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A grieving mother and a malevolent child form the slim dramatic structure of Purgatory, a high-atmosphere, low-event psychological horror debut. Featuring an omnipresent Oona Chaplin (Game of Thrones‘ Talisa Maegyr) doing good, edgy work and a interesting central concept, the film is based on a script from which all but the bare dramatic bones have been excised. It’s a high-risk strategy that leaves the film feeling clean-lined and well-organized, but too lacking in drama to justify its running time, its undoubtedly effective creepiness occurring in a vacuum.
Spain is a major player in the field of grieving-mother chillers — see Alejandro Amenabar‘s The Others and Juan Antonio Bayona‘s The Orphanage — but this is a long way from being either. Though by no means a hellish viewing experience, Purgatory is just a little dull.
Through the over-leisurely opening sequence, we see Marta (Chaplin) driving toward and through an oddly empty town somewhere in Spain, where she’s in the process of moving. (It is actually the town of Sesena, near Toledo, much of which remains deserted following illegal construction deals during Spain’s housing boom, giving it a highly cinematic “ghost town” air.)
Marta’s husband is Carlos (Andres Gertrudix): They have lost a son, over whom Marta in particular is still grieving. Carlos is unexpectedly called away to do a night shift, leaving Marta temporarily alone — until a knock at the door comes from a mysterious, dark-clad neighbor (Ana Fernandez, a much underrated and underemployed actress) — shade of Rosemary’s Baby — who’s also been called away, asking if Marta will look after her son Daniel (Sergi Mendez) in the meantime.
Daniel is no Little Lord Fauntleroy. During his first few minutes in the apartment he does little but grunt monosyllabically, watch some hard core porn on the TV, and puzzlingly inform Marta that his father is dead. A new note of the paranormal is thus introduced, which the film will return to later.
Director of photography Jon D. Dominguez does good work in making scary a house, which is pretty much divested of its Gothic apparatus, an untidy, low-budget early 2000s construction with little in the way of nooks and crannies, but dead space is still eerily used, the camera staying busy. But the power can, of course, still be knocked out, and doors can still slam, and they duly do, with one shock involving face paint coming over as very contrived indeed.
Chaplin is strong in a demanding role, but even she can find little to do during several of the film’s overstretched sequences, with the creeps building up nicely around and inside her but too little of substance being built up. Mendez plays the role (or presumably is directed to) as a little too malignant, thus ensuring that early on, the viewer dislikes him just as much as Marta does.
But while Marta’s view of Daniel becomes interestingly shaded over the last 20 minutes, the viewer will find it hard to follow her there: Things are robbed of some potentially subtle, interesting ambiguities, and it’s hard to care. Aaron Rux‘s score is effective but over-used, as one of the too-few aces up the sleeve of the director and the script.
Production: Apaches, Atresmedia Cine, CINE365
Cast: Oona Chaplin, Sergi Mendez, Ana Fernandez, Andres Gertrudix
Director: Pau Teixidor
Screenwriter: Luis Moreno
Producers: Enrique Lopez Lavigne, Jesus Ulled Nadal, Belen Atienza, Mikel Lejarza
Executive producers: Elvira Morales Sales, Javier Carnero, Juan Carlos Caro
Director of photography: Jon D. Dominguez
Production designer: Idoia Esteban
Editor: Raul de Torres
Wardrobe: Arantza G. Arguello
Sound: James Munoz
Sales: Film Factory
No rating, 85 minutes
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