Watching horror can feel like a strange undertaking right now—as there is, after all, more than enough to be scared of out in the real world. Yet to many, horror films offer a sense of respite and catharsis. They allow us to experience fear at a distance while still diving headfirst into a whole host of terrifying nightmares. That spirit is front and center in the varied curation of the upcoming Portland Horror Film Festival.
First beginning back in 2016, the fest is known for its celebration of indie horror and bumping the profile of sleeper hits, like the 2020 comedy-horror film Uncle Peckerhead. This year, audiences have the chance to see potential up and coming horror hits via in-person screenings at the Hollywood Theatre and the Clinton St. Theater, and in the comfort of their own home, through remote streaming.
While the Portland Horror Film Festival has offered remote screenings since the 2020 shutdown, and a hybrid model in 2021, organizer Gwen Callahan told the Mercury that she's excited for festival goers to see this year's films in a theater, if that's something they're comfortable with.
“Films were meant to be seen on a big screen, in a communal setting," Callahan said. "I think it’s a much different experience for people to be watching something new and interesting together.”
Each of the six Portland Horror Film Festival showings combine a feature (sometimes two!) with a selection of shorts and usually at least one creator Q & A. So the $20 in-person tickets are for 4-5 hours of programming. Online tickets are a little more tricky—buyers can pick and choose whether they want to buy the features and shorts individually or as bundled showings. In-person weekend passes are $110 (online $182) for those that want to have it all.
We had a chance to look through all the festival features and highlight a few favorites so whether you're having it all or looking into where to have just a little, here are our highlights:
UK, 2022, 94 min., Dir. Jamie Hooper; plays with Short Films 1 at the Hollywood Theatre and online, Wed, June 29, 7-11 pm
Portland Horror Film Festival's opening night feature is one of its best. The winner of the Audience Choice award at last month's Panicfest, The Creeping is a well-constructed ghost story that wears its many horror influences on its sleeve and is all the better for them. It tells a terrifying tale of a woman who returns home to take care of her ailing grandmother, only to be drawn into her house's dark history as it threatens to consume everyone.
As the central character, Anna, Riann Steele gives one of the best performances you'll see all festival—capturing her character's kind and caring sensibility, even as everything slides into chaos. We spend almost all of the film with her alone, and she carries the film on her shoulders, making even the simplest of scenes where she wanders around the house feel engaging. The way she and director Jamie Hooper keep the story grounded makes the experience even more gloriously grim.
What Is Buried Must Remain
Lebanon, 2022, 94 min., Dir. Elias Matar; plays with Revealer and Short Films 2 at the Hollywood Theatre and online, Thurs, June 30, 7-11 pm
A frightening film for you found footage fans, What Is Buried Must Remain really sneaks up on you, due to it's well-conceived staging. The setting is a haunted house in modern-day Lebanon where three filmmakers plan to stick it out for a night to see what will happen. They end up making a film beyond anything they could have ever imagined, drowned in horrors of the past.
The film finds real and surreal scares, making great use of sound to envelop you in the nightmare. Even at the moments when it can all be a bit scattershot—as characters wander aimlessly around the house—the unnerving sense of getting lost is very much the point. It ends up feeling both vast in scope and focused in execution, burrowing deep into your mind with truly striking visuals that play around with the form in quite interesting ways.
USA, 2022, 86 min., Dir. Luke Boyce; plays with What Is Buried Must Remain and Short Films 2 at the Hollywood Theatre and online, Thurs, June 30, 7-11 pm
A confined creature feature crossed with a demonic buddy comedy, Revealer is the film that feels most like a throwback, while still packing its own individual sense of flair. Set in an '80s Chicago apocalypse, it centers on an unlikely duo who must find a way to survive while trapped in a peep show booth. Bathed in neon light and paired with an appropriately synth-heavy score, the film is a solid work of horror, transported from a different era and aesthetic.
Revealer is an earnest B-movie that revels in both an abundance of sleaze and cheese, showing the grimy corners of its world with a kinetic energy that smooths over its occasional flaws. There are moments where you can feel its budget bite off a little more than it can chew, but the film's enduring charm keeps everything moving forward. By the time it reveals just how expansive it all actually was, you’ll appreciate how much Revealer did with very little, all rather well.
Canada, 2021, 91 min., Dir. Adam Reider; plays with Short Films 3 at the Hollywood Theatre and online, Fri, July 1, 7-11 pm
A film centered around seclusion and isolation, Woodland Grey can play out like more of a dark drama than a consistent horror film, though it still comes together into something intriguing. Beginning with minimal dialogue and a great sense of atmosphere, we are introduced to a man who is living alone in the woods. When he discovers a woman passed out, he tries to help her get back to health, while also keeping her from a secret in a shed he has built close by.
Even as it gets a little caught up in flashbacks here and there, the experience is at its best when we see the devastation of what is happening in the shed, which defies explanation. The shed's nightmare contents are played with a light touch, showing the emotional impact along with more evocative imagery. One such moment uses red ribbons to haunting affect—revealing the characters' disorientation without them saying a word. Woodland Grey's sequence of increasingly terrifying visions make it one of the more visually rich films of the festival.
USA, 2022, 92 min., Dir. Alexandra Spieth; plays with Maya and Short Films 4 at the Clinton and online, Sat, July 2, 12-5 pm
A silly and self-aware horror-comedy that plays around with the multitude of awkward social situations to be found at an isolated bachelorette party, Stag is the festival film that makes the most of its confined setting. It centers on the troubled Jenny, a lonely New Yorker who seeks to reconnect with an old friend. When she gets invited to said friend's bachelorette party, she’ll discover this seemingly fun getaway is anything but.
Stag is the debut feature from writer-director Alexandra Spieth, and she mines the full potential from the premise and then some. Flaunting genre convention and poking fun at pretense, the film also boasts one of the better drug trip sequences of any film in the festival—if that's your speed. It can slip into being a bit more solemn than it knows what to do with—though it eventually finds its way back to being goofy. The way iStag leverages the everyday faux pas into something both fearful and funny makes it worth checking out.
Iceland, 2022, 96 min., Dir. Elvar Gunnarsson; plays with The Parker Sessions and Shorts Gone Wild (Shorts 6) at the Hollywood Theatre and online, Sun, July 3, 5:30-11 pm
This one is for you fellow sickos who are looking for a horror film with a more sinister and salacious sensibility. It Hatched follows a couple who move to a home in Iceland, for a fresh start, only to discover that something is lurking in their basement. Resembling a bizarre riff on Eraserhead, this macabre and maddening mind-trip is still a vision all its own, and it continually disrupts our expectations on its descent into darkness.
Also a debut feature, It Hatched shows writer-director Elvar Gunnarsson can craft a really striking shot. He made use of a whole range of vibrant colors that illuminate the dark corners of the house, which gives the film the feeling of a nightmare that you can’t wake up from. The performances are as comedic as they are creepy and It Hatched packs an appropriately dynamite finale, as everything goes completely and utterly off the rails.