Thursday, June 23, 2011

#321. Penny Dreadful (2006)

Directed By: Richard Brandes

Starring: Rachel Miner, Mimi Rogers, Chad Todhunter

Tag line: "Don't forget to breathe..."

Trivia:  Plagued with horrible weather, the cast and crew had to work through a sandstorm and several inches of snow in order to finish production

Directed by Richard Brandes, Penny Dreadful is a taut thriller that manages to keep you on the edge of your seat for the better part of an hour. Unfortunately, the film runs for an hour and a half. 

As a young girl, Penny (Rachel Miner) was involved in a tragic auto accident, one that claimed the lives of both her parents, and since that time, she's not been able to so much as ride in a car without becoming violently ill. To overcome her fear, she agrees to accompany her therapist, Orianna (Mimi Rogers), on a road trip that will take her back to the scene of the tragedy. But when the two offer a ride to a stranger (Liz Davies) they meet on a dark road, their trip takes a sudden and terrifying turn towards danger, leading Penny to confront her phobia in ways she never dreamed possible. 

Rachel Miner does a fine job as Penny, elevating the film's tension to what at times is an almost unbearable level. Shortly after picking up the stranger, both Penny and Orianna begin to suspect that something is very wrong with their new passenger. Their worst fears are realized when the stranger, who seems unable to talk above a whisper, produces a skewer of raw meat, offering Penny and Orianna a bite before tearing into it. Though Penny tries to maintain a casual demeanor through it all, attempting to make small-talk with the stranger, we can tell the poor girl is absolutely terrified of this new riding companion; she grasps at the blanket in her lap more tightly with each passing moment, and her eyes betray the many thoughts that are racing through her head. Throughout the film, her character will be subjected to many frightening ordeals, and Miner hits the perfect note with her performance in each and every one of them, never once taking things to a level beyond believability, even when hysterics set in. 

Where the film derails is in the final act, the psychological cat-and-mouse game begins to lose some of its steam, and several 'extra' characters, who had been introduced earlier, contribute nothing at all to the story. While there are still strengths to be found in these later scenes (Miner remains effective, as does Rogers in a more limited capacity), the filmmakers could have easily trimmed 10-15 minutes without losing anything of substance. That aside, I would still recommend Penny Dreadful; it's an exceptional film for two-thirds of its running time, and the weaknesses in the back end do not detract from the strengths at the beginning.