“I don’t see the point of coming up to a lonely mountain cabin if you can’t sit around the fire telling scary horror stories,” says Chuck. “The only really scary stories are those that are actually true,” counters his girlfriend Bobby, and encouraged by Pam, she launches into the tale of the Hellgate Hitchhiker, explaining that it took place not far from where they are now, years before, but not realising that the story she is recounting is far from over and that they are about to become involved in it
“It happened a long time ago, back in the fifties,” she explains, and suddenly we are transported to that decade as the nostalgic comfort of an apple pie and soda diner is broken by a biker gang who kidnap one of the teenage girls, Abigail. Slung across the back of the leader’s Harley-Davidson and taken to the incongruously lively “ghost town” of Hellgate, a fight ensues; Lucas Carlyle, Abigail’s father, is injured trying to rescue her, but both the leader of the gang and Abigail and are killed.
Returning to the present, Pam’s boyfriend Matt is en route to the cabin but running late and stops off at the same diner where the incident took place many years before, still frequented by one of the surviving bikers. He continues on his way, as Bobby takes her story forward in time to when a mysterious glowing rock was discovered in an old mine with the power to reanimate the dead, reviving a bat on a bit of string, and mutate the living, as demonstrated with an exploding goldfish.
Inevitably, the aging Carlyle visited the tomb of his daughter with the magic rock with the intention of bringing her back from the dead, and in Pam’s words, “To avenge her death, he encouraged her to entice strangers to Hellgate where he would kill them,” and it is no surprise when Matt encounters a stranger on the road, lost, windswept and wanton, displaying an alarming blue eye shadow/purple lip gloss combo.
Monosyllabically inviting him back to her dilapidated mansion, Abigail attempts to seduce Matt by pouring a glass of red wine down herself in a manner which would make even Miriam Blaylock of The Hunger flinch, but he flees, and together with Bobby, Chuck and Pam, they enter Hellgate to confront Abigail, Lucas and the other ghosts who haunt the town.
The latest archive film to be dusted off and spruced up by the team at Arrow Films, Hellgate is not so well known as some of the classics which have recently graced their schedule, but despite only being released as a limited run of 1,000 copies it is being treated with the same regard as their more prominent titles, a tribute to the dedication of the label if not the actual film.
Released in 1989, director William A Levey confirms in the accompanying interview that he was not a fan of horror movies and that in many ways he regards Hellgate as more comedic, comparing it to the modern Scary Movie franchise than straight horror, and certainly it is true that of the many genres it strays through, maintaining the atmosphere required by horror is not his priority.
Curiously, the meta fictional element of the characters mocking the tropes of the horror story they are telling before finding themselves a part of it predates Kevin Williamson’s script for Scream, though with only four films to his name and none of them successful, it is understandable why the work of writer Michael O’Rourke is not so prominently remembered.
Levey explains that he had to rewrite much of the overly ambitious script before shooting in order to complete the film within the modest budget, aiming to reign in the excess without changing the story. Though Levey says that O’Rourke did agree that the compromises were necessary to facilitate production, the writer is not present to offer his opinion of the redrafted script.
It cannot be said whether the original would have been superior to the final shooting script, which is disjointed, clichéd and woven through with painfully bad dialogue which even a strong cast would struggle to deliver convincingly, which makes another of Levey’s key creative decisions all the more puzzling. “Is the acting the best? It’s a horror movie. It’s a kids’ horror movie. What did you expect? Academy Award winners?”
Filmed in South Africa but with a conspicuous eye on the American market, local performers were hired not on the basis of their acting talent but specifically for their ability to accurately deliver an American accent, which he felt was more important; “This wasn’t an acting picture, this was an effects picture,” he states before admitting that even then “A lot of the effects I liked, a lot I didn’t.”
This dismissive attitude towards the genre, that effects, even mediocre effects, are more important than the story and acting, is apparent throughout the film, and it is telling that Joanne Warde (Bobby) and Abigail Wolcott (Josie) of the main cast and one of the supporting players never worked in the business again. It should never be forgotten that every motion picture is an acting picture, and if the cast can’t act, even first rate special effects, makeup, set design, camera work and lighting, which Hellgate most certainly does not provide, cannot salvage the work.
On working with the former model, Levey admits he relied on Wolcott’s appearance rather than her performance – on more than one occasion the camera focuses on her bosom rather than her face – and that she “didn’t enjoy the process” of making the film. Of all the cast, only Ron Palillo enjoyed moderate success, being known for the long running sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, which also launched the career of John Travolta. Palillo had worked with Levey previously on Skatetown, USA, first screen credit of Patrick Swayze, and Levey is effusive in his praise for Palillo’s acting skill, possibly in hopes of offsetting the absence of evidence onscreen.
The melange of styles employed by Levey, drawing on his own back catalogue which included the retro flavoured Slumber Party ’57, is not successful, the doo-wop opening credits creating a warm nostalgia rather than instilling a sense of foreboding, the supposedly threatening biker gang undermined by their hilariously inappropriate homoerotic uber-machismo.
In a misguided attempt to bring in elements of horror, every shot of the graveyard is accompanied by a wolf howl but it is only in the increasingly surreal and nightmarish final scenes that the film finally becomes marginally interesting as the emphasis is taken off the leads; the can-can girls can at least dance, the only time professionalism enters the film.
While Levey’s recollections of filming are subject to embellishment – he speaks of the trouble of locating twelve Harley-Davidsons for the production, which he says they managed, yet there are only four in the film – he is personable and offers interesting insights. His second time shooting in South Africa, he confirms he was initially resistant because of the apartheid regime but found the country was very different to what he imagined, and openly states that the racial tensions he witnessed weren’t as bad as what he had seen back home in the States. “Los Angeles has self policing ghettoes, just the same.”
In addition to the Levey interview, there are also contributions from filmmaker and scholar Howard S Berger in Alien Invasion, Blaxploitation and Ghost Busting Mayhem, who compares the style of Hellgate to the work of Lucio Fulci and is sanguine about its failings, saying “It feels like a foreign film where the actors are speaking English phonetically.” His enthusiasm for the film is undoubted, though his judgement is perhaps questionable, twice stating the film “should [be seen] between the ages of six and twelve,” before offering his opinion that “You can’t fault the nudity or the amount of nudity, the consistency of the violence.”
The nudity in the film, though not in any way gratuitous, is interesting in that it is equal opportunity, with Palillo offering his backside for lingering perusal alongside Wolcott, Warde and Petrea Curran’s breasts, a very atypical inclusion even in modern horror cinema. In the final documentary, entitled Video Nasty, writer, actor and special effects fabricator Kenneth J Hall, creator of Puppet Master, reflects on the direct to video boom of the eighties and the struggles and compromises required and is unapologetic of embracing bare flesh. “I’m always a big fan of nudity. When you don’t have a big campaign you have to go with what sells.”
It is Hall who offers one of the most pertinent observations of the package when he says that “All our films look the same because we were up against the same limitations,” and while even Levey admits of Hellgate that “It’s not my favourite film I’ve done,” he still fondly recalls that “It was an enjoyable production.”
Hellgate is released as a strictly limited 1,000 unit DVD/Blu-ray combo on 3rd February