Review: Penumbra (Fantastic Fest)
PLOT: A beautiful, young lawyer is looking to sublet an apartment and finds some suspiciously motivated buyers. As she waits for their attorney to arrive to sign the contract, it becomes clear there is something far more sinister going on.
REVIEW: At the risk of hinting at spoilers, PENUMBRA shares a great deal with Ti West's thriller HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. Both are slow burn style thrillers that follow a woman alone in a spooky place with some spooky people on the eve of an eclipse.
The film was reportedly in the works for ten years, which is odd considering that for much of the film's relatively brief run-time, not a whole lot goes on. We follow the beautiful but bitchy Margarita (Marga, for short), a high-profile lawyer who snarks and snaps into her cell phone as she prepares to meet a pair of buyers who are interested in subletting an apartment she inherited. These buyers are willing to pay cash for the entire year and seem ready deliver the money in an hour.
The film takes place largely in the one-room apartment in question as Marga slowly begins to suspect the buyers - the imposing doofus Jorge and the diminutive but powerful Victoria - are up to no good. Marga's intuition repeatedly tells her to leave but the promise of a large chuck of cash prevents her from doing so. And from there we wait (and wait, and wait…), while Marga slowly begins to figure things out (we, the audience, seem to always be a few steps ahead of her). Whether or not this wait is tense or dense largely depends on the amount of patience you have.
I like a good slow burn and stuck with PENUMBRA, waiting to see exactly where it would land. The film wisely has a brief prologue that sets up the tension and lets you spend the rest of the film wondering how and when the shit is going to go down. Director Adrian Garcia Bogliano (who co-wrote the film with his brother) shoots the film like a play - a small set of characters mostly confined to a small space - which lends an air of claustrophobia to the film as the audience starts to feel Marga's panic as she finds herself stuck inside the building.
The film tries a little too hard, and rather unnecessarily, to add elements of humor throughout and the "horror-comedy" angle never works. There's also a weird subplot between Marga and her sister, who she talks to on her cell phone. I'm not sure what, if anything, this leant to the proceedings, other than to set up Marga's attitude.
Actress Cristina Brondo is actually quite good as Margarita. Unlike the babysitter in HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, Marga isn't exactly an easy character to root for. She's rude and snobbish and could easily be a character we're rooting to get bumped off but Brondo keeps us invested in her survival. Then again, maybe that was me hypnotized by the cleavage overflowing from her top. And here, perhaps, is the film's finest slow burn: will we ever lay eyes on her impressive bewbage? [Spoiler Alert: Sadly, no, but maybe just as good, another woman rips Brondo's shirt open and rubs oil over her chest. So we got that going for us…] But the film's actual payoff, again like HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, isn't worth the wait. I remained patient and interested throughout the film's runtime, when push came to shove, and the film built to its inevitable crescendo, I didn't feel rewarded for my patience. And I wanted to like it! I can't imagine how the audience would feel if they were bored during the opening hour.
It should also be noted that the subtitles presented with the print I saw read like they were written by someone with broken English and sometimes were cut off. It's a strange thing to notice so many spelling and grammatical errors in subtitles and wound up being distracting, so hopefully this is something producers can fix before its release (the film was picked up by IFC Midnight shortly before Fantastic Fest).
PENUMBRA was a film with promise, solid performances and with perhaps a few tweaks, could've made for a much more satisfying thriller. As it is, it's just frustratingly average.