I want to say that AdriŠn and Ramiro Bogliano's Penumbra feels like it could be better served as a short film; however, that would ignore that Ti West actually made a very successful, riveting film out of the same material in House of the Devil. That film was an extremely slow burn that essentially asked us to watch a girl house-sit for nearly an hour before the main action kicked in around a lunar eclipse. Penumbra is similarly staged and structured, only this time weíve globe-hopped down to an Argentine apartment building thatís going to house strange events during a solar eclipse.
In that apartment building is Marga (Cristina Brondo), a tough-as-nails Spanish lawyer who conducts her business with swift, hard-nosed efficiency. Sheís attempting to sell off an apartment to an interested party, but she keeps getting caught up in the tedium of everyday life: she loses her belongings, gets into a scuffle with a zealous vagrant, and is forced to engage in small talk with a fellow Spaniard. All the while, sheís unaware that sheís assisting a mysterious cult who has a sinister ritual to carry out once the sun goes black.
Penumbra is a bit more of a bristly film than House of the Devil; I hate to belabor that comparison, but itís difficult to ignore the similarities, so youíre stuck with it for at least this paragraph. Whereas Westís film was marked by unmistakable eeriness, the brothers Bogliano present something a bit more off-kilter. They keep their cards close, and one only has a few indicators that something terrible is bound to happen here. The impending solar eclipse is an obvious indicator, but it takes a backseat for much of the run-time; we also know that something terrible has happened to a prostitute due to an opening sequence.
Otherwise, the film relies on a sort of disorienting effect with bizarre music and interesting camerawork; the score is especially odd and sometimes reminiscent of those early giallos that relied on discordant and incongruent upbeat tones. Thereís a certain sort of invasiveness to the music here, as it seems to be always penetrating each scene. It gives way to strictly horror fare once the scary stuff begins to happen, and itís paired with some dizzying lenswork. As the narrative begins to finally spiral into its mad climax, the camera begins to tilt back and forth; as Marga begins to realize that her world is being turned on its head, so too do we.
This all sounds very good, and it is. The problem is that itís preceded by absolute tedium, and, quite simply, Marga herself is ferociously unpleasant. She takes the aggressive lawyer routine a bit too far, as she voraciously devours anyone in her path. However, Brondoís presence is difficult to deny, as she fully realizes this role, and carries the movie to wherever itís going. It just so happens that you hope itís heading towards her swift demise since sheís wasted so much of your time talking to various people on her cell phone (there are at least two characters whom we never see). Her prickly interactions eventually do have a sort of a payoff, but I donít know that it was worth seeing it all. So much of this film could have been condensed and had an even more powerful effect.
These proceedings are admittedly contradictory; her fast-talking wheeling and dealing carry an undeniable energy that cuts down on any sort of genuine creepiness (compare this to the low key stuff in House of the Devil, such as the girl flipping past a horror movie on TV--okay, last comparison, I promise). But it also feels so slow, and my attention wasnít sufficiently grabbed until the cult revealed themselves and their insidious intentions. I suppose one might say that last act hits viewers like Marga herself: like a brick wall that signals that all the tedious things sheís done during the day might not matter because she might not survive the eclipse.
I obviously wonít reveal whether or not thatís the case; I will say that the film eventually ramps up to a typically gory sacrifice sequence thatís frantic and high-strung. If anything, the Boglianos capture the frightening surety of fanaticism. The cultís single-minded, collective belief in their cause is chilling, and the cruel efficiency of their ritual is well-realized. Had all of this been preceded by more than mere tedium and a sympathetic character, it might have been truly impact. The poorly-written subtitles didnít help matters, either; hopefully IFC will get that fixed before this makes a wide release. When that happens, give it a look on a VOD platform, but donít be surprised if you find it to be as dim as an eclipse. Rent it!