When The Pit Got Bigger, So Did Its Scares

When initially discussing our current Movie of the Month, the 1981 Canuxploitation curio The Pit, Britnee mentioned that the film’s premise stoked her déjà vu of another 80s horror gem she had seen in her teens: The Gate. At the time I had never heard of The Gate, but catching up with it since I totally understand the confusion. A Canadian horror oddity about children releasing demons from a hole in their backyard, The Gate shares many basic attributes with The Pit’s DNA. At first glance, it almost seems like a more conventional take on the exact same material. While The Pit follows an oversexed, vengeful monster child who terrorizes his own community like a prurient Rhoda Penmark, with the pit-dwelling troglodytes he releases serving as his flesh-eating pets, The Gate echoes a more traditional dynamic where innocent children face supernatural dangers through no real fault of their own. The hole-dwelling demons of The Gate are described as “minions,” but they’re minions of The Devil, not the children who unwittingly release them. The Pit also boasts a grimy, microbudget quality that finds its scares in emotional & sexual discomfort, recalling other small-budget creepouts like The Baby or Pin, while The Gate is much more reliant on the physical scares of special effects work – depicting its demonic threats through traditional means like rubber monster costumes, forced perceptive photography, and stop motion animation. While The Gate blows up The Pit’s basic aesthetic to a grander, more traditional stage, however, it maintains the earlier film’s basic strangeness & willingness to throw as may varied, plentiful scares at the screen as it can manage in its 80min runtime. If anything, the increase in budget & ability to produce literal, physical dangers in the same childish headspace as The Pit only makes The Gate more terrifying.

Writer Michael Nankin explained that he constructed The Gate around “the nastiest thoughts from [his] childhood,” a tone that’s nailed perfectly in the final product. By its overwhelming finale, the film feels like a sky-high pile of varied demonic monstrosities, but each scare is generated from the detailed-fixated nightmare logic of any & all childhood anxieties. The premise is simple: two young friends discover a hole in a suburban backyard and unwittingly perform a Satanic ritual that transforms it into a gate to Hell. While being babysat on a parents-free weekend, they’re forced to contend with a wide range of hideous beasts & impossible supernatural oddities that emerge from the hole until they seal the gate with another ritual. Where The Gate excels is in finding its scares in small, detail-fixated childhood moments of fears of the unknown: dead pets, shadows cast from bugs & toys, parents rotting & collapsing into goo, treehouses struck down by lighting while children are inside, heavy metal albums unleashing demonic rituals when played backwards, a creature living behind bedroom walls, arms grabbing ankles from beneath the bed, etc. The brilliant gimmick of the tiny minions released from the backyard hole is that they can form together into a shapeshifted, larger gestalt threat that, when defeated, only re-separates into the tiny, unkillable demons. Defeating & re-containing the forces of Hell released through the gate before they overtake the world feels like an impossible task for the two young boys who face it, which only heightens the childhood-specific fear of having too much responsibility and no power or control. It’s a far cry from the telepathic teddy bear & rubber monster suits simplicity of The Pit, but the same loopy adherence to nightmare logic & willingness to escalate the extent of the threat on an exponential trajectory remains.

I’d be curious to know if The Pit was a direct influence on The Gate, which seems likely given their release dates, Canuxploitation origins, and childlike fascination with hole-dwelling monsters. It’s possible that this is a case of parallel thinking, where two 1980s filmmakers tried to recreate what inspired their worst nightmares as children and used the same starting point (a backyard hole) as their initial writing prompt. The better-funded special effects work of The Gate pushed that premise to its scariest extreme, but both films tap into the darkest corners of childhood anxiety in their own impressive, respective ways. As Britnee stated when she first compared the two: “I love that there are multiple 80s movies about kids messing with creatures living in holes.” I imagine there are entire subcults of children who were traumatized by catching either title (or both!) on late-night cable at just the right age. These are the kinds of uneasy horror films that look & feel like they were made for children . . . until they very much don’t. The Pit subverts its children’s media aesthetic by tapping into menacing sexual discomfort. The Gate goes for much more traditional, physical scares in its own depictions of hole-dwelling Evil, but its nightmare logic & gleeful sense of cruelty leads to even bigger scares than what’s lurking in The Pit. I’m not sure what was going on in 1980s Canadian holes that inspired these two terrifying oddities, but I’m grateful that it was immortalized onscreen. I just wish I had seen both films at the age when they really would have burrowed into my subconscious, when I would have been too young to fully comprehend why they’re terrifying, but just the right age to share their sensibilities.

For more on October’s Movie of the Month, the horned-up Canuxploitation horror curio The Pit, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

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