The Gates review – retrofuturist tale of serial killer’s spirit on the rampage

This horror-thriller occupies the same Victorian shadowlands as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Penny Dreadful; a not-quite-modern epoch, with its zesty mashup of science, religion and spiritualism, retrofuturist tech and plain retro beliefs. It makes an invigorating backdrop for Irish director Stephen Hall’s second feature. But his script isn’t quite sharp enough and – apart from John Rhys-Davies, who goes at his role with his customary fiery traction, and villain Richard Brake, as ever exploiting a face like an open grave – too many of the supporting cast fall into the distinctly ordinary bracket, acting-wise.

We open with the bobbies bursting in on London’s most-wanted serial killer: William Colcott (Brake), about to dispatch another victim in a long string he is apparently offering up in an occult attempt to resurrect his dead wife. Banged up in Bishopsgate prison, he becomes the first British recipient of the electric chair. Postmortem photographer Frederick (Rhys-Davies) and his niece assistant Emma (Elena Delia) are called to record the cadaver. But, already rattled in the dead murderer’s presence, she spots a strange anomaly in one of the prints, which coincides with unholy stirrings inside Bishopsgate’s walls that cause the authorities to preemptively call in Father Matthews (David Pearse).

Under the pretext that Colcott’s spirit – which jumps around more than The Matrix’s agents – may attach itself to one of the staff or visitors and escape from the premises, Hall runs this as a huis clos affair. But he doesn’t quite have the precision needed in such compressed circumstances, never fully untangling what philosophical party Frederick and Emma represent with their “Atmosiser”, a vacuum-tube-packed gizmo that attracts the departed. They stand rather uncertainly in relation to the priest, as well as showboating medium Lucian (Michael Yare). The film is just as fuzzy on the details of Colcott’s diabolic pact and powers.

With the dramatic voltage prone to ebbing and the occasional anachronism (“Don’t give up the day job”), The Gates is at least strong on staging and atmosphere. The opening murder and arrest have a baleful punch, and there is a genuinely malicious charge to Lucian’s psychic confrontation with the ethereal Colcott. The film finally collapses into incoherent scurrying around the jail; it’s a shame as there is enough here to suggest the spirit-residue of a more potent film, along the lines of John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness.

• The Gates is available on digital platforms on 3 July.