Slow-burning with languid precision toward an intense and gory climax, Argentine horror thriller Penumbra is available on DVD this week from IFC Midnight. Set in and around a decaying apartment complex over the course of a single afternoon in Buenos Aires, Penumbra’s premise is less twisty and original than its auteurs probably believed it was, but the film’s strong sense of atmosphere, understated deadpan humor, and a solid performance from lead actress Cristine Brondo make it at least a cozy and entertaining retread.
Stranded in Buenos Aires and stuck with the bum task of finding a tenant to occupy her family’s dilapidated and long-uninhabited apartment, high-powered lawyer Marga can’t believe her luck when a local realty agent, Jorge, appears at the location offering to snap the apartment up, practically on sight, on behalf of a wealthy client, offering to shell out an exponentially inflated rate in advance. The agent’s proposal initially seems too good to be true, but Marga is eager to cash in, and agrees to wait at the apartment with the agent for his client and superior agents to arrive with the necessary contracts, even when a string of his mysteriously ignorant and unprepared friends and associates begin trickling slowly and furtively into the apartment. As the hours pass, however, Marga becomes increasingly apprehensive and paranoid as a mounting string of inconsistencies start to convince her that Jorge and his associates are not to be trusted, and that their interest in the apartment – and in her – may have darker and more twisted roots than she could have possibly imagined.
Like recent supernatual crime thriller Kill List, Penumbra’s premisebears strong similarities to the UK horror classic The Wicker Man, whose basic plotting – minus minor details and embellishments – is pretty much identical. Unlike Kill List, Penumbra’s nods to its predecessor seem fairly unselfconscious, meaning it comes across as derivative rather than referential, even if its tone seems more pointedly biting and humorous than its predecessor. Like Robert Woodward’s prudish police Sergeant, Brondo’s character is brash, snotty and unlikeable, and her ultimate ensnarement in a web of violent supernatural deceit is a direct product of her inability to perceive reality past the limits of her own selfish preoccupations and haughty condescension. The film’s other issue is that it’s too predictable – it’s pretty clear, from around the thirty-minute mark, where the story is going to end up, especially when random people at the supermarket start making veiled references to solar eclipses and pseudo-apocalyptic astrological fallout.
It’s a shame Penumbra’s story is so awkwardly generic because, aside from its all-too-transparent narrative antecedents, it’s a tightly paced, funny, and basically well-acted film that successfully entertains, almost in spite of itself. A lot of the movie’s winning qualities are attributable to Brondo, who evokes her flippant and brattish lead character so effectively that the predictable trajectory of the story she occupies stops really mattering, so captivatingly luminescent is her absurdly ruthless antihero. As a horror film, Penumbra earns some pluses as well, most notably its brain-violating flesh-and-gore explosion of a climax. IFC’s disc is unfortunately without special features (aside from trailers, natch) but Brondo’s performance and the film’s special effects are both definitely worthy of further attention, though the film overall might be somewhat flawed. Penumbra definitely isn’t perfect, but it’s a solid genre installment that boasts formidable strengths, in addition to a few unfortunate weaknesses.