Portal (2009)


USA. 2009.


Director – Geoffrey Schaaf, Screenplay – George Blumetti & Michael Kelly, Producers – Suzanne Lyons & Kate Robbins, Photography – Andy Strahorn, Music – Vincent Gillioz, Special Effects – Mike Rios & Natalie Senina, Production Design – Todd Fjelsted. Production Company – WindChill Films


Chris Conrad (John Hooke), Alexander Martin (Mike Gibbs), Kevin Dobson (Benedict), Katherine Hawkes (Elizabeth), Angell Conwell (Vanya), Mike Kimmel (Roy), Jessa Tiana Zarubica (Nora), Josh Adamson (Peter Rhodes), Janina Anderson (Diana Rhodes), Jessica Barth (Kim), Sarah McGuire (Karin), Brock Kelly (Armand), Ines Dali (Amy), Peter Lucas (Charon), Tamara Zook (Susan), Mary Stein (Nurse Theresa), Merik Tadros (Scott)


Two friends Hooke and Gibbs are driving to play in a concert but become lost in a heavy fog. They eventually arrive at a motel in the town of Mercy and sign in to spend the night. As they get up for breakfast in the morning, things seem strange, including the other guests believing it is evening. Hooke is not hungry and does not eat. One of the staff warns him not to eat or drink anything. Hooke sees that doing so places the others into a trance. Husbands and wives of the other guests go missing but after eating, they seem to forget about them and continue to replay the same events over and over. Even when he and Gibbs try to drive out of town, they find they are repeating the same events and become lost in the fog again. Hooke finds that those who run the motel are witches and have captured the guests. They are being held in a mysterious twilight zone repeating the same events until one of the women can bear a child that will allow the witches to leave. As he digs further, Hooke discovers that he has been returning to Mercy for months but the food has caused him to blank all memory of doing so and the others that originally accompanied him.

Portal is a low-budget independent feature, largely made by newcomer talents. Most of the actors had worked professionally before but none of them are known faces. Similarly, director Geoffrey Schaaf had previous worked as a cinematographer mostly on tv series such as seaQuest DSV (1993-6) and Charmed (1998-2006) and directed one previous film, the psycho-thriller Shelter Island (2003).

Portal feels like an episode for The Twilight Zone (1959-63) having been expanded out to a feature-length film. Or maybe Groundhog Day (1993) having been played as a horror film and mixed up with something like City of the Dead/Horror Hotel (1959). A sneaking part of one kept wondering as Chris Conrad was being given dire warnings about what would happen if he ate the meat or drank the wine, if one had not strayed into a straight version of Troll 2 (1990). Although the film that Portal reminds of more than anything is the children’s horror film Phantom Town (1998).

Portal sits just on the verge of being a typical low-budget horror film and rising above itself. It wavers either way without substantially going in one direction or the other. The film becomes interestingly eerie during the middle in the scenes where Chris Conrad fails to take the food and wine and attempts to leave town with best friend Alexander Martin only to find they are in a timeloop and everything is repeating itself right down to the dialogue from when they first drove into town. Similarly, he goes into the dining room and sits down with the party of people who all repeat the same dialogue except for the fact that Roy (Mike Kimmel)’s wife (Tamara Zook) has been killed and he does not seem to remember that she never existed. Newlywed arrivals turn up, the husband is killed and the stunned wife (Ines Dali) turns up at the dinner table, is given a drink of wine and her confusion goes to an instant “who?” when asked about her other half. Or the scenes when Chris Conrad gradually realizes that everything he believes about how he came to be there might be a wine-and-food-drugged illusion too and that he has another friend and a girlfriend that he has lost all memory of, even some confused scenes where he appears to be the chief impregnator of the women.

Geoffrey Schaaf handles the film professionally for the most part. There is the odd scene that falls down. The opticals look cheap, meaning the devouring flames detract from the conviction of the scenes, while the gore and fight scenes at the climax are not particularly convincing. All the cast give fine and professional performances with the standout being Angell Conwell who projects a decided seductive ambiguity.

After the one-hour point, things start to get drawn out beyond the initial interest the idea has. The point that Portal started to fall down was the lame twist ending. [PLOT SPOILERS] The group escape, Chris Conrad’s girlfriend Jessica Barth gives birth to her baby whereupon the camera closes in as the crucifix on the wall as it ominously turns upside down and the camera then fades to black. It is a corny ending and one that seems to leave any explanations for the timeloop and the reasons that the witches were keeping people imprisoned in the hotel vague and unexplained.

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