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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
Horror fans can relate. There you are, watching a truly unique perspective on an old worn out trope: the slasher flick. I think many of us can agree that, for the time being, the slasher / brutal killer movie / story has run its course.
In the last five years we've had SAW & its sequels, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and its sequel, HOSTEL and its soon to be sequel, various singlets ranging from the Australian WOLF CREEK to the French HAUTE TENSION as well as the wheezy grandads of Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees creaking up to the next box office flop. Wes Craven kept control of SCREAM and stopped it at 3, whether the studio suits liked it or not. And they didn't. Not that Craven cared, because we'd be up to our asses in direct to DVD SCREAM sequels so godawful that we wouldn't even want to touch the original if Wes hadn't learned his lesson from New Line Cinema and how they destroyed A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.
So, nice opinionated history lesson, but what does that have to do with this review?
PENNY DREADFUL opens with a young woman named Penny (oooh! you just KNOW that something dreadful is going to happen to HER!) getting sick in a car with what turns out to be her psychotherapist (and I must say, I've met a few psychotherapists and not one appeared to be "psycho" - I don't understand the bad rap), Orianna (Mimi Rogers: DESPERATE HOURS, KILLER, GINGER SNAPS). It seems that Penny has a fear of being in cars and, as seen through a series of flashbacks, has a good reason. Fortunately, as little time as possible is spent on backstory.
Wes Craven favorite, Michael Berryman (THE HILLS HAVE EYES, DEADLY BLESSING, THE DEVIL'S REJECTS) makes an appearance and it's off to the mountains to help Penny overcome her fear of cars. The drive isn't helping though and Penny (who something dreadful is going to happen to, I just know it) is furtively popping pills to deal with the driving and crying. Oleanna catches on quickly enough though, and demands that the little Miss hand over them dang ol' blues. Naturally, while the two are niggling, no one is watching the road and a mysterious stranger chooses that moment to jump up and get whacked by the car.
Well Oleanna feels just awful about it and, since the stranger seems to be no more than bruised (though the impact was awful loud), the least Oleanna can do is give him a lift to where he's going.
The drive isn't any nicer for Penny (mark my words, dreadful is what's going to happen to her!), as the stranger doesn't talk and doesn't answer questions, creeping both the women out. They finally get to the stranger's destination, which involves a ridiculously long off-the-beaten-track drive through deserted wooded nature where no one in their right mind would drive a silent strange creep who is freaking them out and sitting just! Behind! Them!
Olleanna keeps driving along a trail made for four wheel drives, mile after mile and all the while; repeating several times over that the place appears to be deserted and their radio doesn't work out here (which means that their cell phones likely won't work either). Olleanna doesn't stop trudging the car along until the audience is ready to throw up their hands and shout "bullshit!" at the screen. Finally the therapist stops just as I'm ready to leap at the screen and attempt to kill her myself. Penny (Rachel Miner: CULT, THE BLACK DAHLIA) is ready to have a seizure from fright, and the strange lad makes some creepy moves scaring the two frightened women into driving the hell out of there with all haste.
But they dont get far.
Merry Mishaps have happened to their car.
And the creep is only a mile or so back up the road.
One flat tire later and an empty spare in the trunk, Oleanna decides the best course of action is to wander up the path a ways - In The Dark! - in the hopes of getting a cell phone signal, - With Creepy Stranger Right Behind! - so as to call for help.
Well, you are either a fool or have never watched Horror movies to know what a ferociously bad idea THAT is!
Penny knows what a bad idea that is, but she's a freaking fruitcake, so who is going to listen to her? Not her therapist, obviously.
One dead therapist later and PENNY DREADFUL takes a fascinating turn into unmarked territory, making it one of the very few set piece Horror movies in existence. Certainly the only one I've seen that largely takes place within a car. For the next hour or so, the film is all about Penny trapped in a car from which she cannot escape - and the trap is too good to spoil it for you. Suffice to say, she is in a car with her dead therapist (and a remarkable job by Mimi Rogers here), and periodically tormented by the homicidal stranger they hit.
Yes, the movie is truly wonderful at this point, thanks to both the direction of Richard Brandes (THE FEAR, DEVIL IN THE FLESH, DEVIL IN THE FLESH 2: TEACHER'S PET, OUT FOR BLOOD) as well as the story turned screenplay by writers Diane Doniol-Valcroze (KILL BY INCHES) and Arthur Flam.
So, for the low expectations of a slasher film, and despite the rather pedestrian opening and its forehead-slapping motivations, once the Psyche was dead, it was turning into a fine intense film with an outstanding performances by Miner and Rogers.
But then came the resolution and holy crap what an awful ending. What was the ending? Well, if you've ever seen a Horror movie, starting with HALLOWEEN and running all through the late 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s right up to, and just a little ways past the point where, in ARMY OF DARKNESS, Ash said, "Don't. It's a trick. Get the axe!" or in SCREAM where Randy Meeks told you (among the many Horror trivia clichés he pointed out), why such tricks were weak and overdone, then you've seen the ending to PENNY DREADFUL. As a Horror fan, I've seen the ending to PENNY DREADFUL at least 30 times by now in 30 other movies.
For being a really good movie with really good acting, but a dreadful ending, PENNY DREADFUL gets a barely earned 3 Shriek Girls.
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