Penumbra is an outstanding horror film that feels refreshing by virtue of its sheer simplicity. Indeed, the screenplay could very well be adapted as a theater play as it simply relies on a handful of actors and sets. As such, the power of Penumbra resides on absorbing histrionic performances, top-notch cinematography, and a well-structured narrative. In a time when most horror films boil down to schizophrenic editing, lavish special effects, and rehashed storylines, Penumbra emerges as a minor jewel of the genre.
The creative minds behind Penumbra are the writing/directing team formed by Adrian Garcia-Bogliano and Ramiro Garcia-Bogliano. Not new to the horror arena, the Garcia-Bogliano brothers previously delivered the decidedly creepy Rooms for Tourists (2004) and Cold Sweat (2010). From watching these three films it’s clear the solid storytelling is the primary strength of the Garcia-Bogliano brothers. By any means, horror fans are strongly encouraged to look for these obscure treats.
Nonetheless, Penumbra is substantially superior to the previous cinematic incursions of the Garcia-Bogliano brothers. The film takes place in Argentina on the hours preceding a total solar eclipse. The first few scenes appear to be taken from the standard horror moviemaking cookbook: a young woman is beaten and kidnapped by a mysterious figure that emerges from the shadows inside a decrepit building. It’s not but until the very end of the film that we find out the terrible fate that awaits her.
Judging by the grim cinematography and a scene that brings to mind the first appearance of Leatherface in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), one is led to believe that Penumbra will be one more entry in the apparently endless slasher subgenre. Indeed, the filmmakers seem to acknowledge that most viewers will be familiar with the basic tenets of the horror film. However, once these expectations have been firmly set in place, Penumbra takes an unexpected road.
We are introduced to Marga (Cristina Brondo) as she uses her cellphone to call her sister. In an exemplary case of narrative economy, this phone call is all it takes for the viewer to get a quick and fair glimpse at Marga’s life. Indeed, we learn that Marga is a workaholic and successful Spanish lawyer, and because of business reasons she has to travel to Argentina once per year. The film also reveals that Marga is looking for a tenant to occupy a flat that she owns in a decrepit building. To this end, she is impatiently waiting outside the building for the arrival of representative from a real estate agency.
But perhaps more important, the relatively brief phone call reveals quite a lot about Marga’s feelings and mentality. For example, we find how much she hates being in Argentina, as she thinks her beloved Spain is a superior country. In addition, Marga reproaches her sister for being lazy, lethargic, and without a career. At this point, Penumbra is barely beginning, but we already know that Marga is a troubled girl who feels superior to everybody else. As the movie moves along, Marga will have further opportunities to express her deep disdain and frustration with Argentina and their people.
However, in spite of her enormous ego and sense of entitlement, Marga does not come out as an unscrupulous or abrasive person. Indeed, thanks to the actress Cristina Brondo’s histrionics, Marga is portrayed as a charmingly naïve young girl with a serious attitude problem due to her specific cultural upbringings. That is, regardless of all her vitriolic arguments and complaints, Marga’s chauvinism, intolerance, and bigotry seem to be more a result of a cultural bias deeply rooted in the history of Spanish speaking countries than actual human evil.
Arguably, such a prejudice could be traced back to the Spanish empire that conquered and indoctrinated most of Central and South America. For some mysterious reason, it almost appears that a centuries old grudge still persists as a veiled sense of prejudice and intolerance between all the countries and regions involved. Such a cultural reading of Marga’s attitude is reinforced by the fact that each of the Garcia-Bogliano brothers was born in a different country: Adrian in Spain and Ramiro in Argentina.
As Marga enters the building, she finds Jorge (Berta Muniz) trying to force open the door of her apartment. Marga firmly believes that Jorge is the agent of the real estate agency and proceeds to show him the place. However, as the film eventually reveals, Jorge is a member of a bizarre esoteric cult whose devious leader wants to conduct an arcane ceremony during the solar eclipse. As it happens, Marga’s apartment is located in the right astrological place to carry out the mysterious ritual through a bloody human sacrifice.
In any event, Penumbra is a film about Marga’s immense alienation and misplaced expectations. As far as the viewer is concerned, Marga is linked to her sister, colleagues, and boyfriend only through her cell phone, which runs out of credit half way through the movie. Furthermore, we never witness Marga engaging on a close and heartfelt relationship with anybody. Indeed, Marga insults her work colleagues, denigrates her sister, reproaches her married boyfriend, and behaves in an arrogant manner when talking to Jorge and his friends. As such, the ambiguous finalé of Penumbra deeply resonates with Marga’s troubled state of mind.
Such a deeply detailed study of Marga’s psyche using a small number of actors and locations is the reason that Penumbra comes forth as an outstanding horror film. This fear flick can now be enjoyed on DVD thanks to MPI Home Video. Both image and audio are of very decent quality. Unfortunately, except for the theatrical trailer, this home video presentation of Penumbra does not have any special features. Even so, this is a good horror film, worth checking out.