MPI // 2011 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // August 28th, 2012
We are surrounded by monsters.
Penumbra is, I believe, only the second horror film out of Argentina that I've seen; while I don't want to generalize their entire industry, the thing that both this and Cold Sweat have in common, aside from the director, is that regardless of what happens in the horror, the stories have a political bent. It's an interesting contrast to what gets made in this country where, whether the film is good or bad, they have essentially throwaway stories that strictly serve to set up the violence. Even when an American horror film does have it, such as in the great Hostel, the story gets dismissed and instead, we have to talk about some vague concept of "torture porn." Of course, the story in Penumbra is there to set up the violence, as well, but there's a little more room for thought.
Marga (Cristina Brondo, Russian Dolls), a Spanish realtor, spends two months in Argentina every year renting out apartment buildings, and she hates it. She hates Buenos Aries; she hates the people; she hates everything having to do with the country. Yet she goes, every year, complaining all the way. This year, a total eclipse of the sun is afoot and everybody's acting weird, proving to Marga just how filthy and savage these people are. As galling as her attitude is, things are about to get worse for her when a group claiming to want to rent an apartment turn out to be an insane blood cult meeting together for a bizarre ritual surrounding the eclipse.
I didn't actually realize while watching that Penubra was written and directed by the brother team Adrián Garcí and Ramiro García Bogliano, who created the thrilling Cold Sweat, but I should have. While this film isn't nearly as good as their previous effort, they share the same tone and have a political consciousness that I wish existed in more horror films. Doing so allows for a number of things, all of which exist in Penubra and the duo's previous, superior effort. Because the subject involves deeper motives than just some psycho from whom sexy teens must escape, the filmmakers can go slowly and build tension. They don't have to make it a gorefest and, instead, can make a whole film, with character and motivation. Many, especially in this country, might balk at the lack of body count, but the suspense is real, and welcome.
Unfortunately, Penumbra isn't close to as memorable as their previous effort, and the reasons are clear. One is a spoiler that I won't reveal, but it involves one of my biggest pet peeves in cinema in general, not just horror. Most important, though, the film's real villain is the protagonist, not by being some insane murderer, simply because she is a word that I'm not allowed to write in this review. She's despicable and does nothing to redeem herself. The only reason one could care at all about her is that she's in danger, but that's not enough for me. For characters like this in horror films, I just as soon see them die, but Marga is what we're left with and, as such, the movie is not as compelling as it could be and the frustrating thing about that is her attitude is the film's political stance. I like that it exists, but I hate how it's implemented, and it makes me torn about my ultimate feelings about the story.
Luckily, the Bogliano brothers are very skilled filmmakers who understand horror better than most modern genre filmmakers I've seen from any country. Penubra is a beautifully shot film, astutely juxtaposing Marga's haughty aristocracy against the craziness of the Buenos Aries streets. Marga is clean, well dressed, and professional; the people she hates are poor, dirty, and chaotic. These people know each other, though, love each other, and are there to protect each other. This puts Marga, as a foreigner, in the difficult position of hating people who don't trust her and will give her no sympathy. It's an interesting way to approach a horror character, but it doesn't work all that well. The performances are believable, though, and quite good; the story is well-written for what they're trying to accomplish, I just don't really care for their idea.
Penumbra receives a technically good, but bare bones release from MPI. The image, a wide 2.40:1, looks quite good. The transfer is virtually perfect, with nice rich colors, deep black levels, and realistic skin tones. The sound is also good, with a surround mix that uses all the channels well. The dialog and sound effects are nicely delineated and the excellent musical score sounds great. Unfortunately, there are no extras on the disc.
Penumbra plays one of the few horror cards that really bug me, and the ending suffers deeply as a result. Up to that point, though, the picture is pretty effective. It isn't a classic or even all that memorable, but the Boglianos continue to produce genre films that are a cut above the rest, and horror fans will enjoy what's on screen here.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated