When Penny was a little girl she lost both parents in a terrible car accident, pinned in the mass of twisted steel, her mother bled out next to her, as her father’s lifeless body lay cold on the blacktop. It’s easy to see why Penny Dearborn (BULLY’s Rachel Miner) doesn’t like cars. In fact, she hates them. Penny lives in total fear of stepping inside and strapping on a seat belt. Still, she’s in a car, traveling toward Big Bear in the mountains of Southern California to face her fears. Behind the wheel is her psychologist Orianna Volker (Mimi Rogers). This whole trip is Orianna’s bright idea. But as night falls and Penny begins to panic, Orianna’s distraction causes her to clip the side of a passing hitchhiker—knocking the traveler to the wet pavement. Upon inspection, she discovers the pedestrian is not hurt. Thrilled at the prospect of avoiding a lawsuit and conscience of the falling temperatures outside, Orianna offers to give the hooded figure a ride to the local campgrounds. Now, she and Penny will find out what fear really is, as their deranged passenger traps the pair in the middle of nowhere with no prospects for escape from what will be the most terrifying journey of their lives.
There are no two ways about it. This is a film about a girl who’s afraid of cars and through the stupidity of her shrink, finds herself trapped for 90-minutes inside a vehicle. That’s right, with the exception of a few brief and unnecessary excursions away from the Doc’s BMW; this whole film takes place inside a car. You might think that this is where I have a problem with the movie. And yes, even at 92 minutes the film runs too long. But the big problem is not that Miner spends 80 of them stuck in a six foot by eight foot enclosed space. The problems almost all occur when the film ventures away from the steel framed prison.
Didn’t your parents always tell you not to pick up hitchhikers? Hell, they even made a movie and then a re-make about why you shouldn’t do it. Stephen King explored it in CREEPSHOW and Larry Cohen showed us that even serial killers should void the dangerous practice in his Masters of Horror entry PICK ME UP. So, when psychologist Orianna decides to take the hooded figure casually standing on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, in below zero temperatures, into the relative safety of precision German engineering, we all know it’s going to end badly. Penny knows it too. I mean she can’t even stand the car by itself, let alone with a shrouded-no-taking-creep in the back seat.
Of course once all hell breaks loose Penny wakes up next to the corpse of Orianna—the car wedged between a pair of imposing pine trees. In fact, she cries…she cries a lot. A bit longer than I would have waited, Penny finally attempts to break the glass…to no avail. So, with noting else to do she eventually dopes herself up on sleeping pills to try and get through the night. Oh yeah, I forgot. Her constant screaming and whimpering draws the attention of a salvage yard employee who takes a moment from a front-seat affair with a local guys wife to get systematically slaughtered by a homicidal maniac, like you didn’t see that one coming.
“PENNY” is hardly dreadful, but it really suffers from a feature-length running time. It would have worked wonders as in an anthology setting, where 45 to 60 minutes could have tightened the action up. And, when the action comes, it’s fast and furious and really shows that director Richard Brandes (OUT FOR BLOOD) knows when and where to focus the camera. The ending is what throws the film for a loop. Frankly, I’m not seeing any good solution for revealing the identity of the killer, but the path that the filmmakers took was—perhaps not completely obvious—but so played out that it almost ruined the story. I say not completely obvious, because frankly the offering is very “left field” and relates in no way to the story that came before it. It’s a drive-in movie cliché in the midst of intense psychological horror. Once the reveal is completed, the obvious solution to offing the maniac is for Penny to get behind the wheel of a car and plow right over the sucker. Sadly, the actual ending offers no completion for Penny’s character arc. Sure the killer gets theirs, but Penny never gets hers and that is the ultimate disappointment for a film that was promising at the outset.