Penumbra (2011)

SEPTEMBER 27, 2011


When the best thing I have to say about a film is that the opening/closing credit animation is really cool, then it’s probably not a good sign. I heard a few good things about Penumbra, but for the life of me I can’t comprehend what folks would enjoy about this movie after sitting in a theater to watch it. At home I had the option of pausing it for a while and focusing on something else, and it was STILL driving me crazy with its lethargic pace, obnoxious dialogue, and hateful main character.

Let’s break those down one by one. I’m actually spoiling things by saying it’s a cult, because they don’t make their intentions known until the film’s final 10 minutes or so. Not that it’s too hard to figure out (has there ever been a horror movie centered around a total eclipse* that didn’t involve some sort of cult activity?), but the first hour or so is nothing but our heroine (for lack of a better term) yelling at everyone she encounters as she waits around for someone to show up and sign a lease for the apartment she’s trying to rent. At times it almost feels like the movie version of a very strange play, as the same 5-6 characters keep walking in and out of a central set, carrying on with misunderstandings and sneaky behavior, and perhaps in that setting it would work if they cast a bunch of great character actors and actually made it funny. Instead, we just get boring, over-explanatory conversations about where cell phones went or how boxes appeared in elevators. And trust me, it’s even less interesting than it sounds.

It also mirrors the pace of House Of The Devil, but that film mostly worked because the main girl was likable, which meant it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to watch her in non-action. The other difference (spoilers!) – it does not have AJ Bowen (or his Argentinian equivalent) showing up and shooting someone in the face to buy the movie some goodwill. The only bit of action in the movie prior to the finale (which, like House, is rushed and vague) is when Marga gets into a fight with a homeless man who she thinks is harassing her, only for the other folks around and a cop to take his side. And can you blame them? She’s attractive, sure, but the woman is just plain hateful from start to finish; the closest she gets to being warm in the entire movie is when she’s making plans to meet up with a lover, something that would be totally charming if not for the fact that he is married.

It does equal House’s success in one regard, however – terrific cinematography. Even on this lo-res screener, I could tell that they did the best job anyone could for a dull film set entirely in a run-down apartment building on a very hot day. You can feel the heat coming off the screen, with the sun-drenched visuals providing a very unusual look for a horror film. Plus I’m always amused by scope widescreen framing for a movie that mostly takes place in average sized/looking rooms. It’s not like Panic Room or whatever – there isn’t a shot in the movie that will really “wow” you on its own, but it’s clear that the film’s problems lie with the script, not the production.

Back to the ending – what the hell? Did they run out of dough, or is there a Penumbra Dos coming along? Once again our anti-heroine is accused of making stuff up, and then it ends without clarifying if she really is crazy or not. A vague ending is fine when the movie is exciting or interesting throughout, but when it’s pretty much the only thing of note in the entire flick, it’s pretty dang insulting to leave it up for “debate”. Plus, why would anyone want to think about this movie once it’s over?

Another major problem is their subtitler, who should be banned from ever providing as much as an exclamation point to another foreign language film ever again. Nearly every single line in the movie had some sort of error, be it typographical (“pitty”), bad grammar (“where are the phone you put?”) or just plain botched, with words cutting out on the left and right sides during particularly long sentences. It never gets to the point that you can’t follow the plot (er, “plot”), but it’s a huge distraction all the same, and I pray for the filmmaker’s sake that IFC (who acquired the film before its screening at FF) puts in some dough to hire someone who actually knows what the fuck they’re doing to replace them. This movie does/will have fans, and as much as I can’t fathom why, I fully support their right to have it presented in a professional manner.

In short, pretty much the weakest film of the festival of the ones I saw, and I’m glad I didn’t choose it over whatever I saw at the same time it was playing. Slow burn movies need a good payoff, and even if Penumbra had one, it wouldn’t make up for the hateful lead character. Even the dude in Last Screening was more pleasant and he was a damn murderer!

What say you?

*Perhaps this is why Tim League didn’t want to hear “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” at karaoke – it might inadvertently remind him or the patrons of this movie and ruin their mood. If so, I hereby forgive him.


  1. Your review is spot on, but for some reason, I still liked this crazy film! The lead was indeed a hot mess of a character and the other weirdo cult people were just annoying, but there was something creepy and disturbing about the cult's ritual--and why did they have to off that sista like that? That was just wrong. Even so, yes, the cinematography was great and the credits sequence was more exciting than the whole film put together, lol.

  2. Is it in english?


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