Review: ‘Penumbra’ is as Bright as a Solar Eclipse

By  · Published on April 20th, 2012

Editor’s Note: This originally ran as part of our Fantastic Fest coverage, but Penumbra is out in limited theaters this weekend (4/20).

The “Crazy Religious” horror film can be one of the more interesting of the horror sub-genres, because they’re almost always inherently mysterious along with being potentially frightening. It’s either frightening because there are disillusioned people out killing non-crazy people because they think doing so will give birth to demons or the end of the world might happen, or there are enlightened people out killing non-crazy people because they will give birth to demons or the end of the world will happen. Best case scenario only a few people die horribly. Worse case scenario hell will rise and Earth will die horribly.

Penumbra falls somewhat into this category in that Marga (Cristina Brondo), a hard-nosed Spanish lawyer, is trying to rent out her very average apartment in South America and while attempting to conduct a business arrangement with an awkward man (Berta Muñiz) stating that his client will pay her four times the value of the apartment if they can handle the contracts within the hour she continues to experience an increasing level of odd occurrences with the man and his c0-workers who gradually trickle onto the scene. Right offhand we, and Marga, can sense some things are a little off about the man, his co-workers and their elusive client they seem strangely desperate to satisfy, and that their interest in the apartment seems deeper than its availability; and this is all occurring out of the clear blue on a day where the country should have a total solar eclipse.

The ‘type’ of film Penumbra is draws comparisons to films like Ti West’s House of the Devil in that an unsuspecting person gets trapped in a location with people who seem to have a darker agenda that might be supernaturally, or demonically inspired; and conceptually and technically a good portion of this film works. The acting is no less than decent, it’s well shot for looking relatively inexpensive and the aspect of utilizing the solar eclipse and one of the mysterious ‘bad guys’ referring to historical research increased the intrigue of what exactly they were because they didn’t appear to be satanists and weren’t motivated by anything biblical. Yet, any time Marga found something out of the ordinary they tried to make everything appear ordinary.

Along with that, our heroine’s encounters with a crude homeless man and an older woman who also lives in the building would occasionally (for a while) keep the audience guessing as to whether the real lunatic might be Marga, and mysteries like that are what help Penumbra from feeling too stale.

However, the answers that come from each question or mystery are disappointingly anti-climactic. When you do eventually find out what the people are, whether they’re crazy, what the solar eclipse has to do with anything, where that noise came from, etc. you’re left half-expecting somewhat of a powerful gut-punch only to be met with consistent rib jabs. In some cases you don’t really get much of an explanation at all as to what difference it made to the events of the picture. Some questions I don’t mind if they’re not answered because I’ll never really question why a filmmaker would include a scene where an attractive woman gets rubbed down with oil, but if I do have to sit through a phone conversation between a woman and her secret lover I’d like it if their conversation(s) had any bearings on the outcome of the film.

Overall the picture is active enough to keep you from getting bored, but the scenic paths it takes you on still leads to a less than exciting destination. In the earlier comparison to House of the Devil I felt more like I was driving through the desert on my way to Las Vegas. That’s how I felt after leaving the theater. With Penumbra I felt like I was being driven to Vegas, but my car would keep losing valuable parts along the way only to have it die as soon as I could see the city lights on the horizon.

The Upside: An intriguing plot with some legitimate mystery and curiosities

The Downside: Uninspired climax and eventually everything that seemed interesting doesn’t retain its grab at your attention

On the Side: This film was picked up by IFC Midnight AS the film was premiering at Fantastic Fest.