The horror genre is dominated by clichés: abandoned houses, flickering lights, creaking floorboards, jump scares, cell phones with no reception, cars that won’t start, invincible killers, ghost children, and final girls. Many of the movies included in this year’s Portland Horror Film Festival either completely invert these tropes or use them as stepping stones to much darker corners of the human psyche.
Only half of the festival’s six feature films were screened for critics, but the best of that bunch is The Funeral (screening Sat June 8), which follows young model Zhong Tonghiu (Kunjue Li) to her wealthy aunt’s funeral in the countryside. It’s quite similar to Get Out, but The Funeral stands apart with its smart blurring of dreams, reality, and flashbacks.
Stay Out Stay Alive sources inspiration from a public awareness campaign about the dangers of America’s deserted mine shafts, but it’s bogged down by the harmful, boring cliché of vengeful spirits haunting an indigenous burial ground.
Nightmare Cinema (Fri June 7) has an intriguing premise—people get lured into a movie theater that shows their worst nightmares—and some familiar faces (in a bizarre twist, a steampunky Mickey Rourke plays “The Projectionist”), but delivers more flashy production value than palpable fear. Same goes for Reborn (Fri June 7), though I can’t deny a horror movie about a reanimated stillborn baby is a great idea. Stay Out Stay Alive (Wed June 5) sources inspiration from a public awareness campaign about the dangers of America’s deserted mine shafts, but it’s bogged down by the harmful, boring cliché of vengeful spirits haunting an indigenous burial ground. (Let’s retire this one ASAP—it’s rooted in ignorance and unhelpful white guilt.) I didn’t get to see Satanic Panic (Wed June 5), but the plot description sounds incredible: a pizza girl delivers pies to a gathering of Satanists who need a virgin sacrifice.
The festival’s short films are a mixed bag, but the good ones contort clichés like disfigured balloon animals. Take the innovative, hilarious Dead Teenager Séance (Thurs June 6), which builds off the “dumb teenagers tempting fate in a haunted mansion” plot to visit those same dumb teenagers’ afterlife in purgatory. Smiley Death Face (Thurs June 6) is a home-invasion story told entirely through threatening emojis, which deserves applause for its originality alone. Hana (Wed June 5) zeroes in on the terror of knowing that death isn’t reserved for the aged. Water Horse (Fri June 7) and Coda Sacra (Thurs June 6) are two beautifully shot shorts about lake monsters that dredge the same fear—that something sinister lurks beneath the surface of our perception, waiting to annihilate our domestic bliss and physical bodies alike. (There is! It’s called death!) Creaker (Wed June 5), though, was the absolute best thing I saw: The wordless Norwegian short is only four minutes long, but it uses blunt, too-real, Hereditary-esque terror to show how fear can transform us into monsters in the blink of an eye.