Judge David Johnson learned a valuable lesson from this film: Don't pick up mute hitchhikers with scars across their faces. That information would have come in handy three weeks ago.
Don't forget to breathe…
One of the "Eight Films to Die For," Penny Dreadful is ballsy as horror films go. Ninety minutes of one girl trapped inside a car? Good luck with that.
Facts of the Case
Penny Deerborn (Rachel Miner, The Black Dahlia) has a phobia about driving in cars, stemming from a tragic car accident that took the life of her mother. Since then, the prospect of extended automobile travel propels Penny into waves of panic attacks. To conquer her fear, Penny agrees to a scenic drive with her therapist, Orianna Volkes (Mimi Rogers, The Loop), who is determined to free her of her intense fears.
But what starts out as baby steps towards a psychological breakthrough quickly turns into a night of terror, when Orianna picks up a psycho-looking hitchhiker. Following some unfortunate vehicular trouble in the woods, the hitchhiker proceeds to unleash nuclear-powered psych torment on Penny, wedging her car in between tress, keeping her contained with a dead body riding shotgun.
Director Richard Brandes is playing with a full set, that's for sure. Is it possible to make a compelling thriller by limiting the majority of the film to a small girl trapped inside a car at night? While certainly a risky venture, I think Brandes succeeds in crafting something interesting and scary with Penny Dreadful, but I'm resistant to embrace the suggestion that this, in fact, a film to die for. Maybe enduring a deep paper cut for instead?
Seriously, this film would work more effectively as a smaller installment in either a horror series or a feature-length anthology. There are some awesome moments strewn throughout, but I couldn't shake the feeling that this sucker would have packed even more of a punch had it been trimmed down considerably. Look, that's probably the hack criticism of this film and in a way it is low-hanging fruit to gripe about, but I'd be jerking your chain if I said the film didn't have me turn glance at the runtime counter on my DVD player every so often. It's just a built-in risk when you make something like this.
Having said that, let me turn it around and thank Brandes for taking a chance and doing something new and interesting with the genre. It may not work flawlessly, and I stick to my assertion that the story was better suited to be told in a shorter format, but I cannot deny the ingenuity in the film. Penny Dreadful is a film that thrives on atmosphere and terror, not necessarily horror. There are a handful of horror moments, like the reveal of the murderer, the videotaped footage of a murder, a horny couple having sex in the back seat of their car then promptly being introduced to the business end of a machete, but that drives the film is the tangible fear that permeates Penny's situation. And it is a terrifying situation, as the character's intense fear of cars—which had been drilled into us effectively enough in the beginning—is carried to its breaking point. If you're freaked out over sitting in a car, what's more horrifying than being trapped inside one, unable to get out, with a corpse sitting next to you?!? It's good stuff, dark and mean, yet doesn't have the staying power to propel the film through its 90 minute runtime. The aforementioned horror elements (post-sex carvings-up, etc.) break up the film a bit, and Rachel Miner blubbers like a maniac enough to sell her fear, but in the end the criticism stands: as a full-length film, Penny Dreadful is given big props for doing something new and delivering an atmosphere dripping with anxiety and suspense, but in a more concise presentation it could have been even better.
Good DVD, with a slick transfer (1.78:1 anamorphic) that holds up well in the pervasive darkness, supplemented by your choice of 5.1 and 2.0 audio mixes; go for the digital surround. A brief "Behind the Screams" featurette stands out above the trailers and a Sanity music video as the most notable extra.
I think you've gotten the gist of my feelings on this film.
The bench thinks this is worth a view, especially by fans of the psycho terror genre.
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• Making-of Documentary
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