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Feind pays a visit to our partners at The Movie & Music Network to do his grisly…
Going into Penance I had no real idea what to expect. I chose to view and review it based solely on two facts: 1) I hadn’t seen it and 2) the short synopsis sounded interesting enough. Other than that I knew nothing about the film so I had no real idea what was coming. Though I provide them here I rarely watch trailers for horror movies so that I purposely go in with no real idea of what the movie is, what to expect and no preconceived notions. A pleasant exception to this rule was Human Centipede which I quickly sought out only after seeing a trailer for it and what a lovely sick and gruesome tale that is! So without further ado let’s hit play…
Penance begins with some ominous information for us, “The following tapes were found at the abandoned Lichtenstein Hospital for the Criminally Insane… along with 14 dead bodies.” Unfortunately while this intriqued me, 14 brutal kills!, it also made me groan with a sigh of, “what did I get myself into?” As I’ve stated previously I’ve grown to have a deep seeded loathing for the “found footage/POV” type of film which gets its roots from an underground “Video Nasty” and Scribbler favorite, Cannibal Holocaust, which is the first to use the “found footage” angle that I can really think of, though it was The Blair Witch Project that started the current trend that just won’t die. I can’t really blame film makers working on small or next to no budget but with a few notable exceptions like Apollo 18 or Alexander Aja’s recent Maniac remake these films need to just go away. So did Penance have me groaning all the way through or does it stand out among the hordes of terrible films utilizing this technique?
I’m not going to tell you yet, first let’s dive into the story a bit. Penance starts as the tale of a single mom struggling with debt (aren’t we all) who finds out her child is very ill and her salary just isn’t gonna cut it when the medical bills start rolling in (the #1 cause of bankruptcy in America btw). She works at a battered woman’s shelter so the pay isn’t great but Amelia (Marieh Delfino) has a friend who shows her there may be an easier way to pay the bills if she’s willing to let her fun & wild side come out to play. Her friend is a stripper but not at some sweaty back alley strip club, she does private parties. When she tells Amelia how much she can make it doesn’t take a whole lot of convincing. After some awkward practice Amelia needs no further convincing when at her first “gig” she pockets $400 for less than 30 minutes worth of work.
Now this is a horror film so it’s time to start kicking up the ominous backdrop. Amelia’s friend calls her in a bit of panic but when Amelia gets there the panic has subsided though a fresh black eye remains. Amelia goes into counseling mode (she works at a battered women’s shelter after all) but her friend quickly pooh poohs the attempt to get her to report the assault. Instead she makes Amelia the dreaded “offer you can’t refuse” with a job that will pay her $3000 for one night’s work. It’s a no brainer and Amelia agrees leading to the film’s first nice little cameo by Tony Todd aka Candyman as her chauffeur for the evening this is where Penance starts to get strange leading to some gruesomeness as well.
Amelia is taken to an abandoned mental asylum, y’know the one the beginning of the film told us the following tapes were found at along with all those dead bodies! Amelia is met by two other strippers who have also been brought here to perform for who, none of them know. Being dropped off in the middle of nowhere at an abandoned asylum should be enough to make anyone say, “F!*# this!”, but three grand is a lot of money so no one turns back. The women are brought to a fairly dark room where they are told to dance sans music making their stripteases seem more than a little awkward and much less sexy. After Amelia’s turn the girls are taken to a room where we get awesome cameo #2 from Micheal Rooker aka Merle of The Walking Dead fame as well as a host of other awesome roles. Sadly Rooker’s role is basically a cameo, though he does return for another scene toward the end, letting the girls know that they aren’t there to be entertainment but rather they are to be “purified”.
Some like to call the territory Penance goes into next “torture porn” but I honestly don’t think it goes fully into that territory. I know my writing tends to delve in those waters so I really don’t have any problem with it as others do, it’s a movie no one is actually being tortured so grow a pair or watch/read something else. The girls are whipped, tasered and beaten but director Jake Kennedy tastefully doesn’t overdo it as many other do when filming these types of scenarios. Kennedy seems to take more of a Hitchcock approach of “less is more” filming or in other words show a little a let the viewer’s imagination fill in the gruesome gaps. As Hitchcock once stated what people imagine happened or is happening is worse than what he could show. I agree though I don’t mind some gore in films where it’s appropriate. Speaking of which Penance does have some moments that will make you cringe though you really see nothing.
Our true antagonist is a demented doctor, Graeme Reeves (Graham McTavish best known, though you won’t recognize him, as Dwalin from the ongoing Hobbit trilogy by Cult’s favorite Peter Jackson). Reeves is a deregistered ob/gyn with what appears to be a surgeon’s god-complex. He claims he has to prepare the strippers for Heaven. Rather than spoil the best parts of this film I’ll stop to tell you that Penance while not real found footage is based a true story or at least a very real person in Reeves. While many liberties are taken to tell the story of Penance there was a very real person named Graeme Stephen Reeves. Reeves was an ob/gyn working in Australia and known as the Butcher of Bega. Reeves was finally convicted in 2011 for sexual assault and genital mutilation based on incidents taking place just between 2001 and 2003 though he had lost his license to practice medicine (deregistered) in 1999 over undisclosed misconduct. Knowing this demented individual actually existed makes the scenes of surgical torture that much more horrifying, at least to this Scribbler. It always tends to be true that real life is far more horrible than anything Cult or I can conjure up and spew out for you.
Since Penance is a movie there has to be a hero/heroine and who else could it be but Amelia? Rooker is back for the final scenes to ummm… “take one for the team?” Yeah, guys you’re gonna cringe but since up to this point it’s kind of been any ladies’ nightmare we deserve it. Amelia gets away, of course, but so does the demented Dr. Reeves. The end wrap up lets us know some of the final details though again it takes a lot of liberties with the real Dr. Reeves story. For more about the real story go to the Wikipedia page for the doctor HERE.
So even though Penance is done in the found footage/POV style it is still incredibly watchable. Again director Jake Kennedy does an excellent job of showing you just enough to put grisly thoughts in your head without actually showing them to you directly which he is too be applauded for in an age when most tend to go for the gross out, torture porn brutality. What Dr Reeves did in real life is sick and deplorable and his depiction in the film leaves just how sick & deplorable to the confines of your own imagination. Kennedy keeps the story moving forward at a decent pace to keep you from getting bored and on basically no budget there aren’t a lot of options outside of the found footage/POV area. The physical FX are excellently done making the film seem far too real but since it’s based in fact that’s a very good thing. This Scribbler was entertained despite the style so Penance passed The Scribbler Clock Test and therefore is proudly dubbed…
Don't forget it's Penance week at TDBS so take a look at our Dueling Review of Hour of Penance's newest album Regicide!
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Scribbler Movie Reviews
Feind loves watching movies of all kinds so if we watch it, we tell whether you should as well. I'll share mostly horror but I also enjoy everything from big Blockbusters to micro-budget Independent films.
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