“We are surrounded by monsters!” bellows the deep-voiced heavy metal singer in the end credit music for “Penumbra,” the new Spanish-language thriller opening this week. Given the subject matter, he may be drawing too broad a picture, given that so much of this singleminded scarefest relies on perspective, itself crooked in some ways.
“Penumbra” begins with our hostile introduction to the beguiling Margarita Sanchez (Cristina Brondo). Fast-talking, attitudinal and judgmental to the limit, Margarita wears an ice-cream power skirt with authority, and a girlish ponytail with impetuous confidence. Not to put a fine point on it, but she’s a total bitch. Brondo’s considerable talent and whipsmart delivery suggests it’s a miracle we don’t root for Margarita to die.
We follow Margarita, somewhat hesitantly, as she attempts to sell a ratty apartment to someone she assumes is an interested buyer. Margarita comes from money, and she essentially holds her nose as she makes her way through the complex. However, her common sense doesn’t seem to flare up when the buyer’s representative makes an exorbitant offer to purchase the property with a generous one-year advance. And how could it? She’s a woman with a lot on her mind.
Through a series of phone calls, we learn of Margarita’s trials. She’s singlehandedly taking care of the apartment’s co-owner, her own sister. She’s coping with her pushy boss back at the office. She’s having an affair with a married man. A brief confrontation with a homeless man outside a nearby market results in her tasering him in front of witnesses, who accuse her of brutality towards the local beggar. A rant about handouts and the jealousy of the lower classes probably isn’t the best way to endear herself to the surrounding shoppers.
Along with a dying phone battery, these distractions keep her from realizing that the wait for the buyer continues well beyond a reasonable point. As Margarita plays out her mini-dramas by phone, “representatives” for this mysterious buyer begin to stack up as if emerging from a clown car. Desperate to make the biggest sale of her life, Margarita desperately shoos away rats, more interested with making the place presentable than paying attention to the building’s other tenants. She also, conveniently, ignores the constant chatter about the solar eclipse about to happen, though it seems to be on everyone’s lips.
“Penumbra” ratchets up the paranoia in a way that desperately wants to recall a horror picture in the vein of early Argento, leaning towards the supernatural and the occult in the final reel. But in its crisp digital photography mixed with motivation-less blocking and camera angles is more “Mother Of Tears” than “Inferno.” Even the sometimes jazzy rock score feels as if Keith Emerson passed out on a keyboard, deflating tension and undermining the danger Maragrita faces. And when the score shifts into more common orchestral strings, it’s distracting enough to remove you from the reality of the film. Argento likely would have encouraged Goblin to just play louder.
Most damnedly, "Penumbra" builds so slowly that it peaks at the length of an episode of "The Twilight Zone," fully stretching past the limitations of its own story. With nowhere reasonable to take the events that threaten Margarita's life, the film ends in something like a shrug, leaving many possibilities up for debate. Without revealing much, it's the least-scary place to take this character, confirming what we suspected all along, leaving our lead character unchallenged, unchanged. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, and not a single upsetting moment amongst the boilerplate "scares." [C-]