If horror has taught me anything, it’s to avoid basements at all costs. The Conjuring, Evil Dead, Hell House LLC, People Under the Stairs, Silence of the Lambs, and the list goes on! The latest basement to join the ever-growing list of basements I plan to avoid for the rest of my life resides at 226 Penance Lane. This film features a knockout cast and an original storyline. Though many details in the storyline feel unfinished, Penance Lane left a positive impression.
Rob Zombie fans rejoice! This film features several Zombie alumni and they shine in their respective roles. Tyler Mane (Rob Zombie’s Halloween) has traded in his mask for some leather in this new tale. Mane plays ex-con Crimson Matthews (which is probably one of the coolest names I have ever heard) who’s looking to settle a score for an old friend in order to score some serious cash. He discovers untold horrors awaiting him inside a dilapidated house after taking a job as a handyman. Mane is both likable and intimidating in this role. This goes beyond his 6’8” stature and is really showcased in his subtle nuances. Amid all the violence there is a gentleness to Crimson, and I applaud Mane for displaying that kind of complexity.
Penance Lane also features fellow Zombie alum Scout Taylor-Compton (Rob Zombie’s Halloween and The Runaways) as the fiery waitress Sherry. She and Mane make quite the on-screen team and it is a refreshing change to see them as allies rather than mortal enemies. Daniel Roebuck (Rob Zombie’s Halloween, Final Destination) and Diamond Dallas Page (WCW/WWE Superstar, The Devil’s Rejects) also lend their talents to tell this twisted tale. Speaking of WWE Superstars…Diamond Dallas Page isn’t the only wrestler to grace the screen in this film. Booker Huffman (better known as Booker T. or King Booker to wrestling fans) also makes an appearance as Crimson’s former cellmate and friend, Shooter. This was my first experience seeing Booker perform outside the ring; I was pleased then and I am pleased now. His performance is both compelling and believable. I would very much like to see Booker Huffman in horror films in the future
The biggest issue with this film is the execution of the storyline. Director Peter Engert and writer Munier Sharrieff came together to create a wonderfully original storyline with several layers and moving parts. Unfortunately, not all those moving parts connect. A lot of the ideas feel “half-finished” or “half-explained”. Initially, the ambiguity worked for the film, setting a stage of mystery and allure. But by the end, you are bombarded with answers to questions you didn’t even know you should be asking. It give the impression you are missing key details and rather than fill in the blanks on your own, some guidance as to what or why things are (two words: town mob) would make the film even more enjoyable.
This point is perhaps most obvious at the end of the film. The audience is left guessing what horrors lie in the basement of 226 Penance Lane until about three-quarters of the way through. The answer is not what you would expect which makes this film unique and a breath of fresh air among the sometimes-stale air of horror storytelling. When the mystery of Penance Lane is revealed, it’s a lot to take in. There are so many things occurring simultaneously, which may have been intended to surprise or to add complexity. Rather than enhance the storyline it divides the attention in too many places and dampens what could have been an impactful twist.
Though some moments in the film seemed choppy or not quite fleshed out, there are solid elements to the film. Among the frenzied plot and characters that amble down Penance Lane, we see nuggets of golden originality. Any inconsistencies or details that are not addressed are not enough to bring down the film thanks to the innovative plot and enjoyable cast. Maybe if we are lucky this isn’t the last the world will see of Crimson Matthews…