Penance (2009)

MARCH 21, 2011


There are cynically produced movies, and there’s Penance, a movie so calculated to be created for a particular market and cast to be sold overseas that the director finds himself mentioning it more than once on the DVD. Seriously, in a 20 minute interview, the words “investor”, “foreign territories”, “pre-sale”, and other buzzwords that are more suited for a Deadline article about some Sundance movie pop up with alarming frequency, while things like “script” or “meaning” are glossed over or skipped entirely.

Needless to say, the movie is awful. I wasn’t aware that it was a found footage movie, but I did know the plot, and was thus instantly confused – “How are they going to justify using the camera?”. Well, they don’t. Despite running a “hospital” where they routinely kidnap, torture, and murder women, the main villain (Graham McTavish, who deserves better) for some reason has someone follow him around filming everything, which makes the motivations in Cloverfield look plausible in comparison. Not to be outdone in the stupidity department, our heroine (Marieh Delfino) decides to use her still camera’s “movie” function to film the various other women who have been abused, as “evidence” for the police once she escapes. Now, she’s just as mangled herself, and thus had all of the “evidence” she would need right there on her own body, so why she didn’t focus more of her attention on escaping is beyond me.

Even sillier, when she FINALLY mounts an escape attempt, she has her roommate (the lovely Alison Lange) join her, and gives her the camera. Now this girl is bleeding profusely all over from multiple wounds and likely in a severe state of shock, yet she picks up the camera and films Delfino as she makes her way down the halls and what not, instead of looking where she is going, or running wildly like someone who had been abused would do if they suddenly found themselves relatively free. So it’s stupid enough from a storytelling perspective, but the fact that it’s supposed to be the POV of a character in the film just makes it insulting. Even Diary of the Dead’s various snafus weren’t this offensive.

They can’t even sell the camera angle properly. Despite the fact that we plainly see that she is using a little still camera with a video function, Delfino is able to film long, high definition shots for a few days, when even the highest memory chip would only allow a couple minutes at most. She also grabs it and films herself sometimes, but uses both hands to do so (thumbs covering the lens and all!), which is just laughable. Thus, most of the time you will probably either forget that it’s supposed to be a verite film, or be thinking “where is she hiding this obviously giant camera?”, because they seemingly go out of their way to do everything about it completely wrong.

Hilariously, the only reason the found footage aspect seems to exist (besides helping sell it to certain markets, of course!) is to pay off a framing device that was all but completely removed from the film. Originally, there would be two cops looking at the footage, and they’d cut to them every now and then, with one cop seemingly fascinated by the villain while the other is detested by it. And the cops are played by two “names”, Jason Connery and Lochlyn Munro, who are given 2nd and 4th billing, respectively. But all of this was cut, leaving just a snippet of their final scene in the end titles (AFTER their otherwise baffling credits have rolled by), which also lacks the payoff, in which you’d discover that the cop Connery was playing was actually McTavish wearing a mask. I’m not joking. But without this stuff, you spend the entire movie wondering why you are watching everything through the camera lenses of its characters.

Ignoring all that, it’s still just a terrible movie. McTavish fancies himself a religious man, which means were treated to the usual babble about cleansing sins and other shit, as he cuts off women’s genitalia. Riveting. And when he’s not doing that, the women are being tasered or whipped, or just plain shot in the head for various infractions such as opting to take a large suitcase full of money and leave when offered the chance to do that OR stay and keep getting tortured (weirdest trick question ever). And as expected, the names in the cast, such as Michael Rooker, Tony Todd (who also popped up in the equally awful Bryan Loves You – stay away from found footage movies, Tony!), and James Duval, have limited screentime, so if you’re thinking “Well ____ is in it, so there’s something” – you can cue up a deleted scene from any of their other films and get just as much pleasure out of it. Writer/director/producer Jake Kennedy once again demonstrates his peculiar fascination with mutilating the male organ; on his previous film Days Of Darkness, when you turn into a zombie your penis and testicles fell off, and here, McTavish decides to castrate himself and then pull the gonads and other surrounding tissue out with his bare hands. What the hell is with this guy?

If the movie gets one thing right, it’s the casting of Delfino as the desperate mom turned stripper. A lot of movies cast insanely gorgeous women in these sort of roles, but Delfino, while attractive, does NOT look like stripper material, so in those few scenes she sticks out like a sore thumb, as she’s supposed to. Speaking of the stripper scenes (which are also burdened by the inane documentary approach – who the fuck would allow a guy to stand RIGHT next to them and film while they are getting a lapdance?), I love how instantly the women snap on any male presence. Duval plays a drunk college guy, and he walks over to Delfino and tries to strike up a conversation, the type of somewhat aggressive but also harmless flirting one would probably expect at a private stripper party. Yet he barely even gets around to asking her name before she’s giving him attitude and saying BACK OFF!, before running away from him entirely. Later, as soon as Rooker appears in the room, one of them smashes a bottle and holds the neck up to his face. What the hell is with these girls? It was one thing when Delfino freaked out – she’s new to this. Why are the seasoned pros so instantly scared of a guy arriving late to the party?

But those are the sort of things one would consider and revise if they were putting any effort into the script, which Kennedy clearly wasn’t interested in. As mentioned, his entire 20 minute interview is devoted to explaining the ins and outs of financing and distribution (even Mike Feifer mentions the story once in a while), and both of his commentaries (one with another producer, one solo) are largely given to discussing such matters, in addition to the usual low-budget horror production stories (“This is my producer’s house.” “This actor was only available for one day.” Etc.). He does offer that the genitalia-mutilating doctor was a real case in Australia, and the hospital is thankfully NOT the Linda Vista, so I’ll give him some minor credit on those points. Also, he mentions that his post producer was none other than Demian Lichtenstein, director of the awesome 3000 Miles To Graceland, which in a fairer world would have been a huge success and thus kept him away from trash like this.

Then there’s about an hour’s worth of what can be considered deleted scenes, including three alternate endings and 12-13 minutes’ worth of interviews with the characters (not the *actors*). Supposedly the first cut was around two hours, and the finished product is about 85 with very long/slow credits, so I guess it’s nice that they included pretty much everything that they cut, but most of it is explained in the Alone in the Dark-esque ending text crawl anyway. Anything you can read in this movie instead of watch – that’s a good thing.

The only bonus feature that I found actually inventive and impressive was an “Anatomy of a Shot” piece (not the actual IFC show) where Kennedy and some stand-in actors block out an entire scene as they run through it, making notes and adjustments where necessary, and then finally showing us their “good” take alongside the finished product. POV or not, blocking/rehearsing is an important but oft-rushed (sometimes skipped entirely) part of filmmaking, and poor planning can result in massive delays when you arrive on the set and realize you can’t quite do what you “shot in your head”. So A. it’s good to know they actually considered such things (at least for this scene), and B. it’s the type of feature I wish they had more often on movies. Especially nowadays, when bonus features are basically just there to instruct wannabe filmmakers (unless it happens to be your favorite movie – which I sincerely hope is not the case for anyone with this particular film), anything that can genuinely help someone rethink their process before setting out to make their own film is a valid use of disc space. Just a shame when it’s supplementing a worthless film like Penance.

What say you?

P.S. Mr. Kennedy – might want to spell check your text-based epilogue next time around. “Anonomous” is not a word. I hope that didn’t cost you a pre-sale in a key European territory.

1 comment:

  1. I'm gland you could found words to describe this movie because it was such a crap that it left speechless ahahah I didn't even mentioned it on my portuguese blog reviews.

    Great review!!!


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