Incident in a Ghostland

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A mother and her two teenage daughters move into the home of a recently deceased relative. On the first night, intruders attack and force the family to fight for their lives. After seeming to escape, the women move on as best they can. 16 years later they reunite in that same house, but the tragedy of their past may still be part of their present.

Writer and director Pascal Laugier (Martyrs, The Tall Man) once again brings his horror expertise to the screen with Incident in a Ghostland.  Immediately Laugier sets the tone with a creepy story and an even creepier candy truck. When the intruders arrive at the rural home, the family’s worst nightmares become reality. As the plot weaves the past and the present, there is almost a supernatural element. Yet the truth may end up being more terrifying than any ghost.

This plot has two main focuses. The first is the relationship between sisters. At first the two girls are at odds with each other and don’t get along. It takes the extremely horrifying event of the home invasion to bring the two together. Between terror and time, there is little that can keep these sisters from fighting for each other and for their survival.  The second focus is the lengths the mind goes to in order to cope with that trauma. The mind can do incredible things in reaction to trauma. Sometimes the mind erases the trauma, sometimes it generates false memories, and sometimes it allows you to escape to another place where the trauma doesn’t exist. Laugier did a gorgeous job of conveying this aspect of the plot into the film, although certain aspects that are meant to be surprises are telegraphed too obviously.

There is one part of the plot in Incident in a Ghostland that is quite problematic. This is evident in how the villains of the film are portrayed. There are two villains who seem to have a sort of mother-son relationship. The son is a giant beast of a man who appears to have a mental disability. He doesn’t speak and is very childlike in the way he acts, communicating primarily in grunts. His “mother” is played by a man. It’s unclear if this person is meant to be a transgender woman or a man who dresses in drag. The biggest issue I have with this is how it perpetuates the unfortunate horror trope of mental illness and LGBTQ+ individuals not only being the same, but also being evil. In this day and age one would hope filmmakers would move away from this trope, but it is still very common.

The performances from the female protagonists are truly moving. Most notable are the two women who portray Beth. Emilia Jones (High-Rise, Brimstone) gives viewers the first glimpse of Beth as a young teen. Jones’ performance is absolutely breathtaking as she portrays Beth going through terrifying experiences most people will never have to experience in their lifetime. Her adult counterpart is played by Crystal Reed (Teen Wolf, Swamp Thing). The adult version of Beth is quite different. She is very poised and put together. Reed does a great job of portraying Beth as the more successful and well-adjusted member of her family 16 years after the tragedy. Yet, both young and adult Beth have denial in common when it comes to what happened in that house and that is where both Jones and Reed truly shine. It is important to note Taylor Hickson (Deadpool, Deadly Class) as young Vera and Anastasia Phillips (Reign, Skins) as adult Vera also deliver powerhouse performances.

On top of the compelling tale of sisters and survival, Incident in a Ghostland is also truly stunning to look at. Between the set design, the props, and the makeup, there is a lot to look at. The house where the horrible events take place is dark and old, yet still beautiful. It needs some sprucing up and it is filled with old antiques. Yet the thing that stands out is the abundance of creepy dolls, which play an important role in the film. The dinginess of this places offers a stark contrast to the life adult Beth leads, which is very neat and clean. The brightness of it offers a great juxtaposition to the time spent inside the rural home. The young versions of the sisters get put through the ringer and the physical wounds from that are very well done with the help of makeup and prosthetic application. At one point, doll-like makeup is applied over these wounds and it creates a haunting image for the viewer.

Incident in a Ghostland is a stunning look at the bonds of sisterhood and dealing with trauma. Laugier clearly knows how to convey extremely traumatic events and the lengths the human mind will go to in order to protect a person from that trauma. He also has a great handle on creating dynamic sisterly relationships that are complicated, but grounded in love for each other. The plot still has its problematic areas, such as the portrayal of people with mental disabilities, mental illness, and LGBTQ+ individuals. It is something I hope to see change in the horror industry over time, but the story of Beth and Vera is still a fascinating one.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Riot Girls

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In a post-apocalyptic version of the 90’s lies a small town divided in two. On one side are the poor kids and the punks, on the other are the rich kids and the jocks. When the jocks manage to capture the leader of the punk kids, it’s up to a small band of misfits to go on a rescue mission into enemy territory.

Director Jovanka Vuckovic is most well known for her segment, “The Box,” from horror anthology XX. Now she’s making her feature film debut with Riot Girls, written by Katherine Collins (Blindspot, Lost in Space). The film essentially takes a typical high school 90’s film of jocks vs. punks and injects it with steroids. The post-apocalyptic setting where a virus has wiped out all adults turns the rivalry between the two groups deadly. Without adults to control the violence, the two gangs divide the small town, constantly fighting for resources. The plot focuses on two young women, Nat and Scratch, who are members of the punk gang on the poor side of town. It’s Nat’s brother who is taken by the rival jock gang. These two lovable misfits, with the help of a newcomer, decide to venture into jock territory to save Nat’s brother.

Riot Girls is a compelling film in the way it portrays bullying. The filmmakers also waste no time in portraying the punks as the good guys and the jocks as the bad guys. Aside from the obvious connected to bullying in how the jock’s behave, the societies the two gangs create are also very different. The punks have a more communal society where everyone is taken care of and has a say, while the jocks are run by a malicious dictator and his cronies. It is an extreme portrayal that still feels grounded in reality.

One point of confusion with the plot is the nature of the illness. It is clear that it wiped out all of the adults and that is what led to the current state of the small town. If it had been left at that, then that bit of mystery around the virus would have worked perfectly well. The issue that arises comes from a reference to the virus later on in the film. It seems to be a moment of some significance that hints at some greater piece of the puzzle when it comes to the virus. Yet, after that moment, the virus is never mentioned again. It is a small moment, but the fact that it is not addressed again at any point in the rest of the film makes it seem like a loose end.

A very successful aspect of Riot Girls is how the film portrays Nat and Scratch. Nat is played by Madison Iseman (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Annabelle Comes Home). She is the most down to earth and relatable character as she simply tries to live the best life possible in this new world. Scratch, played by Paloma Kwiatkowski (Bates Motel, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters), is the much more guarded of the two. She presents a tough exterior and isn’t trusting of those not part of her group, yet inside she is likely even more vulnerable than Nat. Not only do both Iseman and Kwiatkowski deliver great performances on their own, they also have great chemistry together. These two young women are a couple, yet the filmmakers don’t use their relationship as a gimmick and make a point of going, “LOOK OVER HERE, THESE GIRLS ARE LESBIANS!” Nat and Scratch are cinematically shown like any straight couple, which is very important when it comes to LGBTQ+ representation in film. Aside from these two strong leading ladies, I need to give performance shout-outs to Ajay Friese (Lost in Space) as the kind outsider, Sony, and Munro Chambers (Turbo Kid) as the sinister jock leader, Jeremy.

Visually, Riot Girls perfectly captures what the small town may have looked like it the world ended in the 90’s. The film has the sort of shiny, plastic, vibrantly colored look typically found in teen films made in the 90’s. Even the music acts as a killer soundtrack of punk rock hits to transport the audience back in time. The clothing also lends itself to that time period. The punk kids rock ripped jeans, leather jackets, and heavy black eye makeup. The jocks are all perfectly coiffed with their tidy clothes and letterman jackets. Then there are some kids that fall between these two groups that have a more grunge look to them, often wearing a combination of oversized military jackets and flannel. All of this helps to create a sense of the film being in an alternate past, but the most eye-catching visual aspect is the way the filmmakers make the film look like a comic book. The introduction that gives the film context is shown as an animated comic book, but then that theme is continued throughout the film. Many of the transitions between scenes are represented in comic panels. It is a fun and interesting style that definitely catches the eye.

Riot Girls is a genre-bending adventure that acts as a thrilling ode to misfits. Vuckovic had already shown her filmmaking skills with her short film, but now she has proven she can deliver a compelling feature length film. Not only do Vuckovic and Collins create an interesting alternate reality with Riot Girls, but they also deliver a feminist film with a couple of amazing women smashing the patriarchy. There may be some unanswered questions about the virus by the end of the film, but the primary focus of the rescue mission helps overshadow those questions. The film boasts a great ensemble cast, with Iseman and Kwiatkowski carrying the weight of the film on their able shoulders.  It’s hard not to love these two punks and the alternate reality of the film. This is a must see film for the misfits of the world.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Trespassers

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Two couples meet at a vacation rental home in the desert. What was supposed to be a weekend getaway to recharge and rekindle romances quickly turns sour when a strange woman rings the bell late at night. From the moment they open the door, the night spirals wildly out of control resulting in lies, violence, and death.

This thrilling spin on a home-invasion flick is written by Corey Deshon (Shine) and directed by Orson Oblowitz (The Queen of Hollywood Blvd). The filmmakers waste no time in setting the tone for the bloody time audiences are in for. The relatively simple plot of Trespassers is made more interesting in the way it quickly builds tension and manages to subvert expectations. From the opening scene it is clear that anything can and will happen to these unsuspecting couples. For the two couples renting the home it starts with the stranger ringing their bell. After that the film is jam-packed with shocking and unsettling twists that go from bad, to worse, to outright catastrophic.

The most successful aspect of Trespassers is the building of chaos. While each new turn doesn’t always exactly go the way one might expect, the turns are still believable within the context of the plot. Some of these turns are more subtle, some of them come into the plot with a bang. It keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, never fully knowing what could possibly happen next. The only true problem with the entertaining plot is the characters. In a home-invasion style film one of the most important aspects that helps maintain the suspense is creating characters the audience cares about. While there is one character that is endearing, the rest of the characters are all horrible people. The plot was thrilling enough to hold my interest, but I really didn’t care if anyone except Sarah died.

While the entire cast is fantastic, it’s the ladies who completely steal the show in Trespassers. Angela Trimbur (Final Girls, XX) stars as Sarah. Sarah is the one who booked the beautiful rental in the hopes of reconnecting with her husband and her best friend. I’ve been a fan of Trimbur since seeing her in Final Girls. It was nice to see her take on a leading role with a lot of emotional depth and she delivered a compelling performance. Janel Parrish (Pretty Little Liars, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) plays Estelle. She is Sarah’s best friend, but they are complete opposites. Estelle is a wild child who really isn’t a great friend. Parrish’s performance stands out because, despite Estelle being a lousy person, she still manages to make me care just enough that I want her to live. Then of course there is fan-favorite Fairuza Balk (The Craft, Almost Famous) as the mysterious late night visitor. Balk steals every scene she’s in by perfectly straddling the line between innocent and creepy. She makes it so the audience second-guesses if she can be trusted or not. All three of these woman deliver strong and dynamic performances.

Arguably the best aspect of this film is the artistry. From the visuals to the effects to the music, it’s all absolutely stunning. The house is gorgeous and modern, but set in a remote area to allow for a more isolated feeling. When things really take a turn for the worst the filmmakers use gorgeous lighting in vibrant reds, blues, and greens to make each scene as beautiful as it is suspenseful. Trespassers also has a surprising amount of gore in it. With this kind of thriller I anticipated the kills would be well executed with practical effects, which they definitely are, but they are much more graphic than I expected. There is one specific kill that is quite shocking and is fantastically done with practical effects. Then, to top everything off, the film has a wonderful score by Jonathan Snipes. The music really sets the tone for the film and helps to get the audience excited in the more action-packed scenes. Snipes even effectively integrates the sound of the doorbell into the music, which manages to make both the doorbell and the music even more sinister. These elements intertwine to make this film stand out.

Trespassers is a series of unfortunate events that leads its characters down a dark and twisted path. Deshon and Oblowitz combined powers manage to create a familiar home invasion film, but with a distinct edge. This edge can be seen in the compounding suspense that builds in unexpected ways and an amazing score that helps to build that suspense. Trespassers even gives the audience some great eye-candy in the form of beautiful lighting and superb practical effects. While I wish the characters were a bit more endearing, the performances still make them fun to watch, especially from the three female leads. You won’t want to miss this entertaining flick.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

A Really Nice Guy (Short)

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Sean believes he has seen the girl of his dreams – she just doesn’t know it yet. With the help of his friend, Milo, Sean makes a series of unfortunate attempts to connect with this dream girl. Yet from the dream girl’s perspective, Sean’s “romantic” gestures are anything but.

This unique film was co-written and directed by Christina Przada and Paul Hibbard. What makes A Really Nice Guy feel different is the fact that it feels like two completely different style films combined in one short. On the one hand the short is a goofy buddy comedy. It follows two men, one of whom happens to see the girl of his dreams while out and about. The friends hatch a plan to try to get the dream girl’s attention and ask her out on a date. Then there is an entirely different film from the dream girl’s perspective. A woman, weary from going on dates with losers and creeps, is just trying to go about her day. Then she notices two strange men following her.

There are multiple aspects of this short film that make it a compelling watch. The most obvious is the poignant plot. It not only shows the things women are forced to endure from men, but it also helps to convey to men how some of their “nice guy” behavior can be anything but nice to a woman. The difference between the two perspectives is shown through changes in acting style, tone, cinematography, etc. It begins by showing the man and woman both getting ready for the day in seemingly similar ways, but gradually the differences become much more apparent.

From the man’s perspective everything is just a bit goofier. The most obvious ways this is conveyed is the color palette and the performances. All of the colors are very bright and cheery. When it comes to the performances, they are slightly over-the-top, but it works with the formatting of the short. Clayton Bury (Safe and Happy, Confined) stars as the self-proclaimed “nice guy,” Sean. His best friend, Milo, is played by Pete Papavlasopoulos (The Blair Trump Project, Time of Death). Both men are equally misguided in their quest to get Sean’s dream girl and the performances from both Bury and Papavlasopoulos are ridiculous and goofy. Within the context of this film, this kind of performance works well to help tell the story of how the men are completely oblivious to how unsettling their behavior truly is. It also allows for some comedy to break up an otherwise very serious topic.

From the woman’s perspective, everything is different. The most immediate difference is in the look and feel of her perspective. Her point of view takes on a slightly more monochromatic look with a bit of a gritty edge to it. Carlie Lawrence (Supermen: World War) plays Courtney. What makes her performance especially interesting is how she conveys the things a woman will often go through in order to find the perfect man, only to grab the attention of the creeps, weirdos, stalkers, and men who claim to be “nice guys.” Lawrence also perfectly conveys how women have to always be alert when we are out just trying to go about our lives. This important part of daily life as a woman coupled with how Courtney’s POV is filmed allows for a lot of tension to be built. We as the viewer may know that she is not in any real danger, but it is easy to see why she would think she is.

A Really Nice Guy is a short film that manages to tell the same story from two completely opposing perspectives in very different styles. The way Przada and Hibbard blended the two together works very well to show the differences between how men and woman experience the dating scene. I believe this short also wisely uses humor to not only show those different points of view, but to also make the message being send more palatable. Guys don’t want to hear that their actions can be construed as creepy. Yet by adding some laughs into the mix, along with the more suspenseful aspects, the message becomes more palatable and less preachy. There are times when the humorous parts are a little too goofy, but overall the performances, style, and plot mesh together to create an enjoyable short film.

OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

PHFF 2019 Shorts: Day 3 & 4

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For my final bit of coverage for the 2019 Portland Horror Film festival I’m giving a rundown of all the short films! From terrifying to beautiful to hilarious, this year had a range of different shorts that covered virtually every subgenre of horror. Here are my thoughts on the short films from day 3 and 4:

THE FOG VS THE MIST

Another one minute “bumper” for the festival hilariously combines two classic horror films. The short acts as a fake trailer in a 70’s grindhouse style showing a man in a house that is simultaneously invaded by both the mist and the fog. The style is grainy and offers a delightful throwback. While only a minute long, the short delivers on the laughs as the narrator confuses which entity is the mist and which is the fog. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

LOOK TWICE

Kyle Wilson’s horror short shows a young night guard just starting his shift. When he notices someone lurking around outside, he tells them to leave through the intercom. The guard quickly regrets getting the intruder’s attention when he realizes they might not be human. The story and imagery are definitely spine-chilling and effective, although the plot moves in ways that can be a bit confusing as well. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

NEST

Brennan Gilpatrick and Erin Walsh combined forces to create this terrifying 2-minute short film. Shot entirely with an iPhone, it shows two young women as they go check out an apartment they want to rent. Once inside, they realize something horrifying is waiting for them. This short is definitely one of the most terrifying, which is especially impressive given the 2-minute run time. It also has some great creature design to add to the scares. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

WATER HORSE

A woman spending time with her husband and daughter is disturbed by a small boat that washes ashore near her family. From there her life turns into a nightmare where she can’t determine what’s real and what’s not. The film has a very panicked feel to it as the mother tries to keep her daughter safe. Unfortunately the play on reality makes it a bit confusing on what’s actually going on, which can take viewers out of the moment. OVERALL RATING: 3/5

CULPRIT

All the way from Tawain comes a chilling film by Shuan Yu Lin. On a visit to a public bathroom a man receives a strange picture of himself. From the moment he sees that photo the short film builds tension quickly. This leads the audience down a swift and sinister path. It is a quick horror film with effective storytelling, despite the lack of dialogue. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

WITCHES GET STITCHES

This local Portland short horror film, written and directed by Matthew K. Robinson, follows a coven of witches. They are attempting to summon a demon through a blood sacrifice, but it doesn’t go quite as planned. This hilarious short takes a simple action commonly seen in horror films and turns it into a 4 minute joke. What makes it so hilarious is the way Robinson says what audience members everywhere have thought, but characters in film almost never say. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

THE DARLINGS

In this world premier audiences were introduced to a group of ladies in an 80’s glam-rock band. They go to a secluded rented mansion after a show to hear over the radio that a psycho killer is on the loose. Yet these “darlings” aren’t as helpless as they appear to be. This is one of the most memorable films in the festival because it truly captures the look and feel of an 80’s film with great twists and turns. There are even some fantastic practical effects. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

HERE THERE BE MONSTER

Coming to us from Australia is one of my favorite shorts, written and directed by Drew Macdonald. A young girl experiences brutal bullying on the bus home from school. After falling asleep on the bus she awakes in the dark to find herself alone in the bus yard and she’s trapped there with something dangerous. This short is beautifully shot, has a compelling plot, and includes creepy creature design. The young lead, played by Savannah Foran-McDaniel, will instantly capture your heart and make the ending all the more satisfying. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

CEMETERY SONG

Another world premier introduces this absolutely gorgeous short film, directed by Michelle Prebich with animation by Justine Prebich. This animated short film follows one man and shows a day in the life of those who inhabit the cemetery. The animation is truly stunning and the song that accompanies the short is equally beautiful. Because it is one of the few animated shorts in the festival, it definitely stands out from the crowd and it also has a sorrowful beauty to the story being told that resonates with audiences. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

I LEARNED HOW TO DRIVE AT THE END OF THE WORLD

This touching short horror film from China introduces audiences to a young couple. As the man is trying to teach his wife how to drive they discover the world has been overrun by zombies, forcing her to learn at lightspeed. The film builds suspense very well in a short amount of time while also allowing time to get to know the characters. This assures the audience cares about the fates of the young couple. It results in a very sentimental yet frightening short film. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

FIVE COURSE MEAL

In James Cadden’s short horror comedy we meet Mark and Jenny. They agree to be part of an experiment to get some extra cash. They are confined to a room and served meal after meal through a slot in the door. From there things quickly escalate in hilarious and disgusting ways. While there is a lot of repetition that can get stale after a bit, the climax of the film has fantastic practical effects that almost makes up for it. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

FINLEY

Writer and director J. Zachary Thurman brought the film festival what was definitely a crowd favorite. After a group of college kids move into a new house, they discover a creepy puppet. It doesn’t take long to realize the puppet is alive and he’s hellbent on killing the college kids. This familiar plot is turned on its head in a truly hysterical way. Between the creepy puppet and the hilarious hijinks he gets up to, the audience was laughing from start to finish. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

RE-HOME

Izzy Lee’s short film touches on a poignant political issue. A young Mexican woman brings her baby daughter to an American couple in order to give her a better life. Yet the couple isn’t all they appear to be. The film delivers some shock value while also showcasing indie horror favorites Gigi Saul Guerrero and Morgan Peter Brown. It could have benefited from being a bit longer with a bit more plot, but it still drives home an important message. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

THE STRING

Another bumper contest winner, written and directed by Tom Eastwood, takes the audience back to an old age of filmmaking. Feeling reminiscent of 50’s films such as Plan 9 From Outer Space, the short follows an experiment gone wrong resulting in a string monster. It hilariously hits many of the tropes of horror sci-fi films of that era in this quick one minute film. OVERALL RATING. 3.5/5

VINYL DESTINATION

This short follows a man on the hunt for treasures at a yard sale. He finds a strange vinyl record, which he brings home to his roommate in the hopes of reselling it for a profit online. When they play the record, they realize it’s not your average vinyl. What makes this short so humorous is how it presents certain tropes, but then subverts audience expectations in unique ways. Combine that with endearing characters and you get a very entertaining short film. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

GEORGIE

Have you ever wondered what happened to little Georgie after Pennywise the clown got him? This short film shows him all grown up and following in Pennywise’s footsteps. The creepy reimagining of the classic Stephen King tale even brings together original cast members from the 1990 mini-series; Tony Dakota, who reprises his role as Georgie, and Ben Heller, who played young Stan Uris. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

I AM NOT A MONSTER

Ambrose makes an unexpected visit home just before his brother’s engagement party. What complicates things is he was born with a sinister growth on the back of his head that controls his mind and attempts to make him do things. This Irish short film is beautifully shot, has strong performances, interesting practical effects, and it does a great job of making it unclear what is real and what is in Ambrose’s head. This is another more unique short film from the festival that definitely sticks with you. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

RETCH

Keir Siewert delivers a unique short film all the way from the UK. This short depicts a woman going through a strange illness, but this isn’t your average cold. The short takes on a creepy and disturbing tone as it shows the woman struggle with the illness while also going through a physical transformation. There are great practical effects in this short which are very well done, but the highlight is the surprisingly humorous tone. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

30TH NIGHT

Megan awakes one morning to find her husband murdered and she is sent to jail for it. 30 nights later, all hell breaks loose in the prison, leaving Megan’s cellmate fighting for her life. This film packs a lot of action into 8.5 minutes and the two leads, Laura Burke and Jodi Pongratz, are delightful. Throw in some awesome creature makeup and you get a very entertaining short film. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

THE LESHIY

Anya must confront a dangerous demon in order to save her husband in this visually gorgeous short film. The plot alone is fascinating as it shows the young wife attempt to outsmart a demon from ancient legends. Yet what makes this short truly stand out are the visuals. The film is shot in black and white and only illuminated with natural light. This being a dark horror short, that means all the light comes from fire and candlelight. It allows for some gorgeous shadow-play that is only more beautiful in black and white. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

THE FISHERMAN

Rion Smith spins a yarn of a fisherman who is a less-than-pleasant fellow. After a lovely day of fishing his trip home is interrupted by something very unexpected. Smith does a great job of making you instantly dislike the main character, making the second half of the short all the more entertaining to watch. It’s surprising and it’s funny, even if the short feels a bit less polished than some of the other short films from the festival. OVERALL RATING: 3/5

WE GOT A MONKEY’S PAW

Jakki and Zack are roommates. Zack comes home one day with a monkey’s paw and convinces Jakki they should use it to make wishes. The ensuing chaos is shocking and hilarious, leading the pair down some unexpected paths. This short has so many different horror elements thrown into one film, yet it all creates a cohesive story. The two main characters are lovable, the effects are great, and it is impossible not to laugh at this bizarre adventure. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

LOBISOME

All the way from Spain comes a tale of two men trying to make an illegal deal in an airport bathroom. As the try to make the exchange, a briefcase for the cash, something goes horribly wrong. The short film is very tense and manages to have some surprising parts, while also injecting a bit of comic relief. The practical effects aren’t the strongest, but it is still a very entertaining 11 minutes. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

PHFF 2019 Shorts: Day 1 & 2

portland-horror-film-festival

For my final bit of coverage for the 2019 Portland Horror Film Festival I’m giving a rundown of all the short films! From terrifying to beautiful to hilarious, this year had a range of different shorts that covered virtually every subgenre of horror. Here are my thoughts on the short films from day 1 and 2:

2019 HORROR BUMPER

Made specifically for the festival by writer and director Tim Blough, this one minute horror short hilariously dives into all the different horror tropes. This contest winner kicked off the horror shorts and set the tone perfectly. It isn’t necessarily the most memorable short of the festival, but it works very well given the incredibly short runtime. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

BAD RESOLUTION

Not everyone likes celebrating the new year and coming up with resolutions. In Steven K Jackley’s 7 minute horror short, we follow Betty as she rings in the new year in her own special way. I loved this one because I could definitely relate to Betty on her darkly humorous journey. The short also had an almost dreamy look to it, adding some visual interest to the fun plot. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

@SELFJUNKIE

Ty Huffer’s 2 minute short horror film takes on something familiar to most people these days. With the popularity of social media and selfies, Ingrid is obsessed with staying connected. While alone late one night in her house, a dangerous encounter leads to some hilarious results that also deliver a bit of social commentary on today’s social media obsession. The short drives the point home in a delightful little package. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

THE MONSTER

In this fascinating horror short, writer and directer Neil Stevens introduces the audience to a young boy and his father. The boy is afraid of a monster he believes lurks in his room, while the father attempts to help the boy conquer his fears. This short is a combination of different horror subgenres that blend together seamlessly. With only 11 minutes to tell the story, The Monster packs quite a punch that will stick with you. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

CREAKER

Vidar T. Aune’s short hails all the way from Norway. A young girl awakes in the night to a creaking sound and knows she’s not alone. The short is very well shot and the end is shocking while also making me inappropriately laugh. Looking at it on it’s own, the film is clearly well made. I think it ultimately suffered by being shown after The Monster as both had a few very similar shots. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

BARREN

This is probably one of the most unique short films at the PHFF made by local Portland filmmakers. The stunning stop-motion short follows a woman desperate to have a child. She goes to great lengths only to have dire consequences. It relies on visuals to tell the story instead of dialogue. Between the sad story of the barren woman and the gorgeous stop-motion, this short film definitely stands out from the crowd. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

THE HIDEBEHIND

Parker Finn’s short horror film is the only one to genuinely send chills down my spine. A hiker is injured and lost deep in the woods. He comes across what he thinks is another person, but quickly realizes it is something terrifying. The film has a bit of humor and some great scares created by simple effects. This short creeped me out enough that I felt like someone was behind me on my entire drive home. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

TICK

I actually reviewed Tick through Nightmarish Conjurings for another film festival. You can read my full review of the short here.

FANATICO

Portland local students Hannah May Cumming and Sam Schrader made movie magic with their short. Inspired by Italian giallo films of the 70’s, the film follows a girl as she joins a Catholic school just as other students are being murdered. The film has the look and feel of an Argento film, but with a definite feminist twist. It is clear that these young filmmakers have a promising career ahead of them. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

ROAD TRASH

This short features Natasha Pascetta as the writer, director, and star with none other than Heather Langenkamp (A Nightmare on Elm Street) narrating. The darkly comedic horror short follows a young woman with an affinity for road kill. When she messes with the wrong corpse, she ends up being stalked by an evil creature. The concept is unique and the film takes some hilarious turns. Plus, it’s hard not to love a film with Langenkamp attached. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

3 DAYS

This short film by Julie Sharbutt is one that will definitely hit home with almost ever female viewer. While on a camping trip, three women hear something in the woods outside their tent and try to laugh off what could potentially be danger. What makes this short so effective is how it shows how difficult it is as a woman to feel like she can go camping or hiking alone without the threat of danger. Not only does the short convey that very well, but it also does it in a way that helps male viewers get a better understanding of what it is like for women. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

ESSERE AMATO

Writer and director Bas-Tzion Beahan creates a nightmarish black and white short film about love and abandonment. A young pregnant woman leaves her strict home to be with the one she loves. From there the film examines the sadness of being alone and feeling unloved. This one might not be the most memorable short of the festival, but it has quite a bit of depth and stunning imagery. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

SMILEY DEATH FACE

This short is another social commentary on the use of technology. The film follows a young woman alone at home when she begins to get increasingly menacing texts. It’s a clever short because it takes a concept horror fans are familiar with, but fits it in the modern world by having the texts be entirely with emojis. The only speaking roles are from a newscast on the tv, while everything else is the emoji texts superimposed in mid-air for the viewers to “read.” It’s incredibly clever and uses some great camera work. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

Z-GOAT: FIRST BLEAT

All the way from Belgium comes a post-apocalyptic horror short. The short follows a young woman as she hunts for food and resources, only to be stalked by something we’ve never seen before. The film is fun and exciting. It also has some creepy creature design to delight horror fans. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

THE ONLY THING I LOVE MORE THAN YOU IS RANCH DRESSING

This one minute short film by Sydney Clara Brafman definitely manages to bring the laughs considering how short it is. Everyone knows someone who puts ranch dressing on everything. This short shows a woman taking that love to a bizarre extreme. There isn’t necessarily a complete story here, but it still puts a memorable idea in the mind of viewers. OVERALL RATING: 3/5

HANA

One of the most compelling shorts at PHFF this year came from Korea. Written and directed by Mai Nakanishi, this disturbing short shows a young college student getting hired to be a nanny for a little girl named Hana. Once the two are left alone, frightening things begin to happen. The film is gorgeously shot and the story unfolds in a clever and chilling way. This is definitely one of the most memorable short horror films of the festival. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

CODA SACRA

Pol Barrós delivers a unique short film all the way from Spain. The black and white short shows a group of people as they dive into the water in order to hunt an unseen evil. The short effectively throws viewers in the midst of high tension and builds upon it. The cinematography is beautiful and the creature design is gorgeous. With no real dialogue the film relies heavily on the audience to pick up on visual queues in order to understand the plot. OVERAL RATING: 4/5

DEAD TEENAGER SEANCE

This Brazilian short film combines 80’s slasher with the supernatural in a hilarious way. A group of teens who have all been killed by a serial killer in a creepy mansion combine forces to perform a ritual and stop the madman once and for all. The filmmakers do a great job of presenting traditional horror tropes and then changing things up in fun and unexpected ways. The result is an entertaining and hilarious short film. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

THE FOG VS THE MIST

Another one minute “bumper” for the festival hilariously combines two classic horror films. The short acts as a fake trailer in a 70’s grindhouse style showing a man in a house that is simultaneously invaded by both the mist and the fog. The style is grainy and offers a delightful throwback. While only a minute long, the short delivers on the laughs as the narrator confuses which entity is the mist and which is the fog. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

LOOK TWICE

Kyle Wilson’s horror short shows a young night guard just starting his shift. When he notices someone lurking around outside, he tells them to leave through the intercom. The guard quickly regrets getting the intruder’s attention when he realizes they might not be human. The story and imagery are definitely spine-chilling and effective, although the plot moves in ways that can be a bit confusing as well. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

NEST

Brennan Gilpatrick and Erin Walsh combined forces to create this terrifying 2-minute short film. Shot entirely with an iPhone, it shows two young women as they go check out an apartment they want to rent. Once inside, they realize something horrifying is waiting for them. This short is definitely one of the most terrifying, which is especially impressive given the 2-minute run time. It also has some great creature design to add to the scares. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

WATER HORSE

A woman spending time with her husband and daughter is disturbed by a small boat that washes ashore near her family. From there her life turns into a nightmare where she can’t determine what’s real and what’s not. The film has a very panicked feel to it as the mother tries to keep her daughter safe. Unfortunately the play on reality makes it a bit confusing on what’s actually going on, which can take viewers out of the moment. OVERALL RATING: 3/5

CULPRIT

All the way from Tawain comes a chilling film by Shuan Yu Lin. On a visit to a public bathroom a man receives a strange picture of himself. From the moment he sees that photo the short film builds tension quickly. This leads the audience down a swift and sinister path. It is a quick horror film with effective storytelling, despite the lack of dialogue. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

WITCHES GET STITCHES

This local Portland short horror film, written and directed by Matthew K. Robinson, follows a coven of witches. They are attempting to summon a demon through a blood sacrifice, but it doesn’t go quite as planned. This hilarious short takes a simple action commonly seen in horror films and turns it into a 4 minute joke. What makes it so hilarious is the way Robinson says what audience members everywhere have thought, but characters in film almost never say. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

THE DARLINGS

In this world premier audiences were introduced to a group of ladies in an 80’s glam-rock band. They go to a secluded rented mansion after a show to hear over the radio that a psycho killer is on the loose. Yet these “darlings” aren’t as helpless as they appear to be. This is one of the most memorable films in the festival because it truly captures the look and feel of an 80’s film with great twists and turns. There are even some fantastic practical effects. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

HERE THERE BE MONSTER

Coming to us from Australia is one of my favorite shorts, written and directed by Drew Macdonald. A young girl experiences brutal bullying on the bus home from school. After falling asleep on the bus she awakes in the dark to find herself alone in the bus yard and she’s trapped there with something dangerous. This short is beautifully shot, has a compelling plot, and includes creepy creature design. The young lead, played by Savannah Foran-McDaniel, will instantly capture your heart and make the ending all the more satisfying. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

CEMETERY SONG

Another world premier introduces this absolutely gorgeous short film, directed by Michelle Prebich with animation by Justine Prebich. This animated short film follows one man and shows a day in the life of those who inhabit the cemetery. The animation is truly stunning and the song that accompanies the short is equally beautiful. Because it is one of the few animated shorts in the festival, it definitely stands out from the crowd and it also has a sorrowful beauty to the story being told that resonates with audiences. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

I LEARNED HOW TO DRIVE AT THE END OF THE WORLD

This touching short horror film from China introduces audiences to a young couple. As the man is trying to teach his wife how to drive they discover the world has been overrun by zombies, forcing her to learn at lightspeed. The film builds suspense very well in a short amount of time while also allowing time to get to know the characters. This assures the audience cares about the fates of the young couple. It results in a very sentimental yet frightening short film. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

FIVE COURSE MEAL

In James Cadden’s short horror comedy we meet Mark and Jenny. They agree to be part of an experiment to get some extra cash. They are confined to a room and served meal after meal through a slot in the door. From there things quickly escalate in hilarious and disgusting ways. While there is a lot of repetition that can get stale after a bit, the climax of the film has fantastic practical effects that almost makes up for it. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

FINLEY

Writer and director J. Zachary Thurman brought the film festival what was definitely a crowd favorite. After a group of college kids move into a new house, they discover a creepy puppet. It doesn’t take long to realize the puppet is alive and he’s hellbent on killing the college kids. This familiar plot is turned on its head in a truly hysterical way. Between the creepy puppet and the hilarious hijinks he gets up to, the audience was laughing from start to finish. OVERALL RATING: 5/5

RE-HOME

Izzy Lee’s short film touches on a poignant political issue. A young Mexican woman brings her baby daughter to an American couple in order to give her a better life. Yet the couple isn’t all they appear to be. The film delivers some shock value while also showcasing indie horror favorites Gigi Saul Guerrero and Morgan Peter Brown. It could have benefited from being a bit longer with a bit more plot, but it still drives home an important message. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

THE STRING

Another bumper contest winner, written and directed by Tom Eastwood, takes the audience back to an old age of filmmaking. Feeling reminiscent of 50’s films such as Plan 9 From Outer Space, the short follows an experiment gone wrong resulting in a string monster. It hilariously hits many of the tropes of horror sci-fi films of that era in this quick one minute film. OVERALL RATING. 3.5/5

VINYL DESTINATION

This short follows a man on the hunt for treasures at a yard sale. He finds a strange vinyl record, which he brings home to his roommate in the hopes of reselling it for a profit online. When they play the record, they realize it’s not your average vinyl. What makes this short so humorous is how it presents certain tropes, but then subverts audience expectations in unique ways. Combine that with endearing characters and you get a very entertaining short film. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

GEORGIE

Have you ever wondered what happened to little Georgie after Pennywise the clown got him? This short film shows him all grown up and following in Pennywise’s footsteps. The creepy reimagining of the classic Stephen King tale even brings together original cast members from the 1990 mini-series; Tony Dakota, who reprises his role as Georgie, and Ben Heller, who played young Stan Uris. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

I AM NOT A MONSTER

Ambrose makes an unexpected visit home just before his brother’s engagement party. What complicates things is he was born with a sinister growth on the back of his head that controls his mind and attempts to make him do things. This Irish short film is beautifully shot, has strong performances, interesting practical effects, and it does a great job of making it unclear what is real and what is in Ambrose’s head. This is another more unique short film from the festival that definitely sticks with you. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

RETCH

Keir Siewert delivers a unique short film all the way from the UK. This short depicts a woman going through a strange illness, but this isn’t your average cold. The short takes on a creepy and disturbing tone as it shows the woman struggle with the illness while also going through a physical transformation. There are great practical effects in this short which are very well done, but the highlight is the surprisingly humorous tone. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

30TH NIGHT

Megan awakes one morning to find her husband murdered and she is sent to jail for it. 30 nights later, all hell breaks loose in the prison, leaving Megan’s cellmate fighting for her life. This film packs a lot of action into 8.5 minutes and the two leads, Laura Burke and Jodi Pongratz, are delightful. Throw in some awesome creature makeup and you get a very entertaining short film. OVERALL RATING: 4/5

THE LESHIY

Anya must confront a dangerous demon in order to save her husband in this visually gorgeous short film. The plot alone is fascinating as it shows the young wife attempt to outsmart a demon from ancient legends. Yet what makes this short truly stand out are the visuals. The film is shot in black and white and only illuminated with natural light. This being a dark horror short, that means all the light comes from fire and candlelight. It allows for some gorgeous shadow-play that is only more beautiful in black and white. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

THE FISHERMAN

Rion Smith spins a yarn of a fisherman who is a less-than-pleasant fellow. After a lovely day of fishing his trip home is interrupted by something very unexpected. Smith does a great job of making you instantly dislike the main character, making the second half of the short all the more entertaining to watch. It’s surprising and it’s funny, even if the short feels a bit less polished than some of the other short films from the festival. OVERALL RATING: 3/5

WE GOT A MONKEY’S PAW

Jakki and Zack are roommates. Zack comes home one day with a monkey’s paw and convinces Jakki they should use it to make wishes. The ensuing chaos is shocking and hilarious, leading the pair down some unexpected paths. This short has so many different horror elements thrown into one film, yet it all creates a cohesive story. The two main characters are lovable, the effects are great, and it is impossible not to laugh at this bizarre adventure. OVERALL RATING: 4.5/5

LOBISOME

All the way from Spain comes a tale of two men trying to make an illegal deal in an airport bathroom. As the try to make the exchange, a briefcase for the cash, something goes horribly wrong. The short film is very tense and manages to have some surprising parts, while also injecting a bit of comic relief. The practical effects aren’t the strongest, but it is still a very entertaining 11 minutes. OVERALL RATING: 3.5/5

Crawl

crawl

A category 5 hurricane is heading straight for Florida. A young woman is unable to reach her father, so she decides to brave the storm to try and find him. What she finds instead is a nest of dangerous alligators. She will have to fight the predators and the rising floodwaters in order to save herself and her father.

This tension-filled film is directed by Alexandre Aja (High Tension, The Hills Have Eyes) and written by sibling duo Michael and Shawn Rasmussen (The Ward, The Inhabitants). The film follows Haley, who is on the college swim team. She has a strained relationship with her father, but when she can’t reach him as the storm approaches, she is compelled to drive over to check on him. When she discovers him in the crawl space under their house and realizes he’e been attacked by an alligator, she has to go into full survivor-mode.

The thing that makes this film so effective and brings suspense to the audience is the combination of killer animals and being trapped in a small space. Killer alligators are terrifying enough on their own and, as we have seen in many “when animals attack” type horror films, they are very entertaining to watch. But alligators aren’t all that fast on land, so something more needs to be done to make them more frightening. The filmmakers take it to the next level with Crawl by keeping most of the film confined to the tight crawl space with no means of escape. It gives the film a very claustrophobic fear to compound the terror brought by the alligators. Then that terror is taken to all new heights when the small crawl space begins to fill with flood waters. It leaves the characters with the options of staying put and drowning or attempting to get past the alligators. Both options are enough to strike fear and panic in the hearts of audiences.

Crawl primarily focuses on two characters and both of them give the audience someone to root for. Kaya Scodelario (The Maze Runner, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile) is tough as nails as Haley. She is a very strong female character with a complicated relationship with her family and a love-hate relationship with being a competitive swimmer. Scodelario is always a joy to watch and her portrayal of Haley delivers a dynamic, complicated, and kick-ass character. Barry Pepper (The Green Mile, True Grit) plays Haley’s dad, Dave. Pepper does an amazing job of playing the supportive dad who sometimes takes things a bit too far when trying to push his child to do better. Scodelario and Pepper play off each other very well. Much of the complexity with both of their characters comes from their strained relationship as we watch Dave fall back into his old swim coach ways as he talks to Haley. Their relationship and the way it strengthens throughout the film gives Crawl it’s heart. I also want to give a very special shout-out to Cso-Cso, the dog who plays Sugar, for being absolutely adorable, even when in peril.

For a summer creature-feature, this film has some very impressive effects. Most of the alligators are CGI, but they look absolutely stunning. There is one scene where the CGI looks especially gorgeous as the audience is shown a close-up of one of the alligator’s mouths. The use of CGI allows for the alligators to traverse the crawl space and the flood waters in order to deliver many fantastic jump-scares. The practical effects are equally well done. In any animal attack film it is a guarantee we will see bloody wounds from bites. The gore is truly taken to an unexpected level in this film. Most likely this is Aja’s influence. He is known for lots of amazing gore. Between bites, breaks, and other horrifying injuries, the practical effects are sure to make audience members cringe, gasp, and maybe even avert their eyes.

Crawl is the perfect summer creature-feature bringing action, scares, gore, and tons of thrills. Aja is definitely known for giving crowd-pleasing, bloody horror films and Crawl is no different. He expertly combines different fears to create a fun and thrilling summer flick with fantastic performances by Scodelario and Pepper. It may surprise audiences, but the story created by the Rasmussens delivers not only on the action and scares. It’s also a great heartfelt story about family coming together and conquering past issues. I wouldn’t suggest going into this film assuming you will see the next Oscar-winner, but if you go in expecting something that is fun and will have you on the edge of your seat, then Crawl is sure to be a fan-favorite.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10