Who'd a thunk my first taste of Argentine horror would be so damn delicious? Penumbra is smart and sneaky with a sly sense of humor that warms my heart. In short, it has everything I look for in a horror movie but seldom find.
After an ominous opening, we meet Marga (Cristina Brondo) who happens to be a very busy lady. She's got places to be and people to lord over (she's a nasty piece of work but more on that later). Having been dragged away from her home in Barcelona, she finds herself in Buenos Aires trying to rent out an old family property that has fallen into disrepair. Much to her surprise, the local realtor (Berta Muñiz) who was supposed to work with her, claims to have found a client who is willing to pay many times Marga's asking price. The only catch is that the client simply must move into the apartment that very same day. Incidentally, a total solar eclipse is slated to take place later that day. If you're wondering whether the eclipse is part of the mystery client's agenda, let me assure you that Marga will soon have all the answers...whether she likes them or not.
Let's get something out of the way. Seasoned horror fans that have seen films like Rosemary's Baby and The House of the Devil are going to see this one coming from a mile away, and that's sort of the point. Co-directors Adrian Garcia Bogliano and Ramiro Garcia Bogliano (who last brought you Cold Sweat) aren't really building a mystery here (although there are a few well-timed twists and turns in the climax). With numerous mentions of the eclipse and plenty of foreshadowing, you'll be mostly prepared for where the film is headed. Freed from the pressure of concealing too much from the audience, the Bogliano Brothers work up a dark comedy of errors by seeing how long it takes the lead character to figure out the patently obvious predicament she's in.
This brings me to the single most important factor in examining the film's success: the character of Marga. Hanging your film on a truly unlikeable character is a big risk but it mostly pays off here thanks to a sharp performance by Cristina Brondo. Marga is a social climber who will step on anyone (or sleep with them) if it furthers her cause. When she looks that good, is it any surprise that she always gets her way? Brondo goes full-tilt in painting Marga as the arrogant and selfish creature that the Bogliano Brothers want her to be. In an odd way, this allows us to relish in her slowly receiving her comeuppance rather than feeling obligated to root for her. Of course, this has the adverse effect of giving us nobody to root for at all. Without an emotional center, the film turns into more of a detached exercise with an entertaining mean streak a mile wide.
The Bogliano Brothers have a dark sense of humor that sets the tone for much of the film's running time. Having frittered away any shot at sympathy from the audience, we watch as Marga closes door after door that may have given her an escape hatch from the inevitable climax. All of her venom isn't enough to keep her above her surroundings otherwise she would recognize what we already know: this will not end well. The final moments of the film erupt in violence but ably demonstrate that for a control freak, there are fates worse than death.
The film is presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The image is fairly clear and free of obvious defects. Skin tones are even throughout with sufficient detail and contrast in the darker scenes. The natural color palette grounds the proceedings and maintains a sense of realism (until it is no longer needed).
The audio was presented in a Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround mix with optional English, English SDH and Spanish subtitles. Significant chunks of the film are restricted to Marga's apartment building so it is reassuring to see the audio mix find space for the ominous silence that is a tension builder. Elsewhere, the sounds of city life punctuate Marga's unwelcome trips into the neighborhood she hates so much. Altogether, this is a fitting mix for the material at hand.
Sadly, the only extra is a Trailer (1:48) which gives away too much including some choice bits from the climax.
I suspect that the absence of a sympathetic lead will turn some viewers off but I contend that Penumbra is exactly the film that the Bogliano Brothers set out to make. There is a twisted sense of humor underlying the proceedings which keeps us thoroughly engaged. Rooting for a survivor can be compelling but watching an unsavory character get their just desserts is even better. If you're in the mood for something a little different, this film comes Highly Recommended.