Horror anthologies can take several shapes, whether it’s a collective of unrelated stories à la V/H/S or a series of tales woven together with one common thread, as in Trick ‘r Treat. There’s a certain flexibility that comes with the anthology format that allows for creativity to thrive. When you add in a more fantastical element, like sci fi, it opens creative doors. One new sci fi horror anthology, Portals, combines four directors with interlocking stories, all centered around a series of mysterious doors that open across the world.
“Conceptually, [sci fi] is a little more freeing,” said director Gregg Hale, “Because I do believe you’ve got more options, or you’ve got something that’s popping into those stories that such an unknown, that you could kind of do anything with”.
“You get to put people in situations that obviously normally you don’t get to put people in, even in horror movies,” agreed director Eduardo Sanchez, “So it is a fun exercise”.
In the film, an undisclosed research facility successfully creates the world’s first active black hole. Shortly after, a cosmic disruption occurs triggering a series of world-wide blackouts; after which millions of mysterious, reality-altering, Portal-like anomalies appear everywhere and anywhere across the planet. While many flee from the sentient objects, the real terror sets in as people are drawn toward and into them.
Created by Christopher White, Portals includes segments by Eduardo Sanchez (The Blair Witch Project, V/H/S 2), Gregg Hale (V/H/S 2), Timo Tjahjanto (The Night Comes for Us, V/H/S 2) and Liam O’Donnell (Beyond Skyline).
As with any film, there are some hurdles that come with creating an anthology. “Basically what the biggest challenge is,” said Sanchez, “is really not knocking into the other stories, and putting them in the right order, and figuring out what the order is so that they kind of all be adding to each other instead of taking away or ruining things.”
“They decided that ours was going to be the first one pretty early on,” Sanchez recalled, “So we knew that we didn’t want to take it too far. We wanted to let the other films take it to the next steps. Our thing was just to introduce them and introduce the portal. So I think that’s the biggest challenge, is making sure you’re not running over the other films.
“A lot of the challenges for me were just that it was such a precise like needle to thread — budget-wise, schedule-wise, story-wise,” O’Donnell continued, “And how I could kind of complement the other stories yet do something very different and specific to myself”.
O’Donnell’s segment is very personal; it features his wife and one of his daughters in acting roles, and the story is based on a personal experience. “When I was like four or five years old I had an optic nerve glioma,” explained O’Donnell, “And so I ended up having to go through multiple surgeries and getting this tumor removed from my optic nerve.”
“I just remember being a little kid and being so frustrated because this adult is breathing into your face, and they’re prying your face open. And they’re asking you to do it one more time and your eye’s drying out and it feels awful,” he said. “So I thought that was kind of an interesting place to do a sort of Misery type of story, where the doctors just feel like they’re torturing you, and it’s like the line she says, ‘your own body is turning against you.'” O’Donnell jokingly added, “It’s about 33 years of trauma spilling out onto the screen.”
Hale and Sanchez — who co-directed their segment — incorporated important elements from sci-fi classics to hit the right emotional beats. “I think with most of the really, truly great sci-fi horror, whether that’s Alien or The Thing,” Hale said, “Obviously there’s great effects and great action and great atmosphere and all that kind of stuff, but ultimately, I think it’s about the characters and being engaged with them.”
“In horror, you always have a certain expectation, obviously for fear. I think for sci-fi things, these movies bring out different emotions from people,” Sanchez agreed, “I think it’s more that you don’t have that crutch of saying ‘alright now, we can just put a scary moment here’ and that’s kind of the prime directive for a horror movie. With sci-fi it’s mostly that you add a kind of dramatic sensibility to the filmmaking, and that’s pretty much all you have.”
But there’s definitely an edge of horror that ties the segments together. “Timo, Liam, Ed and I’s segments were the ones that were more kind of horror-oriented,” explained Hale. “We all took the approach that there was something kind of sinister about the portal”.
“There’s just that kind of modern existential dread about terrible things happening, about apocalyptic things happening, about anything bad happening to your family.” O’Donnell contemplated. Though his segment is deeply personal, its themes and fears are something we can all understand. “Are you going to be able to rise to the occasion? Are you going to be able to take care of them? No one teaches us these things anymore. We don’t really know how to do this”.
For Sanchez and Hale’s segment, they looked inward to find the root of their horror. “We really concentrated on the human side of it, as opposed to digging into any sort of explaining in any way what the Portal was,” said Hale.
Sanchez elaborated, “You have to have an antagonist; you can’t just have people reacting to the door, and we felt like — especially in our segment — it was just an introduction to the door,” he explained. “We definitely wanted to give it a little bit of personality, but we didn’t want to lay a lot of ground rules that the other segments were going to have to tiptoe around”.
“The basic concept was that these portals or doors appear all over the world, kind of causing chaos,” continued Hale. “And that was really the departure point for us”. Sanchez added, “We definitely love that idea of having the door pop up and then, all right now what; now what are the humans going to do?“.
We explore the concept of portals appearing all over the world by jumping over to Jakarta for Timo Tjahjanto’s segment. Tjahjanto shot his short all in one take, and it’s a brilliant effect. Sanchez and Hale had both worked on V/H/S 2 with Tjahjanto, and his style seemed like a natural fit for the anthology.
When working on Beyond Skyline with actors and fight choreographers Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian (The Raid: Redemption), O’Donnell was introduced to Timo’s work. “They showed me some of the choreography for The Night Comes for Us and I was like, This is insane. This is awesome. I’m going to need this Timo guy!” He fondly recalled. “I just, I always just want Timo to be Timo”.
Because of their work on V/H/S 2, Sanchez and Hale were already familiar with the anthology format, though this was their first foray into sci-fi. “We were very happy to still be in the safe space of the anthology and doing it with [V/H/S 2 producers] Brad Miska and Chris White, people that we had known from before,” explained Sanchez, “But also the idea that we were kind of spreading our wings a little bit and going into sci fi was, you know, a really exciting challenge for us”.
Portals is O’Donnell’s first anthology feature, and the production schedule was very fast. His segment was filmed in May for an October release, contrary to his experience creating more expansive and effects-heavy features with the Skyline series.
But for O’Donnell, the shorter turnaround ended up being an enjoyable element; “It’s definitely a lot of fun to just switch things up and do something smaller and more intimate and more immediate.” He said.
As an anthology, Portals does have definitive segments that are all unrelated, though the common thread of the portals themselves does help to smooth out the flow. Ultimately, though the stories are initiated by the portals, they’re driven by the characters.
“I would say we were probably inspired by that, in terms of hopefully creating some characters that you cared about,” said Hale “And you cared about their reaction to the portal as opposed to fantasizing the use of the portal itself”.
Portals is in theaters and on demand on October 25.