Last year at Fantastic Fest we were treated to a half-familiar / half-unique take on the Saw school of horror. It was called Cold Sweat, and it offered a patently familiar horror tale that was wrapped in a flashy, kinetic visual style. This year the fraternal filmmakers known as Adrian and Ramiro Bogliano are back at Fantastic Fest with something completely different: their Penumbra is shot beautifully but rather sedately, and this time the story starts out mysteriously before slowly becoming more tense, creepy, and unsettling.
Outside of astronomical terminology, 'penumbra' means "a shadowy, indefinite, or marginal area," but in the context of the film, which takes place during one hazy day during a solar eclipse, it sort of has a double meaning. (I think.) Our central character is a brusque, snobby real estate agent named Margarita (an excellent Cristina Brondo, who makes her icy character patently unlikeable, but still interesting enough to follow for 89 progressively creepier minutes), and the crisp little plot focuses on her efforts to sign the contracts on a very lucrative (but patently illegal) deal with a group of truly questionable clients.
The crafty Bogliano brothers know full well that they're asking us to settle in for a quick but deliberate series of misadventures with Ms. Margarita, and the escalating stresses of the woman's day do a fine job of keeping the tension percolating while we sit and wait patiently for the big answer: who the hell are these wacky clients who are willing to pay five times the asking price on a grungy old apartment? Why are they in such a hurry? And how low will Marga sink in her perpetual race for money, status, and respect?
Backed by Ms. Brondo's confrontational yet compelling lead performance, a canny screenplay that knows what we're expecting and tries to think a few steps ahead, and a low-key but very handsome visual style, Penumbra is a weird, quiet, and novel little horror import that goes a few places you might expect, but also a few you might not. Based only on two of the Boglianos' genre films (they've done a lot of earlier work in their native Spain), I consider myself a big fan of their approach to the horror genre, and I'm certainly curious to see what they come up with next.