Jason Shankel

Movie Review - Encounter At Raven's Gate

Encounter At Raven's Gate

dir. Rolf de Heer

ENCOUNTER AT RAVEN'S GATE — which is alternatively titled Incident At Raven's Gate — is a 1988 small town alien invasion family melodrama directed by Dutch-born Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer.


The film opens in media res with astrophysicist and Miami Vice villain Dr. Hemmings (Terry Camilleri) going driveabout across the Australian Outback tracking an alien spacecraft.  Dr. Hemmings arrives at Raven's Gate where the local constable, Sgt. Taylor (Max Cullen), is investigating the remains of a farmhouse fire. Dr. Hemmings, being evidently the Neo Anderson of astrophysicists, disarms and subdues Sgt. Taylor and the pair set about investigating the...Encounterdent at Raven's Gate.

Flash back five days earlier to find the owner of the farm, Richard (Ritchie Singer), conducting hydroponic experiments assisted by his lovely wife Rachel (Celine O'Leary) and his ne'er-do-well ex-con bother Eddie (Steven Vidler).

Something has been causing the wells and the water tanks to dry up, killing off the livestock and crops. Richard suspects that his wife and brother have been neglecting the farm animals and wasting water on trivialities like gardening and personal hygiene. Despite their protestations of moderation and industry, Richard continues to push his strict water conservation policies with an intensity that borders on Lt. Cmdr Queeg territory.

Meanwhile, Eddie splits his time between fighting with the local football hooligans, bedding the local barmaid, antagonizing the local cops and otherwise trainspotting his way through life until odd goings on at Raven's Gate compel our heroes to team up and solve the groovy mystery of the missing water.

Yadda yadda yadda, transdimensional portal to the land where everyone has Munchkin helium voice, alien demon possession of obligatory doomed elderly couple, sinister government conspiracy coverup aaaaand...we're out.

Despite the relative thinness of its premise, Encounter At Raven's Gate is not all that bad a movie. The performances are solid, the characters more richly textured than you might expect and the cinematography has the lonely, big sky feel of art house Australian films like Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave and John Hillcoat's The Proposition.

Richard's control-freak obsession with the water supply is nuanced by the sibling rivalry he has with his prodigal brother and the sexual jealousy he feels over Rachel's attraction to him. The local cop's antagonism for Eddie is fueled not only by his basic distrust of criminals but also by the fact that he is in love with the barmaid with whom Eddie is bumping dingos. And the story uses this lack of trust the characters have in Eddie to heighten the tension of the climax without resorting to Boy Who Cried Wolf tedium.

If this seems like an awfully long way to go for an alien invasion/demon possession movie...it is. Like M. Night Shyamalan's similarly structured (and one might even go so far as to say totally rip-off) film SignsEncounter At Raven's Gate is at its best when it's not pursuing the alien invasion story. The tension between the characters is so organic that when the inevitable magnetic anomalies, smoke machines and disco lights kick in, they rob the film of its distinctive flavor.

Not that the alien premise is completely inappropriate. It's just that it's underdeveloped. It lacks the inventive lunacy of Phantasm, the social profundity of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or the claustrophobic paranoia of The Shining. Add to this Terry Camilleri's performance as the "astrophysicist" who seems to have walked off a central casting call for The Sopranos and it almost seems as if they didn't really want to make an alien invasion movie.

With as much meat as Rolf de Heer put on the bone, it would have been nice if the alien invasion/demon possession story had done more with the significant flaws and psychological vulnerabilities of the characters. Instead, the film devolves into a standard "don't let the possessed guy in" chase at the end. Pity, it really did seem like it was going somewhere. Still, if the adjectives "moody," "Australian" and "art house" appear on a significant portion of the boxes in your DVD collection, you could do worse than Encounter At Raven's Gate.