was intentional, the film plays out more like a crazy spoof than anything else, a crazy spoof with lashings of grue and cheesy one-liners.
The sets on Hellgate are also fabulously surreal and trashy. Director William A Levey filmed this in South Africa and you would not know, as the film inhabits a strange world of brightly coloured 50’s diners, and a western Ghost Town complete with saloon, which bears no relevance in terms of continuity or time or place. There is also a fantastically cheesy graveyard, complete with someone who went a bit nuts on the fog machine, and the whole town of zombies is lit up with little christmas lights just to add to the random nature of this production. Filmed in Technicolor and restored by Arrow the bright colours make for a visual feast, with a nice clear print which only shows a brief glimpse of scratching in one scene. The overall aesthetic makes for a fun romp with the sets holding the appeal of a macabre sideshow with a circus like undertone, and it would be fair to say that the whole film plays out like an amusing and cheesy haunted attraction.
This limited edition by Arrow comes with some interesting special features, I found the segment ‘Video Nasty’ with Kenneth Hall talking about the hey day of the direct to video boom was my particular favourite, finding myself agreeing with almost everything he said. There is also an interview with Director William A. Levey which provides some insights into his experience of shooting Hellgate in South Africa, as well as his career in general, and a retrospective from Howard S. Berger on Levey’s diverse career (for full specs and features check the list below):
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS:
- Limited edition Blu-ray [1000 Copies]
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of the main feature
- Road to Perdition, B-Movie Style: An extensive interview with Hellgate director William A. Levey
- Alien Invasion, Blaxploitation and Ghost-Busting Mayhem: Scholar, Filmmaker and fan Howard S. Berger reflects on the intriguing film career of William A. Levey
- Video Nasty: Kenneth Hall, writer of the Puppet Master series, speaks about the direct-to-video horror boom that allowed Hellgate to become a classic of the cassette rental era
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
- Collector’s booklet featuring writing on the film by Lee Gambin, illustrated with original artwork and stills
It is safe to say Hellgate is not going to be for everyone, but if you have an affection for trashy, low-grade, B horror movies from the 80’s this is a perfect example, and you would do well to pick this up, invite over a bunch of like-minded friends and crack open the beers. Nutty, irrelevant, gory and fun, it is the absurd nature of this film which gives it so much appeal. Do not expect it to make any sense, and you are in for an hour and a half of mindless diversion.