"The Gate" (citywide) is another bit of movie horror-whimsy, about wholesome, lovable all-American suburban kids battling the Forces of Darkness.

It's sub-Spielberg stuff: The film makers take us back to Anywhere, U.S.A., where lawns are broad, houses--and neighbors--are white, bikes whiz under arching trees, and ghosties and beasties, and Poltergeists I and II are prowling around out of sight. In this halcyon Spielbergville, an ugly horde of demons, beasties and stop-motion puppets are accidentally unleashed when lightning gouges a hole in the lawn and, later, when a mysterious geode cracks open during ritual screeches from a Satanist rock album.

Things begin going wrong immediately. Mom and Dad conveniently leave town. The family dog dies. Our hero kid--Stephen Dorff as Glen--levitates during a party. Outside, a moth invasion assaults a sputtering house lamp. Inside, walls begin buckling from the pressure of some unnamable something-or-other. Pretty soon, during one long hideous slumber party, Glen, sister Al (Christa Denton) and excitable buddy Terry (Louis Tripp) are besieged by hyperactive corpses, a platoon of murderous little lizard-beings--and something that comes bursting out of the floor, looking like a cross between Moloch, Godzilla and Albert the Alligator.

Special effects and makeup experts Randall William Cook and Craig Reardon manage this colorful chaos well. Their lizard-beings, or "minions," are especially cute: pale little monsters that skitter around, swivel their heads agilely, bite people, and split up into lots of wiggling little maggot beings when you stomp them.

The three youthful protagonists are also cute: Dorff, Denton and especially Tripp--who suggests just the owlish curiosity and sarcasm of a bookish 12-year-old into science fiction and heavy metal. Director Tibor Takacs isn't a bad storyteller.

But "The Gate," (MPAA-rated PG-13) whatever minor triumphs it dredges up, is too hopelessly copycat. It's basically powdered Speilberg on Zwieback toast and Stephen King on a stick. Screenwriter Michael Nankin apparently exhausts his ingenuity after inventing the name of the Satanist rockers (Sacrifyx), and a few misogynist wisecracks for Glen and Terry--and his script soon falls prey to the old "idiot plot" syndrome. These resourceful kids never contact the authorities and keep bypassing opportunities to vamoose from this gateway into Hell. Apparently, their theory--proven wrong repeatedly--is that as long as they've got the hole in their yard closed up, everything is fine. There must be some psychological symbolism here (Freud versus Vigoro?), but it's probably unwise to speculate on it. 'THE GATE'

A New Century Entertainment Corp./Vista Organization presentation of an Alliance Entertainment/John Kemeny production. Producer John Kemeny. Director Tibor Takacs. Script Michael Nankin. Camera Thomas Vamos. Production design William Beeton. Editor Rit Wallis. With Stephen Dorff, Christa Denton, Louis Tripp, Kelly Rowan.

Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

MPAA rating: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).

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