[INTERVIEW] A Graham Skipper Retrospective: Beyond The Gates

There are certain films you sit down to watch and each time you watch them you just flat out enjoy them. If you’re a reviewer you see the craftsmanship of the film but sometimes just can’t help but sit back and lose yourself in something when it hits all your sweet spots. Sitting down to rewatch Jackson Stewart’s Beyond the Gates did just that as I rewatched the film several times before writing this and it didn’t get old. It’s such a love letter to what we as cinephiles love and who we are. It gives emotional weight to an insane situation with a theme of family and fear of loss. The style is so there for you to see and brings some of the best actors in independent horror together for a fun experience that you don’t get to see anywhere else. It’s what makes the film so rewatchable and puts a smile on my face each time. It’s also one of my favorite performances, besides the greatness that is he and Adam Green as buddy cops in Tales of Halloween, Graham Skipper has ever given. 

Gordon and John are estranged brothers that have to reunite to shut down their father’s old video store after his mysterious disappearance. Their relationship has never been the same since their mother died and their father became unemotionally invested in them. As they pack up the video store, they discover a VCR game called, Beyond The Gates, which was being played in their father’s office. Gordon’s girlfriend, Margot is trying to help Gordon reconnect with his brother so they decide to play the game. Once the tape is put in and pieces are set upon the board there is no turning back. As a ghostly woman appears on their TV that seems to know too much about them instructs them on how to play, strange and deadly things start happening as bodies of their friends start piling. Either they beat the game, or die trying to save their father’s soul. 

Stephen Scarlatta had this idea in his back pocket for a while but it was meeting Jackson Stewart that brought them into the idea of making a VCR horror Jumanji. It’s an amazing idea that hadn’t been touched before as there was only a small gap of a generation that even know what a VCR game was but for the video store brats we knew and loved them! Jackson, like Joe Begos, had worked under the tutelage of Stuart Gordon which created this amazing interweb of contacts and styles that stemmed from him. Jackson definitely makes his style his own though. He has a keen intimate sense of detail and ambiance. The color palate is what he utilizes the most that I love. Each shot of the movie while in the game is bathed in deep purples and scarlets that reflect like a colorful fog and is very reminiscent of Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond. But not just there, as if you look closely at each character their articles of clothing all match the color of their game pieces! Chase Williamson as John is always in a Gray, Graham Skipper as Gordon always in a blue and Brea Grant as Margot always in a form of red. Jackson’s use of color is just so pleasing and makes each watch so vibrant and you get to notice more like that with each viewing. 

The three protagonists I would watch anything in. Chase and Graham as brothers is such an amazing story arch. Graham gives one of his best performances as he feels like a caged animal. The character of Gordon is very much the complete opposite of Graham’s persona as he has to bottle up his past demons and hide his emotions in lieu of seeming mature and better than the town he came from. It’s a strange performance to watch at first, but once you discover the demons he’s trying to hide it's beautifully tragic. Chase is a fun sarcastic asshole in this and is a good representation of us the horror fans as we watch the craziness unfold and roll our eyes at Gordon’s awkwardness. That too plays into the reunion of the brothers though as John hides his pain through sarcasm and jokes. Both shields to protect one another as their two personalities clash. My favorite throughline for the two is the act of them hugging. Each time they try to hug one another it ’s hilariously awkward and uncomfortable but as the two grow close in the film it becomes a beautiful scene at the end that brought a tear to my eye. Two brothers who have been through so much in life and so much on the past few days, finally see each other as family and when they couldn’t stand to be around one another finally see in each other, love. It’s a beautiful moment that Jackson and Scarlatta earn with their script, shots, and actors. This movie straight up cannot work without Brea Grant as Margot. She is the glue to these two brothers and becomes pieces of each of them tethering them together. She is the moral compass and passion and the center of the film. The way she and Graham play off each other is so sad. Before it’s even stated we know something is wrong between them prior to this film. Margot is elated and positive seeing Gordon but he is so hesitant to show her where he came from. One scene sets it up so nicely when Gordon is afraid of doing something wrong and says he’s already fucked up. With a straight and strong face, Margot says he did but they need to get past that. That scene is just so well done and Brea emanates such strength in it. She’s so damn good to watch in this because she balances the brothers so well, trying to be playful and fun, especially with John, but having to constantly calm down Gordon. She’s just such a well-rounded character and Brea brings her to life so well and headstrong. It’s a role meant perfectly for her. It's the relationship shown in this film between Brea and Graham that I will always laud them as perfect choices to play the couple from Clive Barker's Next Testament as an adaptation from Jackson Stewart as the trio has shown how to perfectly articulate that kind of love highlighted by Jackson's eye for setting moods.

The cameo to end all cameos is Barbara Crampton, from Re-Animator, as the ghostly gatekeeper instructing them on how to play. She’s lavish and over the top in the vein of a grindhouse ghoul that cackles and chews up the scenery. That same attention to detail comes back as Jackson wanted to harken to Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. Barbara is put in heavy eyeshadow and dark makeup but as the film progresses it gets darker and messier the more the game is played. It’s so much fun to see her back and amazing to see her as a villain! I LOVE crazy Ralph from Friday the 13th and miss when you would just get random ass weird characters like that popping up in movies. God bless you Scarlatta and Jackson you magnificent bastards for giving me Jesse Merlin in this movie! He plays a creepy shop owner in a weird suit that makes him look like a Batman villain and a voice that sounds like Norman Bates. He’s the one who sold their father the game and has all the information on it. He also has a skeleton pet bird he loves. Brea confronts him about the game as he is heading to his car to go home and I’m not gonna lie all I could think about was, “What the hell kind of house does this man have and what the hell does he do when he’s not creepily dispensing cursed objects.” I would watch an entire movie on Jesse Merlin’s character. 

The film blasts off with one of my all-time favorite openings ever! A look at the brothers as young boys with their mom and dad opening their video store for the first time with smiles on their faces to smooth melodic music that evokes childhood dreams and for those of us who loved video stores it immediately brings a tear to your eye. Seeing fun homemade art on the side of the building of Mt. Rushmore but with the Universal Monsters “Mt. Rushmonster.” Then boom! We are put into a VCR as the Beyond the Gates tape is being played for the first time, representing when their father watched it and disappeared, as we see the inner workings of a VCR playing a tape set to the most amazing score by Vincenzo Silvia entitled, "Outrun With the Dead" that sounds like the best of Goblin and Carpenter! I can’t tell you how many times I will walk to work with that score playing. The first time I saw that opening sequence I smiled ear to ear and screamed and cheered. 

The rest of the film feels very much like a roller coaster because it has so many intimate character building moments and then will suddenly be interrupted by some crazy act of violence the game inflicts upon our protagonists. I don’t want to reveal what they are but there is voodoo, shotguns, intestines, claws, and daggers involved in the mutilation of people in this movie. It’s so crazy because you don’t expect a moment like intestines flying through the air and then all of a sudden there they are. That’s the brilliance of it though, you don’t expect it and it’s not overused, it just comes at you and looks amazing!  

This is one of Graham’s favorite roles and an important stepping stone to Sequence Break as working with Jackson helped introduce him to Sequence Break Star, Chase Williamson! Read on to our interview but be warned of spoilers! If you want Beyond the Gates can be seen on Netflix now!  

Ghastly Grinning: I know you had both worked with Stuart Gordon before but how did you and Jackson Stewart officially meet and how did you guys hit it off? Did you know Stephen Scarlatta, the writer, previously? 

Graham Skipper: Yeah, I originally met him doing Re-Animator - I think he had come and seen a show and we talked afterward. Then some time later he asked me to be involved in a web pilot he'd written called THE CARTRIDGE FAMILY, and we became friends! 

GG: The first time you were directed by him was his short film Sex Boss, what was that experience like? 

GS: That was super fun. Jackson's got such a unique sense of humor (which I share!) so it was a blast getting to work on something so fun and weird with him. 

GG: Having seen you in a lot of films and knowing you a bit, you’re a really fun loving guy and this role was such a complete 180 from what we’re used to seeing you do. What was it like to play such a troubled character that was kind of a stick in the mud? What kind of research went into developing that character? 

GS: That was one of the things that really drew me to the role, being able to play in that kind of a trapped, morose, troubled sandbox. Jackson had me watch STRAW DOGS as a kind of way to get into the role, so that was helpful, and then I just tried to get into the mindset of someone struggling with addiction, who doesn't like himself and is terrified of his past. That was a lot of meat to bite into, and it was a real gift as an actor. 

GG: What was it like once you got in the Gates set? Was this the first time you worked with Brea Grant and Chase Williamson? 

GS: I had gotten to work with Chase on Sex Boss, and I know we had met each other a couple of times before that, so I knew him but obviously got to know him way better on BTG. And yes, I think this was the first time I worked with Brea! We've now worked together a whole bunch of times so it's hard to keep track (both she and Chase have become close friends), but I think this was indeed the beginning. And it was a total pleasure! 

GG: I love Jackson’s color palette on the film and how he color coordinated your wardrobes to match your game pieces, did you catch a lot of Jackson’s attention to detail and did that help inform your performance? 

GS: Oh yes absolutely. As I recall a lot of that was written into the script and we definitely had discussions about that beforehand. There was definitely a lot of attention to that kind of tonal detail which I really appreciated, and it always helps to know not just what is going on with a character mentally, but metaphorically as well. 

GG: You actually owned and played the VCR game, Nightmare which was what Gates as a game was based on, had you already been a big gaming fan prior and did that help saw you into the script’s ideas? 

GS: Oh yeah, I knew exactly what a VHS board game was. And I loved them! Obviously, Gordon is supposed to be a stick in the mud about it, but it definitely helped to have a base to work from where I knew what the games were like and the part of my own childhood that they represented. 

GG: Jackson like most of us is a big cinephile, what kind of movies did he reference in the ideas of the film’s tone and look? Did he reference any characters in cinema to help find your own character? 

GS: Well, I already mentioned Straw Dogs- I seem to remember he talked about THE GATE and FROM BEYOND as inspirations for the look and style. That guy is definitely an encyclopedia when it comes to movies, so I know film references were often brought up as direction (which is always helpful) and during our time developing the characters. 

GG: What did you take away from Jackson’s directing style from this film as opposed to other directors you worked with? As both he and Begos were pupils of Stuart Gordon were there similarities? What stood out most that you liked about Jackson’s style? 

GS: Jackson is just such a movie fan that it's easy to communicate with him on that level. "Oh, this is like that scene in From Beyond where..." is something that for me personally is very relatable, so that made the shorthand between he and I really easy. He also took a lot of time to discuss character with us and backstory, and that was super helpful in terms of developing a complex character. I felt lucky to have that kind of a character to really sink my teeth into, and it was clear from the beginning that that was Jackson's goal as well. 

GG: By the time Gates rolled around I had this vibe that you guys were the new horror team that kept churning out memorable cult classics with a lot of returning faces and behind the scenes players. I love the fact you all worked under Stuart Gordon and it really shows in the excellent work you all put out together. You are the Combs to Jackson and Begos Yuzna and Stuart Gordon it seems. Do you guys have any future projects coming up at all? I know Jackson is working on Gates 2, but is there interest to get you into the Halloween film he’s working on or has Begos contacted you for any new projects? 

GS: There are definitely some fun things brewing, but I can't talk about them yet! But I can't wait to play with either of those gentlemen again!

Stay tuned for my final piece on the coverage of the Sequence Break screening I hosted at Alamo Drafthouse with an interview with Graham on stepping up to the director's chair!