Does the new indie horror Penance Lane, starring Tyler Mane and Scout Compton, have what it takes to be a genre standout?
Two days prior to watching Penance Lane, my review of 3 from Hell was posted at Crash Palace Productions. I’d spent months in a state of on-off commitment to that write-up, mainly because my fanfare for Rob Zombie was bumping up against my overall disappointment with the film itself.
I wondered, “Could this scratch the itch 3 from Hell couldn’t?” After all, it collects four actors who’ve collaborated with Zombie in the past (Tyler Mane, Scout Compton, Daniel Roebuck, and Dallas Page), which put me in an anticipatory mindset.
Penance Lane succeeds in a couple key ways: its characters have depth, and the actors give their all. It also builds a sense of mystery and suspense by keeping certain details at bay. And the attention to light and shadow is top-notch, creating an eerie atmosphere.
Crimson Matthews (Mane) is a freshly-paroled ex-con who hitches his way to the small town of Chesterton. After saving waitress Sherry (Compton) from a touchy creep, he finds employment fixing up the dilapidated titular house. The project is overseen by Pastor John (John Schneider), who always has an apt Bible verse at the ready.
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Not long into Crimson’s stay, his real motives are made clear: he’s searching for several million dollars stashed in the basement from a bank heist several years prior. While this may sound rather conventional, the plot gets stranger from that point onward. Without giving too much away: if you like The Hills Have Eyes, The Houses October Built, or GWAR, you will find things to appreciate here.
For an 84-minute film, the plot of Penance Lane is very busy, introducing a fair number of characters, conflicts, and subplots. It feels like director Peter Engert and writer Munier Sharieff wanted to lay the groundwork for an intricately-developed world – one of criminals, conspiracies, moral quandaries, small-town intrigue, and strange creatures – but only made it part way. I preferred the mysterious, atmospheric build-up of the earlier scenes over the spelled-out explanations we get midway through (but I’m biased: I love my ambiguity). When the film goes bonkers in the home stretch, it reminded me most of a Rob Zombie effort: House of 1000 Corpses was similarly overflowing with characters, plot points, and aesthetic tics.
While Mane has always been an imposing cinematic presence, his body language and nuanced delivery creates an interesting take on a character who could’ve been a boring cliche. His rendition of Michael Myers in Rob Zombie’s Halloween movies was a mix of Karloff-style pathos and barnstorming savagery, and he strikes a comparable balance here.
His chemistry with Compton (who appears to not have aged a day since 2009’s Halloween II) is wonderful; this duo clearly have a rapport, and I enjoyed their interactions as allies instead of adversaries. Roebuck, often cast in a cameo capacity in Zombie’s films, is given more to do here, and dives into the character of Captain Denny Wilson with malevolent relish. And Schneider (The Dukes of Hazzard) invests completely in Father John, offering a spirited interpretation of horror’s perpetual fascination with the clergy.
To its credit, Penance Lane makes an asset of its overly active plot, and the pacing is such that the film is rarely dull. At a time when the horror market is clogged with lazy junk that doesn’t put forth a bare minimum of effort, Engert and Sharieff’s ambition to overachieve makes for a refreshing change of pace. For all that doesn’t quite add up by the time the credits roll, I’d be lying if I wasn’t intrigued to see the further adventures of Crimson Matthews. There’s a whole wicked world out there, waiting to be explored.
Penance Road will be released on VOD on Apr. 21.
Will you be checking out Penance Road? Let us know in the comments.