Spotlight On: The Portland Horror Film Festival

In its third year, the Portland Horror Film Festival and founders Gwen and Brian Callahan continue to subvert the dominant Hollywood Horror Paradigm

This weekend, the Portland Horror Film Festival once again will turn the Hollywood Theatre into a morass of thrills and chills and spills of blood. This is only the third year of the festival, but in that time it has grown from two nights to four days, showing more than 40 short films (varying from one to 24 minutes), five feature-length films, guests, shwag, awards and an ever-expanding audience of ghoul-and-ghost seekers.

It’s fun, but more than that, the Portland Horror Film Festival is a bastion of art, of independent spirit, of resistance to the corporate construct that dominates the American landscape. At the PHFF, you won’t find examples of what founders Brian and Gwen Callahan call Hollywood-style “committee filmmaking.” Instead, you’ll see the singular visions of auteurs, “pure” and unadulterated, without the the greatest common denominator or the almighty bottom-line hovering above it all.

In their mind, they’re providing a “service to the audience by exposing them to movies they might not otherwise see; and serving the filmmakers by putting them in front of audiences they wouldn’t be able to reach on their own.”

The PHFF comes by this individualist sensibility honestly. The Callahans are both refugees from the corporate front lines. Gwen, a native of upstate New York, met Brian in his native city of San Diego, both manning cubicles by day and hitting the goth clubs by night. They met—officially—through a mutual friend. “Officially” because, previous to that meeting, Brian had “made an unsuccessful pass” at Gwen.

“I didn’t think I was sending the ‘stop talking to me’ signal,” laughs Gwen, “but apparently I was, because I have a stoic, bitchy resting face.” In the end, thankfully, true love prevailed and ten months after they started dating, Brian proposed. When you meet them now, it’s clear that Gwen and Brian are a team. Their bond is palpable, they finish each other’s sentences and thoughts routinely and without rancor.

When 9/11 happened, the young couple decided that it was time for their days as corporate wage slaves to come to an end.

“‘Is this what I’m going to do with my life,’ Brian remembers thinking. ‘I’m just going to sit in a cubicle, waiting for a plane to crash into it, or a bomb to hit it or to have a heart attack?’ I decided no, I wasn’t going to do that.” They were both graphics and marketing people (“We were both desktop publishing experts. Is that even still a thing?”), the Callahans moved to New Orleans and started their graphic t-shirts business (arkhambazaar.com and www.sighco.com). This was their means of “getting back our creativity for ourselves.”

Their designs centered on horror and H.P. Lovecraft themes, naturally enough given their goth tendencies. Then, from their home base in New Orleans, they took their wares to various gaming, comic and geek cons around the country—including, in 2002, the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, Oregon.

Brian and Gwen Callahan, founders of the Portland Horror Film Festival

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The H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival had been around since 1995 and was the brainchild of Andrew Migliore, “in the hope that H.P. Lovecraft would be rightly recognized as a master of gothic horror and his work more faithfully adapted to film and television” as the website recounts. Almost immediately, the Callahans became regulars at the festival. They became friends with Migliore and all the people involved with running the festival. They would stay at Gwen’s brother’s house (the house they live in now) and besides selling their t-shirts and other designs, they would help out the festival in any way they could.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina came and devastated New Orleans. The Callahans evacuated but decided to return. However, something fundamental and not entirely nameable had shifted. New Orleans didn’t feel like home anymore. And in 2010 they made the move to Portland.

When they arrived, Migliore soon told them that if they wanted the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival to keep going, they’d have to run it themselves. They did. So they did. It wasn’t easy.

“It was scary,” Gwen remembers, “because we had not run a film festival before. But we’d been attending it for the previous eight years. We knew the heart of it.” Also, years of attending other conventions and like festivals proved to be valuable experience. They knew what to expect and what was needed. Even with all that, Brian still says, “I don’t think we understood exactly how hard it would be to run an event like that.”

They figured it out though, and the H.P. Lovecraft Festival is still going strong and they’re still running it. Somewhere along the way they found the time and the wherewithal to also start running the short-lived Zompire: The Undead Film Festival (another Migliore creation). Zompire didn’t survive, but it was pivotal in the creation of the Portland Horror Film Festival. HPLFF and Zompire each had a very narrow focus. The HPLFF focused, of course, on H.P. Lovecraft and cosmic horror. Zompire focused on films of the undead: zombies, vampires and the like. While combing through all the film submissions for these two festivals the Callahans noted that there were a substantial number of quality films that didn’t fit in either category.

“We’d get submissions that we’d watch with our jury and we’d be like, ‘Wow, this film is amazing—but it doesn’t fit.’” At this time there was little in the way of general horror film festivals in Portland: PIFF After Dark was doing a couple of horror films as part of its series (it’s expanded to about six now) and PDXtreme Festival has also joined in since. “If you were a general horror fan who liked slashers and hauntings and any other kind of monstrous things that go bump in the night there wasn’t really a place you could see all these great films from around the world,” Brian observes. So, in 2016, the Callahans stepped up to fill in the void by launching the first Portland Horror Film Festival.

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From the beginning, the Callahans encouraged submissions from all over the world. “Every person in the world has the core set of fears,” says Brian, “whether you’re afraid of the dark, afraid of death, afraid of rejection, afraid of being bad, afraid of not being good enough…that manifests itself by people all over the world making amazing horror films. That’s what makes us all human: what we’re afraid of.”

This year the line-up includes films from the US and France, Iran, Germany, Sweden and Brazil, and even a couple of locally made stand-outs. Big Legend, a Bigfoot horror movie (“with a noted lack of cheese” quipped Gwen), will have its world premiere at the festival and this may well be the only chance you’ll have to see it on the big screen. Made You Look is a short written and directed by Justin Zimmerman and seventh-grader Kian Doughty, who also stars in the film. The film features a monster created by Academy Award winner, Chris Walas, who is responsible for the gremlins from Gremlins (yes, that Gremlins), the fly in David Cronenberg’s The Fly and even contributed to the melting Nazi faces in the penultimate scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. That’s iconic stuff. Walas will actually be at the festival on Saturday to talk about his craft, along with his various monsters inhabiting the space, providing the mise en scene.

Other highlights from the festival include:

Dead Cool (director Simon Ross; 19 mins.): A short film hailing from the UK, it’s a dinner party that at first glance seems innocuous if awkward. Before long though, it descends into madness and—natch—horror.

Framed (dir. Marc Martinez Jordan; 80 mins.): Out of Spain, this entry was the first feature the Callahans felt compelled to put into the lineup for this year. “It’s so, so bloody,” says Brian, “but that’s not its charm. It has a lot of pathos and is also funny. It looks great. It’s really polished.”

Brace Face (dir. Jonathan Holbrook and Elena Stecca; 14 mins.): A girl who has to wear massive, “corrective” headgear and is a victim of peer-abuse because of that is the focus of Brace Face, a story with a definite Stephen King, revenge-fantasy feel, complete with weird, religious parents and bullies who have to learn things the hard way.

Latched, directed by Justin Harding (who won the Ghoul d’Or award with Kookie [https://theaudienceawards.com/films/kookie-95544]during PHFF’s first year) and Rob Brunner: Another short film, this one is about “a choreographer and her toddler son who find what seems to be the corpse of a fairy—a little shrivelled thing with wings—in the woods. But maybe it’s not so dead.”

The Laplace’s Demon (dir. Giordano Giulivi): From Italy, this one focuses on “the mathematical, philosophical concept that if you can do math sophisticated enough, you can predict things like, if a glass falls off a table, how many pieces it will shatter into and where the pieces will land,” Brian enthuses. “It’s a really, really weird, crazy, black and white movie, made like an old-school, 1940s movie with deep blacks and chiaroscuro film, with horror elements like no other film.”

The Callahans used many more judges this year, 14, than they have in the past, and they considered nearly 400 different movies, totalling 130 hours. They themselves made sure to watch every single one. Having more judges, they felt, was a necessity to make sure the movies weren’t too homogenous.

“We’re not trying to show Brian and Gwen’s favorites,” says Brian. Bringing in all the different judges was necessary to ensure a wide-range of sensibilities are represented. After all, that’s what festivals like PHFF are especially good for. “There’s something for everybody,” says Brian. “If you don’t like film A, you might like film B or film C. We see that when we do the balloting. Everybody likes something different.”

At the end of the festival they’ll give out several awards; the Ghoul D’Or (Brian and Gwen’s top pick), the Main de Gloire (the jury’s top pick), the Funny Bone (best horror comedy), the Bloody Judge (single guest judge award: This year the judge is Brian Yuzna, widely known as the producer of The Re-Animator), The Horde award (audience favorite), Abby Normal award (given for innovation, it often goes to a younger filmmaker) and the recently added Masque Rouge (acting award), only given if there is a performance that is just that exceptional that it merits special attention.

All of these films, along with the other 40-odd films you can see over the weekend, share that auteur spirit, that independent vision.

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“Any horror film that you’re likely to see from major studios has been made by a hundred people’s fingers in the pie,” Brian says. “There are only so many stories you can tell when there are eighteen people trying to tell a story to everyone.”

Gwen picks up the thought. “You know—films that have ten producers and two executive producers in addition to the screenwriters. These are films that are made to what they think is going to appeal to as many people as possible so that they make the most money out of it. So, what happens is that you make a dish that everyone can eat and then it’s bland. Except that when you go see a movie you don’t have the option of adding pepper or salt and spices to it. You get what you get and it’s often unsurprising, unoriginal and un-scary. It’s something you’ve seen 20 times before because Hollywood loves remaking stuff. They like a sure thing.”

Brian continues: “I would say the only horror movies I’ve enjoyed in the big theatres, like normal, multiplex style theatres, in the past several years have actually been independent films that have been picked up by studios and distributed. I’m talking about like, The Witch. It Follows. We Are Still Here. Films that were on the festival circuit originally, that got picked up and put into those multiplexes because—probably studio executives didn’t understand why people liked them but they understood that they liked them so they put them on the big screen. Hereditary is another one that was on the indie film circuit that got so much buzz that it’s gonna play everywhere. Blair Witch Project was the same way.”

And that is what you’ll find at the Portland Horror Film Festival—the future. These are the directors and screenwriters and cinematographers who will be making their mark tomorrow. These are the sensibilities that will be shaping our communal nightmares for years to come. “Our main deal is to evangelize these films and these independent filmmakers,” says Brian, “What you’re seeing now in the big theatres is not what’s next. That’s what’s yesterday.”

Horror is the genre closest to our societal id, it’s where our collective neuroses are played out. Or, as Gwen puts it, “Horror is where the magic happens! Out of any other genre, horror is where we see boundaries being pushed. It’s where the uncomfortable topics are being explored and you can really feel the pulse of the world. You don’t get a discussion of consumerism and capitalism in buddy cop movies. Horror films often pull double duty by telling a scary story with a layer of social commentary. Horror speaks a universal language, and it transcends politics and borders. Despite our differences, we’re all afraid of the same things. Horror gets at the root of our insecurities and fears as human beings. It’s why we can show a horror film from Iran and our American audience can still relate. It strips us down and gets at the essence of what it is to be human.”

The Portland Horror Film Festival is that essence at its most adventurous, terrifying, hilarious, raw and pure. “We’re not tied into a studio and being a shill for their movies,” says Gwen, “There’s no pay-to-play, no hidden agenda behind any of the stuff we’re showing you. It’s just stuff that we like, that we think fans’ll like, that should be seen. Come sit in the theatre for a weekend with other people who have the same interests as you and watch all these films together and experience them together. It makes the scares scarier and the laughs funnier.”

“As lifelong horror fans—and that’s what we are, fans—we think other horror fans will really dig this,” Brian says. “We take it seriously but there’s an element of fun. It’s by fans, for fans.”

And if you identify as a horror fan, that should give you reason enough to go.

The Portland Horror Film Festival will run from June 13 to June 16 at the Hollywood Theatre.

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