In Review: The Portage International Film Festival

By Andy Schopp and Ben Foutch 

Driving through unfamiliar territory, especially in a big city such as Chicago, can be an unnerving experience. The towering architecture and unrelenting traffic creates an atmosphere of excitement and unrest that has an effect not unlike a swift jolt of caffeine. However, this feeling of unease is short-lived, because the Portage marquee is within eye-site.  

Standing proudly as a beacon of independent cinema in the Chicago area, the Portage Theater provides a safe haven for local cinephiles, and in this case, two travel-weary slackers. Curious as to how the Portage holds to its solid reputation, and ready to absorb whatever films that time will allow, we enter the local landmark. Immediately, the familiar smell of fresh, buttery popcorn coming from the concession area welcomes us with open arms like an old friend. Even though we are miles from our local movie houses, the Portage feels like home.

The setup in the lobby was fairly simple: one ticket booth and a couple of vendors. We were running a little late, so we decided to hold up for a minute and check the schedule before walking into an already running  film, trying to find a seat in the dark. There were a total twenty films showing, some of them lumped into two short film blocks, with fifteen-minute intermissions separating the short film blocks and the feature length films. Unfortunately, we missed the first feature length film, Soul Catcher, and two of the short films, one of which was House of the Degenerate Brain-Eating Mutant Fog Insects (we were really looking forward to this one).

When HOTDBEMFI finished, we found a seat in the middle of the auditorium, assessed our surroundings and waited for the next short film to begin. It was sort of difficult to tell in the dark, but it appeared as if there was only four other people enjoying this experience with us. Apparently, supporting independent cinema wasn't on the minds for many locals this afternoon. This mad us sad. However, it was before noon on a Saturday, and the majority of the slackers on this blog would probably still be in bed, so it wasn't too far-fetched to believe that this theater could fill up later in the day.

After a minute, the next short film in block one started. In nine minutes, Special Day told a story of family, love, and ritualistic voluntary sacrifice in a cemetery. A little over- melodramatic, but oddly touching/tragic for a second near the grisly climax. The next film, Visiting Hours, was a comedy of sorts, but failed at execution, causing every joke to fall flat.

The Summer of 81' soon swooped in an turned out to be a delightful little documentary about a man who had a successful life in the city, but realized that it wasn't where he wanted to be. Upon moving to Wyoming, he became a cowboy of sorts, and eventually built a log house where he raised a family and continued his life. His love for baseball and the parallels/references to Field of Dreams were a nice touch, (the man who was the center of the documentary talked about how he WAS the inspiration for field of dreams! If it's true, it's amazing!) and the reminiscence about his horse, Smokey, was particularly moving. Definitely a major highlight of the festival.

The last two shorts in the first block were Faster! and Brain Death. Faster! focused on a bike messenger in a big city who learns first-hand the unforgiving embrace of karma after she steals from a blind man. Brain Death was an obvious, but humorous tribute to Re-Animator, giving us a glimpse of a mad scientist and his experiment with a severed head. Both of these films were a solid way to end the first block of shorts, although, switching places with The Summer of 81' would have put a nice emotional stamp on the end, letting the audience bring their attention down on a more thoughtful note.

After the intermission, our hostess, Manya Palmer, graciously took to the stage and introduced the next feature length film, Sunday in the Middle of Nowhere. It was an early work by director Jose Carlos Gomez, and you could tell he was still working on his craft, as it brought some unintentional chuckles from some audience members. However, his attempts at emulating certain styles combined with some entertaining scenes, leaves one to believe that he could make something special one day.

After another intermission, a sneak peek of The Cemetery kicked into gear, and it was evident that director Adam Ahlbrandt meant business. The story, dealing with demonic possession, stormed the screen with a creepy narration and copious amounts of blood and guts. While the film isn't anything horror hounds haven't seen before, there is a hungry, indie energy augmented by some killer practical effects, delivering primary ingredients that you want from a low budget gore-flick. It also has a good sense of humor.  The Cemetery could be a major stepping stone in Adam's career and if he plays his cards right, he might one day create a franchise that could achieve tremendous cult status. Don't let us down, Adam!

During the intermission, we were lucky enough to get a chance to talk with the charismatic and lovely lead actress of The Cemetery, Natalie Jean, who was in attendance in support of this special screening. She reminisced about the shoot in a "stretch of woods" in Pennsylvania by noting the level of friendship and good times that were prevalent among the cast members. She accepted the role only four days before principal photography, as the former lead had to abandon the project. The shoot was heavily done at night, which as you could imagine, got a little chilly. One of the actors who had to play all of his parts wearing only a loin cloth seemed to suffer a little from the uncomfortable conditions. So, in a courageous move, Adam stripped down to his boxers and poured water over himself. He directed the rest of those scenes in that condition (he is a better man than I, and definitely the sort of director that Hollywood could use these days.A peoples man).

Though those conditions seemed tough, they weren't nearly as strenuous as the twelve day shoot for their film Cross Bearer, which lent many of the cast and crew little to no sleep. This film, with a budget in the four-figure range, was a little more strenuous for the female cast, as they were pretty much clothed in underwear, running around in a twenty degree warehouse in Philadelphia. You can look forward to seeing more from the future scream queen upon the release of Punk Rock Holocaust 3, which was recently filmed. If things work out, there might even be a Cross Bearer 2 in her cards.

After our chat with Natalie, we decided to check out a couple of the short films in the second block before departure due to a potential ice storm. Leaf Blower Massacre was a fun/satirical take on old-school exploitation flicks, though a bigger budget for the special effect department might have taken it over the top. Still, it was a good time. Vanity, which was effective to some extent, had fun with the conventions of the devil/damnation theme.  

After leaving the theater and spending some time on the road, we decided to risk it for some brisket, by stopping at Jimmy Jo's BBQ, in Bourbonnais - they are the real deal (an entire plate of sweet meats, remind me to always risk it for brisket from now on!). If you are a fan Texas style smoked meats, then do not pass them up if you're in the area. We encountered some nasty rain and slick roads after the meal, but made it back safe. Overall, it was a fun day full of hangout and movie-watching.  What more could you want?

Also, Natalie was a good sport and shared her Top 5 favorite Horror Films, not necessarily in ranked order:

1) The Exorcist (1973)
2) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
3) Poltergeist (1982)
4) Evil Dead 2 (1987)
5) Dead Alive (1992)

(I like how she put "Evil Dead 2" on the list. It seems to give it a little more originality; it's more honest. Also, I enjoy that selection as it would probably be on my own "Top 5 Favorite Horror" list)