The indie thriller Penny Dreadful fails to rise above a garden variety slasher movie.
A young woman is suffering from a phobia of cars as a result of her parents having been killed in a crash with her in the car as a child. She is driven into the mountains where it happened by her therapist, to force her to confront and get over her memories. It is dark, bitterly cold, and out of cell phone range. They encounter a mysterious hitchhiker. Soon she is trapped alone in the car, tormented by the killer who wants her to experience the maximum fear before he dispatches her.
The movie does a good job with atmosphere. There really is a “middle of nowhere” feel to where they are, and the freezing temperature adds another whole level of discomfort.
On the one hand, you can say that having the person trapped in a car suffer from a phobia of cars is a clever way to add an additional element of terror to her experience, and the vicarious experience of the viewer. But the way it plays out, she’s already engaging in histrionics and carrying on like she’s in a slasher movie on the car ride itself, before anything happens to her. When she finally is victimized by a sadist, there really is no room to ratchet up her reaction more than a little. It’s pretty close to just more of the same. So instead of this device intensifying the terror of the scary scenes, it arguably lessens it.
I was tired of her screaming, hyperventilating, sweating, and vomiting by then, so there was a bit of a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” effect once there was actually something that warranted such a reaction.
I won’t say the film didn’t hold my interest at all. It’s certainly no worse than average for its genre (which is not exactly high praise). There is less fault to be found here in the acting or the basic logic of the story than is the case with most such movies.
To compare it to a movie I wrote about recently, Penny Dreadful at its worst is probably not quite as bad as Near Dark at its worst, but Penny Dreadful at its best is way below Near Dark at its best. Near Dark took chances and made itself interesting and powerful enough to maybe narrowly outweigh the respects in which it was lame. I didn’t roll my eyes quite as much during Penny Dreadful, but it’s far more ordinary and forgettable.
You’d expect an indie film to either satirize or avoid the clichés of a conventional genre like this. I’m not particularly disappointed it didn’t do the former—a satirical approach can be entertaining at times, but I don’t know that I need to see yet another horror or action movie that has its tongue just enough in its cheek to let you know its “cool” enough not to take mainstream movie conventions seriously—but it would be nice if it had done a better job of the latter.
Consider the first ten slasher movie clichés that come to mind: Who the killer turns out to be, how skeptical people are initially that they’re in danger, whether people are punished for illicit sex, by what type of weapon the killings are done, whether the killer displays superhuman strength or survivability, how implausible is the heroine’s defeat of or escape from the killer, whether there is ambiguity at the end as to whether the killer is really dead, and on and on. I’ll bet whatever ten you come up with, this movie has at least eight of them.
Like I say, it’s not bad for what it is. But Penny Dreadful isn’t a movie that stands out as worth recommending.