[Shriekfest 2019] 'Portal' is a nice return of familiar faces, but leans too heavily on tired tropes
Recently premiering at Shriekfest, Portal follows a group of “ghost hunters” trying to find the perfect haunted house for their TV series. As the film crew arrives on location to film the show “Ghost Seekers”, the team begins questioning the methods of their director because both money and ghosts fail to appear. Steven, played by Ryan Merriman (Final Destination 3) believes in the integrity of his show and refuses to film any fabricated ghosts and instead wants only to record real supernatural encounters. While this approach gives his show a different spin from all the other paranormal investigation and found footage shows, it also makes his TV series a lot more boring...
...The group of ghost hunters also has a rival team named the Ghost Trackers, who possess a much bigger budget, more hair product, and have no problem faking their scares. Running out of options for the failing “Ghost Seekers”, Steven and Cris (Jamie Tisdale) steal the info for a supposedly haunted house from a member of the Ghost Trackers. Here, writer and director Dean Alioto introduces the audience to the Dalva house. A photogenic house which holds the story of a dead family, who all perished within the home after daddy unleashed on them with his shotgun.
Regardless of the incredibly spooky house, the obstinate ghosts continue to annoy Steven. The very technical ghost hunting equipment refuses to pick up any traces of a spectral presence, so Steven must give into the pleas of his crew and beings integrating artificial scares into the show.
Growing more and more frustrated, Steven reveals his passion for ghost hunting started at a young age (so did the mocking), so he dedicated his life to prove the existence of ghosts. However, even with Steven’s commitment and passionate beliefs for paranormal investigation, he for some reason angrily urinates on a “spiritual mandala” found outside the house. Steven’s disrespectful action for the relic soon leads to the uncovering of a secret and thus reveals a solution for the ghost-less show.
Up until this point, I was completely on board with the movie. The creepy atmosphere, mysterious murders, moving shadows, ghostly figures, and the eerie phone calls provide the scares for the first half of the movie and set up the film as a decent haunted house story. However, the film suddenly shifts to a poorly contrived possession movie. Now, I don’t fault a film for taking an unexpected direction, but the haunted house idea was working. Suddenly, the movie takes a hard turn and abandons the ghostly figures. Instead, Alioto takes the character we probably care about the least and turns her into a demon. Five people enter a haunted house and the character with the least amount of lines and no backstory is the one to become possessed. If the audience does not care about the character, then the level of motivation to save her becomes diminished.
What I assume was intended to be the big draw for the movie is the inclusion of Heather Langenkamp (Nightmare on Elm Street, NOES 3, New Nightmare) who plays Fiona. She appears in the final act of the movie to reveal all the exposition to us, which also includes the tiresome Magical Native American trope. The demon exists because of a centuries old myth, so naturally the only person who can help is the one Native American man the Ghost Seekers know, and this man also just so happens to know magic. Honestly, horror movies, it is almost 2020. Let’s cast Natives as characters beyond the stereotypical shaman or medicine men.
Some of the cinematography during the initial investigation of the house uses an interesting mix of colors and shadows to show how the terror associated with the house envelopes the ghost hunters. As the camera focuses on the face of the investigator, the hidden terror off screen causes the color to drain from not only the face of the intended victim, but the background grows pale as well. The bleeding of colors gives the impression the unseen entity holds a level of terror which even out-powers anything the house has already experienced. However, as the story turns to focus on the demon, the effects do not go much beyond the inclusion of color contacts for the possessed character.
Perhaps the budget prevented Portal from delving further into the ghost story or perhaps the director could not decide between a haunted house or an ancient demon. Whatever the reason, the film fails to develop into an enjoyable story. If you are a devoted fan who likes seeing older stars from previous generations of horror films, you might find it fun to see Heather Langenkamp (or even Merriman) battling evil again , but other than a couple familiar faces the film struggles to find a direction. The ending/not-ending leaves the option for Alioto to introduce a sequel. So perhaps if a Portal 2 does eventually exist, the movie will find a more focused story and a more appropriate use of ethnic minorities.
Portal is now haunting VOD via High Octane Pictures and Vertical Entertainment.
By Amylou Ahava