The concept of the supernatural using the past to haunt us, rather than manifesting itself as a distinct and separate entity, is a well-trod concept in the horror genre. Event Horizon jumps to mind, with the entity possessing the ill-fated spaceship appearing to the crew as representations of their worst memories. Even Stephen King’s It is at its most unsettling when the titular glamour is using a dead brother or an abusive father as It’s mask of choice. A mirror held up to show us what we want to forget can be brutally effective in the right hands, and it can haunt us long after the camera stops rolling. In the case of the Irish film Gateway, Niall Owens has those hands giving us such a mirror.

Gateway is the story of a gang of low-level Irish drug dealers trying to find a spot to grow marijuana and help settle a debt with a local crime boss. They find a seemingly abandoned house, the perfect spot for their setup, but find out that the house isn’t as abandoned as they thought it was. Something is there, showing itself to each of them as their darkest memories, and thus the mayhem ensues. It’s a simple, no bullshit concept and Owens executes it flawlessly. There is not an ounce of fat in this film. It is lean and efficient and almost cruel in how utilitarian it is when it comes to upsetting the viewer. There is no shock value, no over the top ‘gotcha’ jump scare moments. Just straightforward and relentless horror at what we are witnessing. No excessive dialogue, no pointless exposition, no Google expert finding out what’s haunting them. Nothing like that. There are hints of some larger witchy thing at work, but Owens doesn’t bother bogging down the narrative with tedious explanations. We the viewers are as clueless to what’s going on as the characters themselves are, and it works perfectly.

This is a very dark film in every way. The cinematography is stark, with Cork City playing the perfect backdrop for such a grim film. Everything looks faded and washed out, dreary and past its prime, and before there’s even a hint of the supernatural this feeling of drabness already works on the viewer’s mind. There’s no hope, at all, ever, in this film. I’ve always had a soft spot for horror films that feel the way a situation like this in real life would; no one in Gateway who survives is going to be okay after encountering this phenomenon. Even the idea of escaping whatever it is that is haunting these men will only lead them back to the reality of being in debt to a ruthless drug lord. And the memories evoked are fucked. Our protagonist, Mike, is haunted by the recent death of his younger sister. Another character is shown his late father’s last moments. And one is shown something so horrific they literally cannot go on through life after having it shoved in their face.

The performances in this film are outstanding. It honestly feels like we are witnessing a group of hardened criminals slowly break down in the face of something unspeakable that they are utterly unprepared for. Owens is adept at having his actors portray people doing their best to not reveal their fear and failing. Timmy Creed, Laurence Ubong Williams, and Kevin Barry, the actors who form the emotional core of the film, are all fantastic. Creed in particular excels at creating a dynamic and complex character that captures the desperation that exists in living in such a harsh environment. The driving force that kicks off the narrative is the embodiment of the ‘eat or starve’ lifestyle such people would live in, and Creed executes flawlessly a depiction of someone in over their head in such a place, a shark amongst bigger sharks, and this makes the situation all the more horrifying. Williams’ depiction of a man who recently lost his father and didn’t get a chance to say goodbye is sadly realistic; when another character mentions he didn’t even like his dad anyway, Williams’ curt response speaks volumes of an inner turmoil that later becomes his undoing. It’s brilliant.

In life, things aren’t always (if at all) presented to us in a neat little package for us to unpack and digest at our leisure. Our choices cast shadows throughout the rest of our lives and sometimes there’s no escaping that. The true source of horror in Gateway isn’t really a ghost or a demon or a witch or whatever; it is simply the revelation that we are bound to our past and cannot ever completely do away with it.