Studio: Level 33 Entertainment
Director: Peter Engert
Writer: Munier Sharrieff
Producer: Tyler Mane, Renae Geerlings, Michael Leavy, Steven Della Salla, Jason Leavy
Stars: Tyler Mane, Scout Compton, Daniel Roebuck, Booker Huffman, Dallas Page, John Schneider
An ex-con drifts into a small town where he uncovers a shocking secret hidden in the basement of a thief¡¯s former stash house.
Crosscheck Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts of certain genre outlets against active indie horror personalities and you¡¯ll see where some friendships have formed. I get it. What fright film aficionado, even one who turned into a critic, wouldn¡¯t want to be retweeted by Barbara Crampton, have a post liked by Lance Henriksen, or interact online with Brea Grant?
A consequence of blurring the line between fandom and professionalism is that unwritten rules develop regarding how to treat films featuring such folks. I get that too. No one wants to risk jeopardizing a relationship, even an imaginary one based on a one-time e-mail exchange, with a fan favorite actor by badmouthing one of his/her projects.
If you¡¯ve ever wondered why the horror hive mind seems to promote particular people no matter what, or why a bad B-movie doesn¡¯t live up to strangely positive praise, there¡¯s your most likely answer. Filmmakers who are well aware of this ¡°say something nice or keep your mouth shut¡± policy even exploit the angle, kissing babies and shaking hands on convention circuits, at press junkets, or on social media to keep those loyalty fires burning bright. Some writers don¡¯t even realize they¡¯ve been blinded by bulging hearts in their eyes.
A number of names who fall into ¡°tread lightly¡± territory play prominent parts in ¡°Penance Lane.¡± Scout Taylor-Compton is the heir apparent to untouchable Danielle Harris in that we know her from ¡°Halloween¡± (review here), yet now we only ever see her in countless DTV quickies. ¡®Diamond¡¯ Dallas Page and ¡®Booker T¡¯ Huffman are both highly respected wrestling champions. Daniel Roebuck¡¯s deep collection of monster movie memorabilia adds to his endearment as a venerable genre veteran. Meanwhile, Tyler Mane and his wife Renae Geerlings have toiled tirelessly to build a scrappy production company striving to squeeze quality content out of minimal money.
But I¡¯ve never bought into this nonsense notion that supporting indie horror means championing a homegrown film simply because of its cast. I promote horror by demanding lackluster productions do better to represent the genre, not by giving them a pass. PR people and Kool-Aid drinking critics can lead cheers for claptrap while I call it like I see it. In this instance, ¡°it¡± is ¡°Penance Lane¡± and how I see it is as a mediocre movie.
As can commonly be the case at this lower tier of filmmaking, details either try too hard or not hard enough. Accordingly, suspension of disbelief becomes almost entirely dependent on how much imagination a viewer is willing to devote to make up for what¡¯s missing, which is quite a bit.
¡°Penance Lane¡¯s¡± prologue starts with Booker Huffman¡¯s crew of criminals holing up in a stash house. It¡¯s immediately evident at least one of the men has no weapons training whatsoever because he secures the first room, after three others have already done so mind you, by pointing an assault rifle over his head and spinning in a circle toward a wall. Maybe he expects someone to pop out from behind a 7-foot-high curtain rod? Another guy gets spooked by a dressmaker¡¯s mannequin falling out of a closet, in case you were curious where the film stood on unearned jump scares.
Five years later, laughably named ex-con Crimson Matthews (Tyler Mane) strolls out of prison and straight into the small town of Chesterton. We know it¡¯s a small town thanks to a storeowner seen sweeping a sidewalk (although he isn¡¯t wearing an apron). Crimson came here to take revenge against the mystery men or mutants who took out Huffman¡¯s team, and to recover some stolen cash. First he¡¯ll need to find a way into the house, and that requires getting to know a few locals.
Next we meet Scout Compton, billed here without the Taylor, in what is probably her weakest, but definitely most thankless role to date. Compton begins as a punching bag for her boyfriend before morphing into a mere scream machine for most of her meager minutes. ¡°Penance Lane¡± puts her in positions where she¡¯s either dragged around emitting teakettle pops of panic or ending up bent over more than once as someone prepares to assault her from behind. She¡¯s not a defined person. She¡¯s a sleazily employed prop of powerlessness in a tight t-shirt for Crimson to repeatedly rescue, which he has to do no less than three times.
Daniel Roebuck plays the kind of small town sheriff who demeans a grown man by calling him ¡°boy.¡± Weirdly, he¡¯s also the only person in Chesterton who speaks with a ¡°Dukes of Hazzard¡± drawl. Apparently no other actors got the memo about southern accents, putting a sore thumb on Roebuck¡¯s speech that oddly turns him into the fish out of water.
Speaking of ¡°Dukes of Hazzard,¡± and speaking of stereotypes, John Schneider gets into the game as Father John, the least priestly priest you¡¯re likely to see in cinema, except for when dialogue drips with Bible quotes. Then again, I probably prefer that tired trope over the one where Schneider gets saddled with Bond villain monologues to lay out master plans in painstaking detail for the benefit of exposition.
¡°Penance Lane¡¯s¡± script loves that sort of shoehorned stuff. While playing chess in prison, Crimson receives the profound wisdom, ¡°sometimes you have to sacrifice the queen to win the war.¡± He then keeps the queen piece in his pocket, pulling it out at various intervals to remind him of the valuable lesson. Symbology that ham-fisted is almost as ¡°oof¡±-worthy as lines like, ¡°I can read you like a book.¡±
¡°Penance Lane¡± goes hard on manufacturing itself to look like a movie. Take the main house to see what I mean. The ramshackle old place gets decked out with a wooden wheel, a discarded doll in a dusty crib, artificial grime applied by a paintbrush, etc. The location always looks like the work of a set decorator with a trunk full of thrift store finds, not a lived-in home dilapidated by a decade of disuse.
Other times, ¡°Penance Lane¡± doesn¡¯t do enough to sell the story or the setting. A brick backdrop poses for prison walls. A specific color Mossimo shirt from Target fills in for a biker gang patch. A multimillion-dollar organ harvesting operation turns out to be facilitated by two runners in ill-fitting suits using a $2 Styrofoam cooler from a gas station.
Much like Level 33 Entertainment¡¯s previous feature ¡°Compound Fracture¡± (review here), I want to appreciate ¡°Penance Lane¡± more than the movie permits me to. It first appeared in 2013 as a crowdfunded project that garnered less than 35% of its $100k goal. ¡°Penance Lane¡± went largely silent between 2014 and 2020, so I¡¯m not sure when it actually filmed. The major difference between what was proposed and what was released is that somewhere along the line, Traci Lords dropped out of the role that I presume April Bogenschutz filled. Regardless of what happened between there and here, seven years makes for a long road to go from initial funding to final product. Hard work is the only way to get from one end to the other and this team obviously had the determination to put in the effort required.
But even though many of these people have experience being around big studio sets, their personal passion projects could still benefit from the supervision of a seasoned professional who isn¡¯t afraid to apply a stern hand. Someone needs to tell them that Crimson isn¡¯t the cool name they think it is or that portraying the top-billed woman as hopelessly helpless is terribly outdated. More simply, someone just needs to dare speak the words not often heard on a low-budget film set, ¡°let¡¯s try another take.¡±
Let me express ¡°look, I get it¡± one more time. It¡¯s truly terrific that well-meaning indie production teams are out there doing everything they can to forge their own films like ¡°Penance Lane.¡± But how is a straightforward critic supposed to recommend a movie based on its intentions instead of on its merit?
Review Score: 50