PENNY DREADFUL is an enjoyable combination of psycho-thriller and slasher horror, which somehow achieves a slick, Hollywood-calibre visual style in spite of its modest budget. The film is not afraid to deliver gruesome horror, but it also dwells on the suspense, offering a tense situation featuring a vulnerable character trapped in a terrible predicament guaranteed to induce nail-biting in the audience – when they’re not leaping out of their seats at the shocks.
The story follows Penny Dearborn (Rachel Miner), a young woman who suffers from a phobia of automobiles ever since she survived an auto accident that killed her family, leaving her an orphan. Her therapist Orianna (Mimi Rogers) drives Penny on a long trip to the scene of the accident. Unfortunately, this confrontational therapy is sidetracked when Orianna’s car hits a pedestrian on a lonely, isolated road. The victim – who seems more than a little sinister – survives, hitching a ride with Penny and Orianna to a closed-down camp in the woods. The car breaks down; the therapist goes looking for help, and eventually Penny finds herself trapped inside the automobile when the hitchhiker turns out to be a homicidal lunatic, recently escaped from an asylum for the criminally insane.
The story’s narrative is built around a simple but effective conceit: Penny is afraid of automobiles, but dreadful circumstances force her to take refuge in one. As the lurking maniac wrecks havoc, the car becomes both protection and prison, forcing her to overcome her phobia in a way that her therapy never achieved. (In effect, the film attempts to do for automobiles what Alfred Hitchcock did for the shower in PSYCHO.)
By basing the premise on the protagonist’s mental flaw, the script moves beyond simple slasher mechanics to become something closer to a sophisticated psychological thriller. Beyond that, Penny’s phobia provides a foundation for an impressive array of visual stylings intended to convey her traumatized state of mind, essentially putting the audience inside her head.
The film is also something of a formal experiment, vaguely akin to Hitchcock’s 1930s melodrama LIFEBOAT. In this case, the question is: Can director Richard Brandes visually sustain a movie that takes place mostly within the confined space of the car? The answer is a resounding yes. The claustrophobia enhances the tension without ever making the film seem limited or cramped, and the camera angles and editing manage to convey a sense of forward narrative momentum and discrete scenes, even though we are mostly looking at the same limited location over and over again. And it’s all wrapped in some gorgeous cinematography that makes clever use of gels and post-production tinkering to create a subtly shifting color scheme keyed to the increasing tension.
Unfortunately, the film does not quite have the courage of its convictions. There are several mostly gratuitous scenes involving a trio of nearby characters: two night watchmen and a woman with whom one is having an affair. This provides ample opportunity for some backseat sex and nudity, not to mention three more victims, but their presence contributes little to the story, except acting as a red herring: will one of them help Penny out of her predicament, or will they all just die?
As a result, the gradually tightening screws of tension are periodically hammered with some hardcore violence that seems rigged for viewers too impatient to sit through a slow build-up. Also, the film succumbs to some of the other tired tropes of the slasher genre: there’s a surprising but ultimately irrelevant twist about the killer’s identity, and there’s even one of those “it’s not really over” endings.
Despite this slasher sensibility lurking around the edges of the narrative, the film remains a character piece that rises to meet the challenge of its unusual premise: how do you keep the protagonist interesting when she is trapped in a car with no one else to relate to? As Orianna (whose tough-love approach makes her seem more like a disappointed mom than a therapist), Mimi Rogers lends star value and delivers a convincing performance with a rather unusual requirement in the later portions of the film. It’s probably not the sort of thing actors normally dream of achieving, but it is utterly convincing, and without it, the film simply would not work.
Nevertheless, PENNY DREADFUL is ultimately a showcase for young Rachel Miner. Her performance helps lift the movie several slices above the standard slasher fare, as her character runs through the gamut of fear and desperation, slowly slouching toward some desperate kind of resilience or determination without ever morphing into the cliché of the kick-ass, unbeatable heroine, so beloved of genre filmmakers ever since Ripley in ALIEN and Sarah Connor in THE TERMINATOR.
In many horror films, the emphasis falls primarily on the monster or the mad killer, whose predations drive the action. PENNY DREADFUL keeps its camera focused on the title character and her plight, building audience identification in a way that creates genuine suspense rather than just simple shocks. The minor concessions to the presumed low-brow expectations of the horror audience may prevent the film from realizing the full potential of its Hitchcockian ambitions, but they don’t diminish its undeniable effectiveness as an exciting chiller. The film is cleverly gauged to be intensely frightening without becoming off-putting; the shocks and surprises are served up with a gusto that energizes the audience, who eagerly go along for the thrill ride, resulting in an experience that is genuinely crowd-pleasing.
The title “Penny Dreadful” is a reference to a kind of Victorian literature noted for melodramatic situations, with exaggerated action and peril. These books were called Penny Dreadfuls or Penny Bloods, because writers were paid a penny a word and dragged everything out in order to make as much as they could. The screenwriters chose the title because the lead character’s name is Penny and she is trapped in a dreadful situation.
According to screenwriter Arthur Flam, “Diane [Doniol-Valcroze ] and I came up with the story in New York. Since we both realized we had something in common – we’re scared of cars stranded at night — we figured it would be a good starting point. We were looking for something visceral and primal that was really scary. A character, Penny, placed in a dangerous situation where everything goes wrong.”
Diane Doniol-Valcroze says the model for the film was films like JAWS and OPEN WATER. “We thought of it [the car] as a boat, and the hitchhiker was the shark.”
Production took place in the Big Bear, California, with 18 days shooting spread out over 19 days (i.e., there was only one day off). Weather conditions were not pleasant, but they did add some production value. Says Richard Brandes, “The wind in the opening is 60 mile an hour gusts, which we didn’t plan, but it looked great. It wrecked havoc with the sound. Mimi and Rachel were really troopers for putting up with that; it was really tough.”
The low-budget movie managed to afford star Mimi Rogers by scheduling her for six straight days. Although her character is dispatched midway through the movie, director Brandes opted against completing her scenes with a dummy.
RICHARD BRANDES: “I did think of using a dummy, but I realized it wasn’t going to work, because I wanted Orianna to remain a character throughout the piece. In order to do that, I had to have Rachel-Penny to react to Orianna. My hat’s off to Mimi; she relished the challenge of it.”
MIMI ROGERS: “Being dead on screen isn’t easy.[The hardest thing about playing dead was] draining all the life out of your body. When you’re really cold, everything else falls by the wayside.”
There was also some consideration of using prosthetics for certain action, like pulling keys out of the dead woman’s teeth, but Mimi Rogers pulled the scene off. The sound effect of her jaw cracking open was a combination of knuckles cracking and breaking bones.
Brandes storyboarded the film with cinematographer, because there is not a lot of dialogue and much of the film is set inside a single claustrophobic location: the car. The key was conveying the progression of the story in a limited space.
RICHARD BRANDES: “We wanted to be inside her head. I don’t want to say I gave more direction than usual, because that’s an odd thing to say, but I had to really, clearly say, ‘Okay now, Rachel, jump in the back – pound on the windshield – harder, harder, harder!’”
PENNY DREADFUL was shot on Super35mm film; then post-production – including editing, effects, and titles – was done digitally. The film uses a nostalgic Kodachrome look in opening daylight scenes, shifts to blue for night, then red when things get bloody, sparked by blood spattered on windshield. A red gel was used to achieve the effect on location, but the digital technology allowed the colors to be enhanced and tweaked in post-production. The work paid off: the film took home the award for Best Cinematography at the September 2006 Shriekfest film festival in Hollywood.
PENNY DREADFUL (2006). Directed by Richard Brandes. Written by Richard Brandes and Diane Doniol-Valcroze & Arthur Flam, story by Doniol-Valcroze & Flam. Cast: Rachel Miner, Mimi Rogers, Liz Davies, Chad Todhunter, Tammy Filor, Mickey Jones, Michael Berryman