The Gate: elegant and polished sci-fi body horror critical of politics and neoliberal capitalism

Matt Westrup, “The Gate” (2011)

Deriving its title from a couple of lines in the seventh chapter in the Book of Matthew in the Bible (“… for the gate that leads to damnation is wide, the road is clear and many choose to travel it…”), in the context of a warning of Hell and damnation for those who prefer an easy path to comfort and salvation, this short sci-fi horror film is an elegant and polished lesson in understatement and visual narration. A series of mystery deaths in London attracts the attention of politicians and bureaucrats who convene a parliamentary select committee to determine what action to take. In a meeting, Dr Ackerson (John Mawson) describes the cases – and as he does so, the film re-enacts them, the second and third cases in considerable detail – and tells Under Secretary Johnson (Robert Rowe) what the most likely causes of the physical transformations leading to the deaths of the unfortunate victims, based on autopsies performed on them and the details noted by the attending doctors, are. Dr Ackerson states that the victims had in their possession at the time of their deaths pharmaceutical products obtained from an unregulated online seller that contained a synthetic hormone chemically similar to one involved in DNA construction and repair, and that it was the uncontrolled use of such products with such a potent hormone that led to the victims blowing up as they did into mutant monstrosities.

The meeting comes to an end with Johnson offering bland assurances that those involved in selling the products to the victims will be found and dealt with accordingly. Dr Ackerson expresses misgivings that other unlicensed and unregulated pharmaceutical retailers will offer the same or similar products to unsuspecting online buyers – but the response he gets from Johnson is curt and patronising. As always, the authorities will take Ackerson’s warning “into consideration”.

The re-enactment of one victim’s transformation and death is a wonder to behold: the camera’s placing in front of a barricade of police cars and an ambulance, so that audiences get only glimpses of the horror stalking about on the other side of the barricade, is ingenious. While the victim’s transformation is taking place, the film jumps to shots of a helicopter landing and police in full body armour taking up their positions stealthily, ready to fire on the monster. That a scene of horror is playing out in a setting familiar to most people – the city streets of London, with police cars and an ambulance vehicle, and police officers in almost full gladiatorial combat mode – may be the most terrifying aspect of this sub-plot in the film.

The body horror theme is expressed in a narrative at once familiar and yet new and horrifying: Western medical technology has now developed drugs that can reactivate dormant so-called “junk” DNA, the functions of which remain poorly understood. With this narrative comes another one suggesting, intentionally or unintentionally, that a capitalist system allowing both individual freedom of choice and an unregulated market of gene therapies could very well lead to disaster. The insinuation is that government regulation of new pharmaceutical products involving gene therapies is required; but when the government in question is one of incompetent and easily corrupted politicians and bureaucrats preferring to look the other way and brush complex matters aside, the most likely outcome will be more suffering and more victims treated as statistics and monsters, not as real people deserving of sympathy and care. The gate leading to damnation remains open and wide for corporations obsessed with profit and rising share price to run through, dragging with them countless numbers of victims seduced by their promises and advertising, and politicians relying on their money for election campaign funds.

The film serves as a pitch for a longer feature film which partly explains the abrupt and unsatisfactory ending and the tedious sequence of title cards which unnecessarily narrows the film’s potential subject matter and themes to one of an unregulated global pharmaceutical industry preying on people’s insecurities and anxieties in a global capitalist system that demands more and more from them.