Formative Fears is a column that explores how horror scared us from an early age, or how the genre contextualizes youthful phobias and trauma. From memories of things that went bump in the night, to adolescent anxieties made real through the use of monsters and mayhem, this series expresses what it felt like to be a frightened child – and what still scares us well into adulthood.
Wishes are everything we believe ourselves to be. We want to be rich, successful, or loved by that special someone. A stray eyelash or a celebratory birthday might invite fleeting wishes, but long and debilitating bouts of unhappiness are the cradle for more desperate ones. These are the situations where people feel like they don’t have any other way out — and only a wish will save them from their troubles.
Director Tibor Takács and writer Michael Nankin understood what can drive someone to make a wish they’ll soon regret. Before unleashing Gate II (also known as The Gate II: Trespassers), the duo laid the groundwork in 1987. Their story of children battling diminutive and demonic escapees from another world is comparatively bright-eyed when looking at the sequel that followed three years later. The best friend from the first movie, Terry Chandler (Louis Tripp), has since learned the gate serves another purpose: the demons can grant wishes. As he and his peers become more and more entranced by the dark magic at work, they realize their wishes have serious consequences that cannot be ignored.
In all the horror movies that preach about the dangers of instant wish fulfillment, Gate II gets it right. Terry, or “Terrence” as he prefers to be called, is now five years older and no longer just the dorky sidekick to Stephen Dorff’s character Glen. He’s found himself in a sad situation that many people can relate to; his mother recently passed away and his father’s coping mechanism is alcohol. After extensive research into the dark arts, Terrence discovers the proper ritual that can reopen the gateway and deliver him his greatest wish. What he desires, though, is different from what we usually see in this type of movie. Rather than asking for wealth, popularity, or even his mother’s return, Terrence seeks help concerning his father; he wants him to be his old self again.
The family aspect of Gate II hits close to home. Many people’s quiet and growing grief has led to a number of earnest wishes made in vain. They hope for financial relief to shake off the burden of debt; they ask for time machines that don’t exist. Most of all, they wish for an easy solution when there really is none. Terrence similarly yearns for a quick fix when thinking of how he can improve both his and his father’s life. After all, Terrence tells his classmate Liz (Pamela Adlon) that after his mother died, he came home and found his father holding a gun in his mouth. And every day, their garbage can is overflowing with emptied liquor bottles. So while It’s true there’s always the element of self-interest that’s inherent to any wish, no one can fault Terrence for his actions. He isn’t ready to lose another parent.
The original movie is not one devoid of emotion as there is the undercurrent of a strained sibling relationship, but the sequel finds itself in exceptionally gloomier territory. Perhaps even risky when considering the follow-up is born from a classic example of gateway horror with low stakes. Gate II is a natural evolution of the story; the characters and audience have found there are just as terrifying things in the real world as there are in distant, grotesque lands beyond the human imagination. What lies under beds or comes out of portals to hell doesn’t compare to what now horrifies Terrence. The first movie rests on a common construct of good versus evil where both sides are made explicitly clear from the start, yet terrible things happen to Terrence here without nary a demon in sight. With a heavy heart, Takács and Nankin bleed occult fantasy and harsh reality together in a fathomable way that communicates everyday life’s inequities.
Terrence’s despair is unconcealed. He’s a loner now that Glen has moved away, and the one person he should be able to count on following his mother’s death is in no place to guide or uplift. It should come as no surprise that Terrence would then find other means of addressing his dejection, even going so far as reopening the hellgate that nearly killed him. He becomes so consumed by the craved outcome, though, that he fails to see the flaw in the design. Terrence simply wants his father’s life to get back on track; he wants him to stop drinking and to go back to work. The problem here is that Terrence doesn’t actually understand what’s wrong. The noble son wants to make his father’s misery go away, but a magical wish also isn’t a cure-all — the core problem is still there. It’s only when Liz forces Terrence to see his father for what he is and not what he thinks he is, that the real healing finally begins.
Most people have misjudged Gate II. Until recently, I thought that because it lacked the overt entertainment of the first movie it had nothing else to offer. Today, I gravitate toward this overlooked follow-up because of both its wonderfully heartful story and its perceptive intersection of grief and horror. Anyone who’s experienced their own series of desperate and bitter times relating to family and loss can fully see the appeal of the fabled wish that brings immediate contentment. It is in the long run that we learn that wishes don’t fix the source of those troubles, and they only create unfair expectations that are impossible to live up to.
So although Terrence’s life improves in the end, how it exactly happened is unexpected. He made it out alive after going through hell — literally and figuratively. Terrence and others like him can now better appreciate the good things in life after enduring so much of the bad.